Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Cindy Sherman Project and Stereotypes in Photography

It's not my job, as a teacher, to tell students what to think. It is my job to show my students HOW to think, and then let, or require rather, them to think for themselves.  The thing about good art is that it opens the door to higher order thinking skills through engaging conversation.  In enters, Cindy Sherman.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #21, 1973
Cindy Sherman is a photographer, who is known for her self portraits. In the 70's she'd dress up in costumes and pose as though she were a character in a movie. Each black and white piece had titles such as Film Still # 21 or Film Still #15.  There was no film, of course, but it made the viewer wonder what had happened before and what would happen after the moment portrayed.  She doesn't beat you over the head with a message, but some of her work is considered to be feminist because her pieces show women in stereotypical roles, as reactionary, rather than the source of action. Others see it as empowering, since she was able to reinvent herself many times.

When I talked to my students about common stereotypes today, I got some interesting responses, especially when asking about the stereotypes people have of them.  "People think teenagers are troublemakers. That we drink and do drugs and are violent."  "People think that rednecks are racists. That's no true. I'm a redneck and look at who my best friends are." "People think that Blind people can't do anything." I was surprised how often students complained about people confusing their disability with deafness. I know some teachers at the Academy for the Blind have people, when they find out where they work, say, "So you must know sign language." And one of my students had someone ask him if he could teach him American Sign Language.  "I don't know it. I have a visual impairment, but I'm not Deaf."

One student in a wheelchair said people who don't know him, won't approach him, but instead talk to the teacher or parent who is with him. "What would he like the drink?" restaurant servers will ask. "I don't know," the companion will say. "Why don't you ask him."  For his stunning, and somewhat disturbing portrait, he chose to have his eyes and mouth covered because that's how he feels some people see him.

Similarly, another student said, "People think that introverts don't talk.  I talk. I just don't like to be around a lot of people." He taped his mouth for his portrait, showing the viewer how silly people are for imposing a stereotype on him.

Other students took a completely different approach, one posing with a a spatula and frying pan, to prove that just because she is blind doesn't mean she can't cook. Another used a cap and diploma to show all those, who didn't think it was possible, that she can graduate from high school. In fact, she will this month!

I was surprised at how many of my students who are mildly intellectually disabled (MID), seemed immune to negative stereotypes.  "If someone who had never met you, saw you on the street and all they knew about you was that you were a black teenager, what might they assume about you?" I asked one student.

He answered, "That I'm smart and that I'm cute." And when I ran down a list of superficial characteristics, for them to respond with first thoughts, they were pleasantly nonjudgemental. Each student could, however find a time when they  misjudged someone and they vowed to be more careful in the future.

All of us unfairly judge others from time to time. Sadly, even many bright adults make the mistake of believing every thought that comes into their mind. If racial/,cultural, and ideological diversity or, at the very least, critical thinking skills were taught at an earlier age, we might all be more comfortable with people who are different than ourselves.

My goal in introducing my students to the art of Cindy Sherman, and having them do this project, is to help them be more careful in their thinking and to be able to more effectively self advocate.

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