Boston College students make ‘Digital Diaries’

Many things have changed with the constant evolution of technology. One of those things is the way that we document our lives, our cultures and our times. At Boston College a unique course called Digital Diaries has been helping students develop their own creative methods of documenting their lives, and, as the course description puts it, create a body of work exploring the meaning of their lives, including family, friends, relationships or life-changing experiences.

Digital Diaries is an exercise in documentary photography, but with an emphasis on creativity within that niche medium.

Documentary inside out

Karl Baden, the course’s instructor, described the classic paradigm for documentary photography as the photographer traveling somewhere and documenting people and cultures other than his own. “In Digital Diaries, the standard notion of documentary is turned inside out,” he said. “This course provides each student with the opportunity to reveal, through a conflation of text and image, a narrative that is pertinent to their upbringing and lives as individuals.”

The course culminates in a final project, which can be a variation on a basic format. “The content of the final project is very flexible, but at the end of the semester, each student has their project in the form of a self-published, printed book.”

The students study the logistical aspects of putting such a book together, including editing programs like those in the Adobe Creative Suite and other computer graphic skills, creating their books in Photoshop and InDesign. They also study page layout, sequencing and the visual aspects of text itself. “Students are initially pressed to come up with a variety of ideas, which are realized as book dummies, and discussed as a group,” Baden said. “Additionally, we go through a history of artists’ books, up to the present day.”

There is much more to the class than these technical and logistical pursuits, however. It is, above all else, an art class. “Aside from the acquisition of technical skills, the study of a facet of historical and contemporary art and the opportunity to challenge traditional notions of documentary and express oneself through personal exploration, the aim of Digital Diaries is to produce a book that is not merely a compendium of words and pictures but is instead an actual artwork in itself,” Baden explained.

Inspiration all around

Baden is the founding instructor of this course. Stemming from his own experience as someone who began to take pictures in college, he realized that “like many other beginners,” he “was so concerned with mimicking what I thought were ‘classic’ photographic situations: sunsets, flowers, and other subjects from the Hallmark Greeting Card school.”

Reflecting on his own experience, Baden determined that he had failed to recognize that the most interesting subject matter he could have approached was his own life at the time: “the political turmoil, the ’60s culture, the wildness, ups and downs that I and my circle of friends were experiencing on a daily basis.”

“If I could go back,” he said, “those would be the pictures I’d take.” And that is where Digital Diaries had its foundation.

Over the years that the course has been taught, many students have been affected by their experiences in the class. Whether by Baden’s reputation as an instructor, or stories about the class itself, countless students have been drawn to the course, and countless students have been greatly affected by it.

Junior communication major Lizzy Barrett is interested in pursuing photography as a career after graduation, and the concept behind Digital Diaries appealed to her immediately. After hearing a friend rave about the professor based on another course, she signed up for Digital Diaries.

“The idea of making a photo book as a homework assignment felt right up my alley,” she said.

One thing the course taught her was how to utilize software to help tell a story through photography. “I wanted to talk about my family’s immigration stories,” Barrett said, “but I didn’t have any real pictures of my family to use. So it came down to using a lot of Photoshop to make the book seem authentic.”

The instructor also used the work of famous photographers and photojournalists to help guide the class, including examining the layout and organization of their books, in addition to image composition. “I think I became a better photographer and critic of photography from taking this course,” Barrett said.

Technical, personal growth

Emma Hardy, a studio art major who is entering her sophomore year this fall, decided to take the Digital Diaries course in order to explore a new medium.

“The course description was completely unique,” she said, “and the concept of creating a single project focused on self-exploration seemed both challenging and exciting.”

In addition to technical growth in programs such as Photoshop, Hardy learned a great deal about herself as a result of taking the class.

“In the end,” she said, “my story evolved into an emotional and spiritual ode to my childhood. It was a very rewarding feeling to hold a physical book in my hands that represented a meaningful part of my life.”

Looking through the books of her classmates also helped her gain perspective.

“I felt like I was able to better understand their personal perspectives and be transported into their innermost worlds,” Hardy said.

It is not an easy course, according to Hardy. “I think that the class takes a lot of courage and vulnerability, but it becomes an almost cathartic experience.”

Even after teaching this course for about a decade, Karl Baden said, “In a class like this, everything is a surprise.”

Boston College is a Jesuit university located in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, just 6 miles west of downtown Boston. Boasting an enrollment of over 14,000 undergraduate and graduate students, it is considered one of the top universities in the nation in rankings by Forbes and U.S. News & World Report.

The university was founded in 1863, and, according to the university’s website, its roots lie in “the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the 2,000-year Catholic intellectual tradition, and the faith experience of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus in 1540.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

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