Curiosity is the driving force behind knowledge, originality and creativity. For photographer Rachel Papo, her curiosity has been the impetus behind her photography since she first discovered it as a teenager in Israel. It’s led her to revisit subjects she’s known all too well—mandatory female military service at the age of 18 in Israel; the regimented and brutal routine of young ballet dancers fiercely working towards their dreams.
For her latest series ”Homeschooled,” however, Rachel Papo plunges herself (and us) into the world of children growing up and learning outside the walls of a conventional classroom. Her series offers an up-close look into the imagination and singularities of each child’s world.
LensCulture contributor Qasim Warraich reached out to Papo to find out more. This is an edited transcript of their exchange.
LC: What was the first thing that really intrigued you and drew you to photographing this series “Homeschooled?”
RP: Before I moved to Woodstock in upstate New York with my family, I had never heard about homeschooling. Then I met Lea, a mother working at a local cafe. She introduced me to her 5-year-old daughter True, who is homeschooled. I thought it was a strange phenomenon. However, I immediately felt drawn to her, and decided, out of curiosity, to explore the topic photographically. I wanted to see what it means for a child to grow up outside the conventional four walls of the classroom.
LC: Can you tell me about the process of shooting this series—what were some of the unexpected challenges? Were there any “breakthrough” moments as you produced the work?
RP: My initial idea was to create a series of single portraits of homeschooled children in the area. I thought I could discover a possible commonality between them.
However, as I met more children and families, two things became very clear to me: the children were all so different than one another in so many ways, that a common thread would be impossible to detect. And second, after photographing one child, I just wanted to spend more and more time with him or her.
So, I was faced with a new challenge: how do I tell the story of these homeschooled children without repeating the predictable images of children studying, reading or writing?
As I continued to work on the project I discovered that for these children, learning occurs every hour of the day, as they observe the natural world around them. Once I realized this, I gained more freedom in my exploration and allowed myself to follow the children into their magical worlds. I learned something new from each child every time, and I believe that contributed to the overall quality of the project.
LC: Did following younger subjects make this series different than the other projects you’ve done before?
RP: I’ve photographed children and adolescents in many of my previous bodies of work, including young Russian ballet students in my series ”Desperately Perfect,” and Israeli female soldiers in ”Serial No. 3817131.” I am always curious and bewildered about the things I went through as a child and as a teenager, particularly emotionally. There is a lot going on during these sensitive years, a lot of pressure and confusion, and I am sometimes amazed by how I managed to cope with it all.
By photographing these young subjects I am able to recognize and, in a way, revisit many of those past emotions. The difference with “Homeschooled” was that I was investigating a topic completely new to me, while in previous projects I went back to my past, more personal experiences.
LC: Having come to the subject with no prior knowledge but now having finished the project, do you feel there are any major misconceptions about home-schooling that your work could help dispel?
RP: Even though I do not plan to homeschool my children, I’ve learned to appreciate the practice. When parents spend so much time with their children during these developmental years, both sides gain something very special — a connection that others, who do not receive homeschooling, may never experience.
In my newly published book “Homeschooled” (Kehrer Verlag, Spring 16, EU/Fall 16, USA), I’ve included some thoughtful texts by the parents which help illuminate their philosophies and choices. The important thing to remember is that any decision that parents make regarding their children is not an easy one, and one should not hurry to judge them.
My point of view in this project, as in my previous projects, is that of an observer: I do not take sides but rather attempt to reveal the complexities of the topic.
LC: Tell me about the exhibition at Cortona on the Move, how was your work selected for the exhibition? How do you feel about festival exhibitions in general? Can you say more about their value for emerging photographers?
RP: Ariana Rinaldo, director of Cortona on the Move, contacted me after receiving the notice about the release of the book. She’s been interested in the work in the past and thought it would be a great opportunity to exhibit it in the festival, in conjunction with the release of the book in Europe. I think festival exhibitions are an amazing way for photographers to get their work seen by a diverse crowd, made up of professionals and art lovers alike.
—Rachel Papo, interviewed by Qasim Warraich
Editors’ Note: The series “Homeschooled” will be showing at the festival Cortona on the Move until October 2, 2016. If you have the chance and the means, this festival offers a lovely (and inspiring) reason to escape to Tuscany for a few days.