Creative Exercise: Your treasure map / by Glenn Dixon

I have been hosting creative photography and filmmaking workshops for students between the ages of 7 and 18 for about four years now. Only yesterday did I finally begin to develop a meaningful exercise that explores the idea of photographic composition to children in a manner that is non restrictive and detrimental to their natural creative flair. I have always been hesitant to introduce composition through the “principle of thirds” and “golden mean”. I believe these concepts (when not explained properly) are nothing short of indoctrinations and recipes for stagnant art. Children learn naturally through play and experimentation. That still left me with one big challenge, how do you get the students to start exploring the corners of the frame and stop putting all their subjects right in the middle?

I drew a large rectangle on the whiteboard to represent the photographic frame with a thick "X" somewhere in the top left corner. I asked the students to imagine that box as a treasure map and the “X” as the "treasure" or “subject in the photograph”. Kids love pirates so I think I could have just gone home at that point and it would have still been a very successful workshop! Never the less, we dug deeper. I asked the students how the treasure hunters could find the lost treasure? They reasoned that we needed to draw them a safe route so they know where to go. Now I was getting very excited, we were talking about how the lines in a photograph help guide the viewer to the main subject.

For the practical exercise I asked them to find a small piece of treasure for themselves, any simple object from around the room that was small enough to carry around in their hands. Now it was their turn to create some treasure maps by placing the object somewhere in the outside environment and taking photographs where they utilised naturally occuring lines to guide the viewer to the treasure.

All images by grade 4 students.

© Dallas Brooks Community Primary School, 2012

Toward the end we engaged in some very articulate and interesting conversations. When I asked one student why they had decided to put their treasure in the extreme corner of the picture, they replied “If I put it in the middle it would be too easy to find.” I was truly blown away by the sound reasoning of this eight year old student. I think through experimentation they began to realise how conscious arrangement and placement of elements inside the frame allows for stories to be communicated.

If you are an educator I would love for you to explore this concept with your students, by all means modify and add where necessary. Any thoughts, recommendations or discoveries I would love for you to share them below!