Skip to main content

South Valley Journal

Powerful lesson of the power of pictures

Dec 14, 2020 02:29PM ● By Jet Burnham

A suicide prevention poster features photo editing skills students learned in photography class. (Photo courtesy of Cole Hights.)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Professional photographer Cole Heights knows pictures can have a big impact, whether for good or for bad. As a photography teacher at Summit Academy Independence campus, he teaches his middle school students—who always have a cell phone camera with them—about the power of the pictures they take and share. 

“I’m teaching them to use their camera and social media to educate rather than tear down,” Hights said.

For the past several years, Hights has assigned his students to apply their photography skills and personal experiences to create impactful poster to educate their peers about the effects of bullying.

“They get super excited about this one because it is more raw,” Hights said. “They talk about every aspect of bullying.”

Instead of a general antibullying message, students highlight cyberbullying, social media shaming, gender bias, LGBTQ identity and suicide. This year, Hights said there were a lot of students who focused on inequality.

Posters feature limited text and statistics because Hights wants students to use their pictures to tell the story.

Eighth grader Lila Knight chose to highlight suicide. Her poster features three pictures that have been color-edited to show the transformation that comes over a discouraged girl when her friend recognizes her situation and reaches out to help. 

“I want to help those who are feeling the same way to know that they are loved and supported in all that they do,” Lila said.

Eighth grader Madi Casper chose to spread awareness about gender stereotypes, something she has had personal experience with.

“As a girl, I get up-down constantly,” she said. “One I get a lot is that I am not ‘girly enough’ or that I am less capable of doing something because I am a girl.” 

She wants her poster to help others to be aware how damaging such comments can be.

“It is very difficult as a teen,” she said. “You already are struggling with who you are and school, but on top of it, people put you down, think of you less because how you dress or based on your gender.”

Madi realizes some won’t understand her poster.

“I think some students will respond to our poster as dumb because they never got put down for their gender, but I also feel some will relate to the poster more,” she said.

Hights said as students research topics for their posters, they are often shocked at the statistics they find. They read that 80% of kids have been bullied in middle school and realize eight out of 10 of their friends have had some sort of incident with bullying. It really becomes personal and real.

“I was very oblivious to the fact that I was not the only one having problems,” Lila said. “I am not the only one who has bad days. Kids around me are going through the same thing.”

She feels like she can help her peers and influence others with her message.

“I want to be involved in helping something that influences kids and friends my age,” Lila said. “I feel like I am a part of something bigger and important.” 

The posters will be posted around the school for the whole student body to see. Hights said anti-bullying campaigns have a bigger impact coming from students themselves.

“It just agitates them on a different level than a teacher standing up in the front of the class teaching it,” he said. “Seeing pics in real life—posters made from their friends and peers—it just goes a long way.”

Lila said she has been affected by some of the posters her peers have created. Some students use personal examples. One year, a student featured pictures of her own scarred arm on a poster about overcoming self-harm and cutting.

Hights said the project teaches students design principles, photo editing and Photoshop skills but also how to use their creative voices to be heard in a positive way.

He wants teenagers to use social media to educate others and to stand up for others instead of making fun of them.

“I want them to see that there's so much in their hand—with their phone, with their camera, with their editing, with their processing—and then move that to social media and see how they can change the world one picture at a time,” Hights said.