Capturing a Student Peer Group Connection Retreat
Baltimore-based photographer Matt Roth shares his experience bonding with students during an assignment to photograph a Peer Group Connection retreat at Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md.
I spent a weekend this month at Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md., with students from two Baltimore high schools as part of a Peer Group Connection retreat. I love these kinds of assignments, where I just get to hang out and make pictures. Originally I was to spend Friday night at the camp, but, when schools are looking after teenagers, it’s probably a good policy to not invite a perfect stranger to spend the night. A bummer for me, but a smart policy, nonetheless.
And as long as we’re talking about bummers — THE FRIDAY NIGHT BONFIRE WAS CANCELLED!!! stupid rain. The weather certainly didn’t deter the kids from trying to start a game of hide-and-seek, or playing basketball. There were a lot of outdoor activities during the few hours of free time before “lights out” at 11. The later it got, the bunk rooms in the lodges became the social hubs.
Friday night just after I arrived an impromptu dance session broke out!!! It was amazing! They made a melody with a piano and chanting and they banged on the walls and clapped for rhythm.
Most of the people in the groups seem to be on really good terms. I’m not sure whether the students were close friends, but they’re a tight-knit, highly functioning peer group.
All that unstructured hang-out time was great for me because it gave me time to get to know these kids a bit better and allow them to get comfortable with me making pictures. They weren’t shy. They warmed up to me pretty quickly. Probably the hardest part of my interactions was explaining what Education Week is. “It’s the newspaper your principal and teachers read.” They’d look at me blankly, then strike a pose and say “Hey. Take my picture!” Ha! Y’know. I used to fight those demands. I still do a little, but I kind of love those photos. It’s subtle, but their personalities show in those poses. Also, it’s a good intro to get to know some of these kids better, too. Plus I get the opportunity to tell them that I’m looking for candid moments. They’re smart kids. They understood what I was going for. And I got amazing access! — especially when it was their turn on the Color Wheel and their peers are being maybe a little too honest.
Let me back up. The Color Wheel is a peer mediation exercise. I think it’s fascinating! Everyone in the group gets a worksheet, and on the worksheet is a circle of smaller circles. Each small circle represents one person in the group. The idea is to use colors as a conduit for describing how people in the group feel about each other. The colors have meaning. And when a person’s name is called, he or she has to sit there quietly and listen to why peers chose those colors and how they are viewed. The descriptions can be flattering, vague, overly polite, and pretty harsh. No comments. No justifications. No clarifications. …and I suppose “thank yous” aren’t allowed either. They just have to listen.
Some kids received mostly compliments, and, of course, they smiled a lot. Others got an earful. It was really interesting to watch those kids’ body language change. You could see the wheels turning in their brains. Their defenses would go up, they’d become incredulous, melancholy would creep in. I could tell they were hurt. By the end, the wind was knocked out of their sails. I think the people who were hit the hardest during the exercise might have been perceived to have the toughest exterior. But, to the group’s credit, there was no lambasting. Most of the harsh spins on the color wheel were constructive, with compliments sprinkled in.
Matt Roth may or may not be a super hero, but he is a freelance editorial and commercial photographer based in Baltimore. To see more of Matt’s work follow the link. http://mattrothphoto.com