World Youth Skills Day

Digital storytelling: teaching communications through photography

Adam Pensotti
Adam Pensotti

Imaging for Good & Young People Programme Manager

Today marks the World Youth Skills Day, which focuses on equipping young people with the skills required to access the world of work and tackles the growing level of unemployment for youth today. The world is changing rapidly, with older forms of work increasingly squeezed out by automation solutions. But when one door closes, another door opens; digital transformation is creating opportunities for new, more creative and digital roles everywhere.

A creative outlet for struggling students

The mission of Canon Young People’s Programme (YPP) has been supporting young people in developing the digital and creative skills they need to succeed in the workplace of tomorrow. In particular, we’ve been using visual arts and photography as a simple and engaging path to building the social and creative skills that everyone needs to survive in the modern world.

In the UK, Canon's Young People Programme is dedicated to making visual arts and digital storytelling a critical part of pupils' education from a young age. Storytelling is a vital skill in all creative disciplines, from core subjects like English to more specialised areas such as Art and Design. But every learner is different and taking a less conventional approach to delivering the curriculum allows students to shine who have struggled with more traditional ways of delivering a subject. By providing a multi-disciplinary approach to storytelling, the Canon YPP project offers an alternative route for students who have struggled under more traditional forms of teaching.

Partnering with The Ideas Foundation, a charity that focuses on making the creative industry more accessible, we've been working with schools in deprived areas, training disadvantaged students in critical life skills through digital storytelling. For the last two years, our programme has also received an endorsement from the National Association of Teaching English (NATE).

Two girls, one looking through camera lens
Two girls, one looking through camera lens. Photo: Tom Martin

The importance of storytelling

Canon YPP focuses on asking students to present a story that uses words and visual art, based on a theme from the United Nations' seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Last year’s 'Live the Story' project ran in five West Cumbria schools and worked with 400 students, allowed pupils to voice their concerns around sustainability and climate change.

Peter Thomas, chair of NATE and a participant in the ‘Live the Story’ project has explained the links he saw between photography and writing when attending a digital storytelling session last year:

"[The instructor] demonstrated three compositional choices in making a photographic image – light, angle and background. He showed how a subject looks different by using warm or cold, direct, bounced or diffused light, and high and low and wide angles for POV… It was, without saying so, a compositional model superbly transferable to writing: focus, angle, selection, context, message."

But our workshops are more than just photography courses. Before students take the camera in their hands, they learn about various elements of digital storytelling first. We teach them about narrative development and the importance and understanding of their audience. We talk about the channels for sharing their work on and how to create impact with branding and design. These sessions bridge multiple disciplines and help students develop their communication and digital literacy skills.

Over the years, many students who have struggled with traditional education have suddenly thrived and accomplished unexpected results in these workshops, finding a new way to relate to school subjects that may have seemed intimidating before. Outside of the classroom, storytelling is fundamental to self-expression, whether you're presenting your achievements in a job interview or directly communicating with others in the workplace every day.

Two boys taking image of water bottle
Two boys taking image of water bottle. Photo: Tom Martin

Supporting remote education

In the wake of Covid-19, the world has become more digital than ever. Students and teachers have found themselves forced to communicate with each other almost entirely online. In this context of reduced physical interaction, teachers need new ways to reinvent the classroom and the learning experience.

Canon and Ideas Foundation pivoted to continue to support students during these unprecedented times and took the tried and tested Cumbria ‘Live the Story’ project online. Working with 20 teachers, NATE and our Canon Ambassador Clive Booth, we created Digital Storytelling Workshop, an online resource kit designed to engage and nurture students' creativity and digital literacy. Although students will no doubt miss the hands-on in-person workshops, delivering the resources online means teachers and students across UK can access these high-quality courses.

Storytelling 2.0

At Canon, we believe that photography, the visual arts and digital storytelling offer a way to reimagine more traditional methods of teaching, helping young people develop the creative skills that are becoming indispensable in an increasingly digital workplace. The goal is to give young people the tools to not only grow their future careers but also help them articulate the environmental, economic and social issues that affect their future.

Photo: Tom Martin

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