Evaluating intangibles: what is the real impact of a community based photography program?
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
Does learning about photography make your life better? If you’re 18, and have already been homeless, and in foster care, and been through major family disintegration—does using a camera or participating in a photography program make some kind of tangible difference for you?
That’s the central question for a community based photographer, and the organization that works with him or her. And it’s a hard one to answer.
I wanted to know how programs that work toward such intangible goals as inspiration, engagement, and increased self-worth measure their success. Since I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joseph Smooke and his community based photography program with Fresno’s “The kNOw,” I asked him about how he and his collaborator Mai Der Vang have handled evaluating their work.
This term, they tried a new system. They put together a list of questions that they asked in the middle of the program, and then asked very similar questions again at the end. They asked the questions both on paper and in a discussion. It turned out that asking the questions halfway through really contributed to the program in a way they hadn’t anticipated. The evaluation itself prompted the students to think a little more deeply about what they were doing, and why. For Joseph seeing that increased self awareness, even in the students who hadn’t made a big push at the end, was meaningful.
He told me, “In the final session that I did last week, I went around and I asked some of the evaluation questions. And some of the kids said, ‘You know what? I was just plain lazy, and I just didn’t work hard on this last project.’ And they wouldn’t have said that a few months ago, and that was really cool.”
Of course, there were students who said the opposite as well. “Others talked about how inspiring the class was for them,” said Joseph, “and how in each session they got more energized and inspired by it. And you could see that in the work too.”
“We start each session by getting together in a room and going through all the photos. And that last session, the first couple I looked at, I was so worried that maybe the program hadn’t inspired the students at the end. But I kept looking at them, and then I saw the pictures from the kids who really did put in the time…Oh my God, it was so extraordinary! They really pushed, and they did amazing work. Just amazing work.”
The evaluations are also a chance to learn about the kids—how they are doing, what their lives are like. In this particular evaluation, one of the questions asked how kids’ families reacted to them taking pictures. Many of the students responded by saying that their families didn’t know they took pictures or were not interested in their images. On the one hand, at that age my parents didn’t know everything about me either. But on the other hand, whenever I had something tangible to show them, like a photograph I had made, I was eager to, and they always seemed interested. So if I were facilitating this workshop, that small bit of information would become a point of reference for me, a moment where I could understand a tiny bit more about how my students’ experiences differ from my own.
In the end, you can’t really know if this learning experience is the one that helps a student tip the scale toward happiness or success. But I think both community building and education are just a series of many modest revelations and connections. It seems to me that a good evaluation helps to demonstrate that these moments took place, and meant something to the people who experienced them.
Have you had experiences evaluating intangibles like this? I’d love to hear your perspective.