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Smartphone Photography Project

Developing a photography curriculum to harness social media and mobile technology

NYC SALT’s Smartphone Photography project explored the use of social media in digital photography. Participants used the cameras on their smartphones to take, edit and post pictures via Instagram. Through the process of capturing, processing, sharing and viewing photographs, students learned about composition, light, color and storytelling.

Through a curriculum designed to teach students how to “see” pictures, understand the key elements in photography, and learn about being responsible users on the web, the project used smartphones and social media publishing. Common Sense Media’s Digital Bytes provided inspiration for the curriculum design, which was funded by a three-month Adventure grant in Summer 2014 to serve after-school workshops in NYC public schools and non-profit programs. Key contributors included Alicia Hansen (Executive Director of NYC Salt, who led the team of photographers and editors in designing the project), Ruddy Roye (Instagram activist) and Katrin Eismann (Chair, MPS Digital Photography Department, School of Visual Arts).

Each class showcased the work of accomplished photographers, using these examples for inspiration and to learn about using visual elements to tell a story. Students took photographs with their smartphones, then used apps to edit, process and publish from the same devices. This allowed students to fine-tune their vision, explore and develop style. By sharing through social media as a publishing channel (using the Instagram handle @saltphotoclub and hashtags #saltphotoclub and #nycsalt), students explored branding and marketing their work. This stimulated them to think about how social media can reflect the image of yourself you want to portray as an artist. The end result was that each student had started the process of creating an online portfolio to share and inspire others.

The project concluded with a gallery showing the students’ photos, printed to appear the way they do on Instagram. The print-outs included space for attendees to “like” and “comment” using stickers and sharpies, making the experience fun and participatory. This was encouraging and confidence-building for the students, who then created their own hashtags for the photographs. This interactive format has inspired plans for future events to build participation.

Target Audience

Middle and high school students in NYC.


Project Implementation and Discovery

The project resulted in some surprising discoveries, particularly in terms of the ways in which the students started to respond and engage through commenting on each other’s work. Students from the advanced program started to follow and use the hashtag, ultimately leading to a meet-up and collaboration between students on different classes, who got together to photograph the city on a Saturday.

This pilot of the curriculum also showed that a revision would be necessary to use it in future, extending the length of the project from 12 to 24 weeks, spanning the whole school year. The first semester will focus on learning to “see” pictures, covering composition, light and color. The second semester will see the students selecting a project or story to tell through pictures, developing their story and style throughout that period.

Organizational Impact

The Smartphone Photography project added a scalable introductory level to NYC SALT’s program that will facilitate more advanced programming learning using DSLR cameras. The goal for this program is to help students to build strong portfolios for college. As cell phone camera capabilities have become more technologically advanced, apps such as VSCO and Instagram have also given students a platform to present their work. This project allowed students to explore the impact of social media and mobile technology in both creating and publishing work.

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Challenge and Resolution

Initially photographs were posted via the class Instagram account as a way to keep them organized. However, students were not always using their handles which made it difficult to identify who had taken each picture. Because of this, students began using their own accounts to post photographs using a hashtag—if this was not used photographs could be overlooked. In future workshops, student photographs will be stored in a folder within an app, downloaded rather than searching through hashtags.

Participant Feedback

Responses to the project have been positive, feeding into a second iteration and conversations about continuing these workshops into 2015-2016.

Lead Organization:

Project Goal:
Explore how to teach students to use their smartphone cameras to create, edit and publish pictures through social media apps, creating shareable online galleries.

Project Tags:
Arts, Media Literacy & Production, Webmaking

Project Portfolio