Newsha Tavakolian

Newsha Tavakolian: Insights from the photographer

Award-winning photographer and filmmaker, Newsha Tavakolian, tells us about her experience working on the next WISE Book.
“When WISE contacted me and asked me to take the photos for a book on education my first reaction was to laugh. I wondered why they were asking me.  I’m not exactly a shining example of educational success. I grew up with dyslexia and eventually dropped out of school at the age of 16. I was never really passionate about education, to put it mildly.
On the other hand, I was very excited by the idea of travelling around the world, seeing countries I had never been to before and working on a single subject, following it wherever it took us over four months. This was an amazing opportunity. And although I was still to be convinced about how engaging education could be, I decided to give it a shot.

As soon as we started travelling, I realised education could be a much more
exciting subject than I’d originally thought. I remember our first destination,
a small school outside Accra, in Ghana. The school building was very simple,
made up of small rooms with minimal furniture. But suddenly the kids took out
Kindles and here they were, 10-year-olds reading Virginia Woolf on
digital devices in a remote African village! I was amazed. I really wasn’t expecting to see such a thing there. Technology has certainly opened up so many opportunities, giving access to a wealth of information and resources
for so many.
But I also quickly realised that technology is not the only thing that has changed education, and certainly not the whole story.

When I grew up, in Iran, the schooling system was very strict. You sat at your desk and listened. That was it. Many programmes and curriculums now allow kids to be much more active and creative, building their confidence and pushing them to use their brains a lot more. I particularly remember one school we visited in the United States. There were paintings and drawings everywhere, and yet it was not an art school. It was a normal school with a head teacher who gave the kids space to be creative.
Also if my teachers had been as passionate as some of the ones we met, I probably wouldn’t have left school so early. How I wish I had had as inspiring a teacher as the one we met in Jordan! She worked in a school that had only meagre resources - a whiteboard, and no access to the Internet. Yet the kids’ eyes were sparkling when they listened to her. You could see they could have stayed mesmerised for hours, listening to every word she said. I think that is what impressed me the most - this wonderful passion.
Through my photos I’ve tried to capture these powerful human interactions and feelings. It was important for me not just to show school after school but, above all, to capture the essence of individual people and tell a human story. It’s a story that goes way beyond the school walls - a story that takes you into how people live, and what they hope for in their lives. I learned that education is an essential key to the development of our societies and, in the course of this journey, it has opened so many doors for me, helping me understand our world in all its rich diversity.”

Photo credit: Graham Brown-Martin