Children of Vision: The joy of looking and seeing

In this post artist, photographer and founder of the Children of Vision project, Alina Kisina, write about her photographic practice with children and the online community founded and continues to support, for children and young people photographers. 

At our closing event in January of this year, we invited Catherine Fehily from the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork City, Ireland to contribute her reflections on the Children’s Photography Archive which we were launching on the day. Catherine was known to us from her previous work as the co-founder of IRIS – International Centre for Women in Photography at Staffordshire University in the mid 1990s.

The IRIS project existed in order to recognise the valuable contribution made by women practitioners to the development of photographic theory and practice, through research into and promotion of the work of contemporary women photographers and writers in photography. Given Catherine’s background in making visible and celebrating the work of women photographers, and being aware of the nascent steps the Children’s Photography Archive was starting to take, it is unsurprising then that a very excited email landed in our inboxes this spring from Catherine putting us in contact with artist photographer Alina Kisina and introducing us specifically to her photographic project with children, Children of Vision. The guest post that follows is by Alina who writes about how Children of Vision came about and how it has developed.

This story began in 2003 when I volunteered for the Kiev Special School of Art for children with impaired vision and other disabilities. The kids at this school are dealing with significant challenges but in the 8 weeks we spent together I was blown away by their creativity, resilience and can-do attitude. Through creative subjects they discover their unique talents and even their life’s calling.

Alina with Nastya, one of the pupils from the Kiev Special School of Art for children with impaired vision.
Over the many years since, I have kept in touch with the school, offered support and raised as much money for them as I could – they have always been a part of my life. Finally in 2016 I decided to dedicate a photo project to them, looking to capture the vast inner world of these children, zooming in on the moments of transcendence when they get lost in the creative process and nothing else exists. The result of this work was a photography series called ‘Children of Vision’.
In September 2018, when I was exhibiting ‘Children of Vision’ at the Arsenal of Ideas Festival in Kiev, Ukraine, I was encouraged to develop an activity alongside my exhibition to engage visitors in photography and learning.
This is when I suggested a different approach: children looking at the world around them rather than just me looking at them through a photographer’s lens. I announced an open call inviting children and young people of all abilities from all over the world to submit their photos via Instagram with #COVtogether – this is how Children of Vision became an international platform for children and young people.
I deliberately set the maximum age limit of 19 to attract young people who were unlikely to be studying photography at an advanced level and who hopefully wouldn’t be overthinking their images too much.  I was after that innocent gaze, free of self-doubt and intellectualisation, so that we could create something open and free-flowing.
Together we can go back to the basics, to the first moments of discovery, the joy of looking and seeing, familiar to all of us, but perhaps especially so to children and young people.
From the outset, it was my priority to also create an inclusive and welcoming space lacking competition, where all submissions take part in the final exhibition. We started a tradition of laying out all images on a table by an empty museum wall. Each visitor could pick a photo that speaks to them and put it up themselves. Both children and adults loved doing this. It was a fascinating transition from the online world of social media onto a gallery wall and back, as many young people who visited this exhibition ended up submitting their own images – so the circle continued.

To encourage young people to submit images I started a dedicated Instagram account @children_of_vision featuring some of my favourite submissions. I wanted each young contributor to feel like a star. This inspired me to write about their photography, celebrating each participant’s unique strengths and encouraging them to develop through my commentary and ‘Learner’s Tips’. This is gradually growing into an Instagram magazine and will be part of a future book publication.
The focus from the start has not been to generate a massive following but rather create a deep meaningful interaction. This happened naturally when young people started messaging me for advice on which images to submit. Gradually it grew into extensive behind-the-scenes dialogues where I had a chance to get to know almost everyone and give them a little confidence boost, treating them on a level footing as my younger colleagues in creativity.
At times when I wasn’t active on the account I noticed something interesting: the young people had started to engage with each other without waiting for my introductions. They discover each other through the hashtag #COVtogether which now has a life of its own, as they like and follow each other, growing this unique supportive community faster than I can do by myself.
At this point the youngest contributor is a 5 year old.
Photos by Ryan, 5. Submitted by his grandmother, @twiggymaldoon
And the oldest is 19.
Photo by Nikita, 19, @forsakengalaxy
Some Instagram accounts are run by parents or grandparents so it also became intergenerational.
As of September 2019 we have over a thousand submissions from 23 countries with new images appearing every day. The style and type of photography varies greatly from humorous street and architecture observations to cinematic arthouse portraiture vibes to studies of creepy crawlies and other animals.
Cerys, 9, from Wales, photographed her friend at one of my visual awareness workshops. This was her first experience of holding a camera and later her image was picked to go on the wall at the Diffusion International Photography Festival in Cardiff by one of London’s most respected portraitists, Paul Heartfield.
Photo by Cerys, 9. Taken during one of Alina’s Visual Awareness workshops.
Miki, 14, from the Czech Republic amazed me with his complex composition and artistically mature images of landscapes. I use his images like textbook material to explain to other young people how to follow and break the rules of composition.
Photo by Miki, 14, @mikivedral
Ren, 17, England, struck me with her unique, mesmerising portraits of her brother. She already has her own recognisable style – playful, but also introspective and dark at times.
Photo by Ren, 17, @rensph0tography
Children of Vision is growing and expanding as a platform and it continues to surprise me. It has visual culture at its core, which is inclusive and accessible to most of us, whether or not you have a degree in Fine Art. It’s true public art created by young people where I am only the curator and facilitator.
Photography as a form of creativity is a powerful force that can take us beyond thought, analysis and knowledge, if we let it! It helps us enter an experience of simply being, and connect with the world, becoming one with whatever we are photographing.
The young people can take this experience with them into their future, together with the international connections they are building as we speak, regardless of whether or not they become professional photographers or artists when they grow up.

Children of Vision on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/children_of_vision/

Children of Vision on the web: https://alinakisina.co.uk/cov

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