Photography Seminar Zooms In on Current Events

Photo: Professor Brian Barsky takes a picture of a protest on October 7, 2010. He leads a 
seminar that introduces freshman students to both photography and current events.
Kevin Foote/Courtesy
Professor Brian Barsky takes a picture of a protest on October 7, 2010. He leads a seminar that introduces freshman students to both photography and current events.

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Following a year filled with protests, marches and building occupations due to fee hikes and budget cuts in the 2009-10 academic year, an idea clicked for computer science professor Brian Barsky to introduce a freshman seminar that used a hands-on approach to learning about current events and renewed the activist spirit on campus.

Barsky had previously been teaching "The Art and Science of Photography" for about seven years through the freshman seminar program, which allows professors to teach a specific topic to a class of around 15 to 20 students. The original class focused on technical aspects of photography and what goes into an effective photograph as well as the history and artistic movements which affected the art.

However, his new class, "Photographing History in the Making" - which began last semester and starts up again this semester - included in its discussion the history of past protest movements on campus and current events, such as fee hikes and budget cuts on campus. Students in the seminar were given a subscription to The New York Times to stay on top of current events.

"Some of the objectives of this course is to learn about photojournalism and documentary photography as well as the role of photography both to show what is happening in an unbiased and neutral way and as a vehicle for activism," he said.

Barsky said that in a course based on current events, he is often "at the mercy" of the news in order to decide what events will be a big focus - in the fall he focused on the 2010 midterm election and the Oct. 7 protest.

Students in the seminar last semester took photographs of the campus every week that would be evaluated and discussed in class. On certain days, like the Oct. 7 protest, the class met beyond its regularly scheduled time to take photos.

Barsky said one of the goals of the course was to understand current events through a more hands-on approach, rather than simply lecturing students about current events.

"This is a new kind of laboratory. Instead of the chemistry lab, our campus is our lab," he said.

The course was meant in part to educate and present multiple sides of discussions that dominated much of the new students' first semester, according to Barsky.

"I wouldn't say it made me more liberal or more conservative," said freshman Nicholas Chang, an electrical engineering and computer science major who took the seminar last semester. "It led me to want to think about things more, when I read the news, to actually ponder what it's saying, how it affects me and how it affects other people."

Though Barsky is a computer science professor, he said that he has had a passion for photography for years. While he said this type of course is different from what he is used to teaching, he considers it part of his responsibility as an educator to teach students to be engaged in the civic process.

"As an international student, I enjoy this class especially because it offers me a chance to learn what 'democracy' means to America," said freshman Tianyu Guan, who took the class last semester, in an e-mail.

Alluding to the pictures from the Free Speech Movement in 1964 that his students studied in the course, Barsky speculated that photos taken in the class could one day serve other individuals as historical documents.

"Perhaps after the next 46 years have passed, students will be interested in looking at photographs taken way back in 2010," he said.


Victoria Pardini covers Berkeley communities. Contact her at [email protected]

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