September 30, 2008
Schools deal with digital culture
Districts play catch-up as students embrace expression via technology
Photos by Bob Ellis/staff photographer
Kevin Sturmer takes a photo of Daamien Schmidt and Nate Hubbard with his cell phone Monday at the Cortland Youth Center on Port Watson Street. Sturmer says he takes tons of cell phone camera pictures.
Kevin Sturmer and Nate Hubbard use their cellular phones to take pictures of anything that strikes their fancy: friends goofing around, girlfriends, things they see around Cortland.
The two seniors at Cortland Alternative High School love the freedom of it. Yes, they know digital images can be a source of controversy.
“The really personal pictures stay on my phone,” Sturmer said as he watched Hubbard and a few friends play pool at the Cortland Youth Bureau. Hubbard said he keeps images for a while, then deletes the “dumb ones.”
Nearby, SUNY Cortland freshman Rob Smiley, volunteering at the center, said he understood. Students at his high school in Phoenix, Oswego County, e-mailed embarrassing images of schoolmates to students throughout the school, prompting the principal to meet with each class to discuss why this was wrong.
“Kids know they shouldn’t do things like that but they disregard what they know,” he said. “They don’t really care.”
Students don’t feel the impact of what they’ve done with a camera until they are the victims, he said.
Photography used to involve fewer choices. Someone shot film, processed it, printed negatives, gave them to publications or to people. There was time for thought about what to take pictures of and what to do with them.
Digital photography, and especially cameras in cell phones, has changed that. Students from middle school to college have in recent years bypassed old social norms about what to do with pictures, e-mailing them to each other and posting them on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
Young people forget who might see the pictures — or don’t care.
McGraw Central School has banned cell phones on buses, adding to its ban of cell phones in school, because “parents became angry with the picture taking,” said Superintendent of Schools Maria Fragnoli-Ryan. “Students shouldn’t have to put up with someone photographing them.”
Fragnoli-Ryan said the problem has grown since most cell phones now come with cameras.
“Students are digital natives, born into a digital world, and their sense of privacy is quite different than mine, for example,” said Cornell University professor Erica Wagner, who studies social patterns in cyberspace. “These digital natives are savvy about technology use but have not been educated about the social implications.”
Schools vary in how much they discuss photography use with students. Area teachers say ethics talk centers more on copyright and online image use.
Nationally, controversy over electronic images has touched schools in Texas, Alabama and Pennsylvania in the past year. Locally, Cortland High students posted party pictures online in 2005 and then protested when administrators responded by suspending some students.
Cortland High School senior Daamien Schmidt said his teachers use this incident as an example of why students need to be careful. He referred to it as the “red cup photos,” meaning red cups in students’ hands that might or might not have held alcoholic beverages.
Schools emphasize photography ethics in various ways, teachers and administrators say, especially as cases involving Facebook hit the news media.
“I did discuss ethics in my course, focusing on copyright and proprietary use,” said C.J. Hodge, a Cortland art teacher. “We don’t let kids take images off the Internet for their projects — they must take their own.”
Hodge, the yearbook advisor, warns student photographers and editors to be respectful of people’s wishes.
Cincinnatus High School teacher Nicole Rice said students use only digital cameras for yearbook or class work, put them in a network and receive instructions about how those images are to be used. Any violation results in being banned from access to cameras or the network. Parents may tell the district in writing if they don’t want their child photographed or videotaped. Cell phone pictures are not allowed. Marathon High School teacher David Quinlan said he does not touch on ethics in his digital photography courses. Students learn about photographing people after they progress from the abstract lessons.
“We as teachers should touch on that aspect a bit more,” Quinlan said. Asked about students taking pictures with cell phones and using them for pranks, he said, “Most kids here wouldn’t dare do that. It’s a small community.”
College students hear the most discussion about online images at career services offices, where they are warned that employers check Facebook pages.
Nick Klimaszewski, photography instructor at Tompkins Cortland Community College, said he touches on ethics only in the copyright sense. He has given talks about using photography to persuade an audience, from arranging people in a picture during Civil War times to selective cropping.
Cell phone cameras are becoming more sophisticated. Art teachers report that students are beginning to use cell phones instead of actual cameras as they do projects for class. Wagner thinks college students became more careful a couple of years ago. They began to put in privacy settings and to look more at what they were doing. She said someone who has been using photography since the days before digital would have a different sensibility about where pictures should be shown.
“Old-school cameras were designed in a way that imposed a time lag between taking the photo and being able to see it,” Wagner said. “There was even more difficulty if you wanted to post that photo to the Internet. You had to scan it and then upload it to a Web site. What photos mean to folks is likely very different from what it meant even 10 years ago.”
Schmidt said young people try to make sound decisions about where to e-mail or post images. Do they like having adults tell them what is appropriate?
“No,” Sturmer said.
“I try to listen,” Schmidt said. “Teachers tell us to be careful.”
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