14th August 2014
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Photo Assignment: Primary School head teacher Ralf Smits

Photo assignment: Primary School head teacher

In any job, it’s easy to get into a routine and just do things the way you’ve always done them – which is fine to some extent, but in a creative field like photography I think it’s important to keep moving forward, learning new techniques and ways of seeing, with the aim of constantly improving your skills and your work.

To that end I try to attend workshops and seminars whenever I can, to pick up ideas and methods and get out of my comfort zone a bit. I’m lucky enough to be a member of the My Vision group, an invitation-only collective of professional photographers who share with each other through an online forum and also through regular get-togethers. MV’s biggest event is the annual documentary photography workshop, where participants are given an assignment (usually a single person) and have two days in which to create a set of 30 photographs that tell that person’s story. Earlier this year about 20 of us gathered in Keswick, Cumbria for this year’s workshop…

Ending up with just 30 photos after 2 days might sound fairly easy – but there are some rules!

First of all, you don’t get to choose your assignment – you are told where to go and who to photograph on the morning of Day One – so there’s no time to prepare or do any research, you’re in at the deep end.

You’re only allowed to shoot in JPEG mode (so no “fixing it in Photoshop”, your exposures have to be spot-on!) And your images get critiqued each day by your team leader and fellow team members, which can be an intimidating experience (though ultimately a rewarding one).

You are at the mercy of whatever environment you have to shoot in – this could be up a hillside in the driving rain with a sheep farmer, down a slate mine, or (as in my case this year) in a busy school with kids running around everywhere.

When you shoot weddings or commercial jobs you generally know what to expect, and you have a “library” of images in your head that you know you can create. With a documentary assignment like this there are no preconceived fall-backs – the challenge is to make a set images that tell a story and show the essential character and lifestyle of the person you are photographing, with minimal equipment and while working around the limitations of whatever location you have to shoot in.

This is the second time that I’ve participated as a photographer in an MV workshop – two years ago it took place in Guernsey, but this year I headed up the M6 to the more rugged landscape of Cumbria.

Ralf Smits – head teacher at Borrowdale Primary School

My subject for my workshop assignment was Ralf Smits, the head teacher of Borrowdale Primary School, which is located in Stonethwaite near Keswick in Cumbria, in the heart of the beautiful scenery of the Lake District.

My first challenge was getting up early! Ralf is an incredibly dedicated individual who starts work at 6.30am most mornings, getting through a stack of marking and administrative paperwork before the children and other staff arrive for the start of the school day.

Another challenge was to photograph Ralf without disrupting his classes – and also not photographing a couple of the pupils whose parents had requested they not be photographed, which required a few creative angles!

I was very impressed by Ralf’s sheer energy – he never stops – in between teaching classes he is doing a hundred and one tasks around the school, ranging from checking the drains and tidying the playground to fixing a computer or emailing and phoning parents. Even though the school day finishes in mid afternoon, some days he’s there until 8 or 9 in the evening. This astonishing dedication has paid off in the way the school has leapt up the rankings since he took over, becoming one of the most successful and sought-after primary schools in Cumbria.

Dedication and rapport

He also has a great rapport with the children – like all teachers (and especially head teachers) he has to be “the Boss” of course, but he also engages their interest and encourages and supports them, and I hope my photos show this amazing connection he has with the pupils, and their respect for him.

It was a privilege to witness somebody who has such a huge amount of dedication to their job (way above and beyond what might be expected) and who has clearly had a huge positive impact on the pupils at his school. I hope my pictures give you some impression of that. So thank you very much Ralf for allowing me into your school for a couple of days, and I hope these photos will bear witness to the amazing job you do…

school entrance sign Photo Assignment: Primary School head teacher at work early morning time for a quick coffee marking yesterday's schoolwork putting up a banner teacher rehearsing song on guitar head teacher working in office first class of the day teacher pointing at board fixing a display in school head teacher in class teacher helps child with their work head teacher checking the drains teacher music lesson teacher talking to pupils teacher and pupils watch a movie teacher and pupils in classroom lunchtime at Borrowdale Primary School teacher helps pupil discussions in class teacher points at blackboard pupils answer questions in class teacher and pupil work together borrowdale-primary-school-024 tidying up the playground primary school head teacher surrounded by pupils time for pupils to go home teacher tidying up the playground head teacher marking school work head teacher marking books

For those that are interested in the technicalities, all images were taken with a Canon 5D Mk3, in JPEG format – camera set to manual mode. Lenses used were the Sigma 24-70mm F2.8 zoom and the Canon 50mm F1.4 and 85mm F1.8 primes.

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