Digital Lifestyles Photography


When I studied traditional photography over twenty years ago I did not see how much the art would shift for me in the way I executed it and what it meant for me.   I believed like many of us that the silver halide was a thing of exacting beauty that could never be replaced.
Under the instruction of my mentor we discussed at length the f64 club, the preciousness of metal development canisters and reels and how to load them correctly in the dark so as not to burn the edges of the film, keeping ones cool when the back of the camera popped open thus destroying all the film, and the importance of living under darkroom red lights as an ongoing lifestyle.  I carried these ideas around with me for part of my lifetime, as though they were my lifelines to understanding everything that was important about living.

My life in photography progressed from this place after graduation to my grandfathers Nikon F and then my first fully automated camera the Nikon 6006.  After a time came my Hasselblad 500C that I used hand held in crazy little nooks in southern Mexican markets.  This was my life.

But at one point I took a step backwards away from photography and began graduate studies in psychotherapy.  It didn’t keep me away from my passion.  I became a closet photographer slyly carrying around my Canon Elph wherever I went and slipping the files into some inferior photo- morphing program that had come in the box.  I was tinkering with it still and carrying on the passion.
Not surprisingly, during my studies it was suggested to me that incorporating what I knew of the art of photography and psychotherapy into one enchilada wasn’t a bad idea.  It didn’t take long for my mentor in this field, Dr. John Garcia, to convince me that it was not only possible but also the most likely way for me to link everything that I had known to everything I wanted to know.  And then in walked the box full of Nikon Coolpix cameras.

So, there I stood two years later after writing a proposal, getting the approval, funding, participants and the cameras.  I was standing in a closed room with eight girls adopted from the Chinese Social Welfare system and eight Nikon Coolpix cameras.  We were entering digital photography together on a grander collective scale and it was looking like it was going to mean something.  We were discovering not only the technology before us but what that meant to create something meaningful together using them.  We called it Pixel Voice.
_The project that inspired this work was strikingly similar.  The original study took place in 2002 in Mainland China. Dr. Caroline Wang took a group of female peasant farmers and gave them single-lens reflex cameras and instructed them in the physical aspects of photography, the ethics involved and a brief discussion about what might be important to take images of.  The women were then instructed to head out into their daily lives and document what they saw that was important to them on silver halide. Then they would meet, explore meaning and come to consensus about their collective social conditions.

My research pays homage to the integrity of this project and brings the technology forward into the digital era.
There were some similarities and there were some differences.  There is the common denominator of the participants being born on Mainland China and given cameras.  The divergence occurred with the introduction of technology.  We were using digital cameras, uploading the files to laptops, manipulating them with Photoshop CS2 as our darkroom and displaying them digitally on websites.  Dr. Wang gave her participants SLR’s and roll film.  They printed hard copies of the images and displayed them in a gallery setting for government officials.  We were similar but we were different.

What I found out that was significant about our project almost immediately was the amount of advanced learning the girls had in photography before we even started.  I would have never been able to predict this being that the average age was about ten years old.   I became, almost immediately in the world of the technology before us, more student than teacher.  They walked in the door already having a vast history since early childhood of seeing the use of digital photographs around their house, at school, or in the media.  They had held digital cameras already and some of them even owned their own digital cameras.  All of the girls knew what it meant to be a subject and to my surprise understood the ethics behind being a photographer saying “I would never take an image of someone if they didn’t want me to” or “that isn’t what I want to say; that is”.
So, I was left immediately to determine what I actually had to offer these girls holding the eight Nikon Coolpix cameras donated by Dell Computers.  What could I possibly teach them they didn’t already know?

Well, as it turns out there was a lot to learn.  Beyond the technical aspect for anyone who has the photography bug is the “why”.  Why do we do this?  Who is the audience?  What are we trying to say?  What is the purpose?  It’s the higher level of thinking that we are all striving for; it should have meaning and functionality.
And although I thought for sure in my planning that we would primarily be discussing and exploring the technical aspects of photography from the onset, I was pleasantly surprised that the greater goal of something larger and more significant, the meaning, came straight to the top almost immediately.
I guess my point is that in this age of the prolific use of digital photography equipment and the use of pocket sized automatic cameras with large file sizes, worrying about the details of the exposure isn’t even on the table.  For the modern average everyday photographer (most people?) digital is now the norm.

What distinguishes the average photographer and the experienced photographer is a new set of rules, answering some of the more important questions about what this thing we are doing is about.  And the girls and I found us immediately thrust up against that fact.  We had the tools to say something and we had some things to communicate.
What did we need to communicate? 
It took us awhile but we eventually came to the idea that we wanted to come to consensus about who we were as a collective force through our image making.  We wanted each other to know and understand that our “voice” together was important to understand who we are.  We found that we had more power this way to communicate to each other and anyone that would listen, as a collective group rather than individually, and we ran with that.
What did we learn about the process?  Well, we learned that the taking of images when done thoughtfully has power to communicate.  We learned that we had a responsibility to take that seriously. 
We sort of operated from that place.  Shoot all week, meet, view together, talk about it, come to consensus about meaning, shoot all week, meet, etc.  We did this for six weeks.

In the end we used photography mainly as an effective psychotherapeutic tool to create community and solidarity of identity about the group we had formed.  It was about personal growth and general understanding.
The physical project for me is completed now.  I’m in the middle of finishing up the last edits of my thesis and soon it will be published as formal research.  It’ll get shoved into a series of searchable databases for the use of other researchers, this much I know for certain.   I’ve been thinking now about what greater gifts I can give the girls with this collective work that we have put together.  I have 200 images in total that are fairly decent and 50 that for me really speak for the collective work.  I’m trying to think of the most thoughtful way of representing the body of work for the greater purpose of education.  There is some interest in archiving the files and a possible exhibition in an Asian American museum.   I’m moving towards this goal as a place to house the historical aspects of what we represent.

I am also continually looking for other avenues of getting the word out.  I think we have something to say together about living in diversity that is important to know.
My life as a photographer moves forward. Today, I shoot with a Nikon D200 and an 18-200mm lens and a free month subscription to Photoshop CS2, and I am experiencing a second awakening.  Photography has ebbed and flowed in my life but never left.  I am completely passionate about it and after all these years, it is still a true love.  Though I will most likely move forward in the world of psychotherapy, I was grateful for the opportunity to revisit my adoration for the visual arts through imaging. 
And I have a feeling I will be balancing the mistress all my life.

(For more information about this project and others contact

By Beckett Gilchrist

Beckett Gilchrist owns and directs the digital Web 2.0 networking firm Pixel Voice LLC in Austin, Texas and is a contributing author to Digital Apple Juice.
A lifetime student of social psychology and the media arts, she has over 20 years of physical experience in the visual arts, creative writing and now e-marketing.
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