Early evening Friday 13th November 2015, the calm before the storm. Montparnasse Tower, Paris. Photo by Year 12 Gabriel
Last weekend we headed off to Paris, 18 students and 3 staff, all very excited to attend Paris Photo 2015. It’s a trip I’ve run before, a real favourite, with the potential to make students think in new ways about art and photography. Importantly, this was going to be a chance to collaborate, with 6th form students on an adventure together, forging closer relationships. We were delighted too that Jon Nicholls (from Thomas Tallis School) had joined us. I was hoping to catch up on Photopedagogy matters, with students also set to gain from his expertise.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
Outbound on the Eurostar we had joked about the level of detail in my risk assessment. Train doors swinging outwards? Do they even do that still? Food allergies, inclement weather, unsuitable terrain… It was all in there, just in case.
But then some things can’t be accounted for.
view from Montparnasse Tower, by Jonas, Year 12
What follows is not about the tragedies that unfolded in Paris last weekend, I wouldn’t know where to start with that. Mercifully, aside from an anxious wait in Bouillon Chartier – and the subsequent walk across the city – our weekend was one of relative safety. (At the bottom of this post though there are a couple of practical thoughts, which might be of use to school risk-assessors). But I do want to share something positive and important: the potential of art and young people to combine and come good when needed most.
an evacuation sticker on a glass barrier takes on new significance
So then, what to do with 18 art and photography students, confined to a hotel, understandably nervous…
Before the trip I’d emphasised the significance of Paris within the history of art, specifically at the turn of the 20th Century. We were staying in Montmartre after all: this was the place to question the status quo, to look at the world in new ways; to shake things up a bit. We’d unwittingly stumbled into another chapter in the history of the city.
The first task we set aimed to get students busy and working collaboratively. We were very fortunate that our hotel had a fabulous roof terrace, secure (double checked) and with breathtaking views across the city.
In 30 minutes only, students gathered multiple views using sketchbooks and cameras – videos and stills – and combined these into a group presentation / installation on the floor of the hotel reception. No doubt Cezanne and Picasso would have been curious: a new, combined perspective of Paris emerged from our 21st Century assemblage. Admittedly, I got a bit carried away repeating ‘Paris Traces’. Nervous excitement, sorry.
Jon then spoke to the group about discovering the ‘miraculous in the everyday‘ and how photography has the potential to elevate the seemingly mundane into something significant or extra-ordinary. We discussed the notion of ‘traces’, for example how a breath on a window or an empty cup can suggest presence. Or absence. Or perhaps how a crack in a wall – of a Paris hotel, say – might adopt new poignancy when the world outside seemed a little more broken than previous. Most importantly for students, this was a task to be done independently – quality time to tune into a sensitive frequency.
By late afternoon students were understandably becoming restless. Outside, Paris was dusting itself off and – despite the advice to all city residents – there was clearly a desire for business as usual; a simple trip to the supermarket an act of defiance to terrorism.
Remaining in the hotel, we set students a more ambitious challenge: to convert their hotel bedrooms into art installations. Within an hour we were all gathered ready for our grand tour – to take in seven collaborative installations, previously known as hotel bedrooms. I didn’t fully anticipate the scale of their responses.
Their outcomes were diverse and powerful. From every item of furniture upturned – “the world is upside down today, sir” – to a 3-bedroom room without a bed in sight. Cameras were used to create strobe lighting effects; a refugee camp was assembled with gathered bed sheets. Students took on performance roles too, from haunting movements behind a shower curtain, to motionless figures and pouncing photographers. This was raw, spontaneous art-making without guidance.
Students were finding ways to respond to the chaos without directly discussing it. Off-the-hook hotel telephones and relentless, pumping BBC News 24 were re-occurring motifs. Windows remained open, net curtains writhed in the wind. One installation shared all the text and Facebook messages from worried family and friends at home. It was most powerful. I was overcome with both responsibility and pride.
On sunday morning we gathered on the rooftop terrace together. We felt it was important to reflect on the past couple of days, to remind ourselves that our experience was actually fortunate – insignificant even – in comparison to many others in the city. The briefest of conversations with hotel staff revealed raw emotions of confusion and fear; this was their home after all. Students wrote messages to the people of Paris, some were left for chambermaids and receptionists, others cast to the wind. Our thoughts would stay with them.
This trip to Paris was an experience we will all never forget. The welcome home and subsequent kindness from parents has been overwhelming. No doubt their time spent worrying – fueled by concentrated media coverage – was much worse than ours. As parents they have every reason to be very, very proud.
Last weekend we headed off to Paris, 18 students and 3 staff. We learnt much more than we could have ever anticipated.
Some personal reflections on our experiences which may (or may not) be useful to those organising residential fieldwork to a busy city:
I was very grateful for our established system working when it was needed to most, not least having a designated member of SLT – with their own copy of all emergency contact details – readily available. Between us we did our best to keep parents regularly and fully informed. Check and triple check contact numbers.
On the Friday night in the restaurant, as the attacks unfolded, I was asking myself “what do we have control of here?” I could check and insist that the restaurant was closed and secure (and didn’t worry about being a pain when it wasn’t). Do not assume others are acting quickly or pre-emptively in your interests. Clocking the location of emergency exits is of course essential whenever with a big group, regardless of the situation. Having a strong and supportive staff team – with someone willing to debate decisions – is what all group leaders need.
As news broke out, my mobile quickly became drained. If you have to make an unexpected, hasty journey across a city, google maps (or such an app) might prove invaluable and mobile phone battery life becomes significant. We did have paper maps too, but it didn’t feel like the time to be flapping around asking for directions. Students could all have key locations pinned on their own mobiles too, as a precaution.
Have a plan that covers confinement in a hotel. This could help make the most of an imposed situation. Being creative proved the most productive way of making sense of all the absurdity – it provided students with a focus and framework for reflection and collaboration.
I’m in no doubt: Art makes children powerful, even when they might feel powerless.