Five years ago, Shree Nayar started looking at cameras differently. As a Columbia University computer scientist widely regarded for his work in computational imaging systems, he had spent much of his life and professional career thinking about the mechanics behind a photograph. But after watching Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, a documentary about children photographing their own lives in Calcutta’s slums, Nayar realized that a camera could be an exceptional learning tool for kids.
Nayar decided to create a camera that could both teach kids the mechanics of digital hardware and allow them to use the tool for artistic expression. The result was the Bigshot Camera, a kit that allowed kids to assemble their very own point-and-shoot and learn about the parts and functionalities of a camera along the way.
Bigshot's capacity for social good is central to Nayar's mission. After trials with donated Bigshots in Vietnam and Bangalore, the Center for Arts Education of New York (CAE) launched a Bigshot pilot program in New York City schools earlier this month. Funded by a federal grant, CAE directors say they'll be using the camera this year to teach after-school sessions in what they call "STEAM" education. It's a play on the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) but with an "A" added to represent the arts.
"I always say that it’s not just a digital camera. It’s an experience," Nayar says. "You start off by building and learning, that’s the STEM component. Once you have it, you enter the world of documentary storytelling. And then, once you’re sharing, you’re expressing."
Students at Bushwick’s JHS291 started assembling the Bigshots in early October with the guidance of artist Kostas Kiritsis, who will take them through lessons on photography history, digital color mixing, aesthetics, and the mechanics of the camera itself. Much of those lessons can also be found on Nayar’s site for kids (and grownups, he adds) who want to take the initiative on their own. As of this fall, Bigshot is now available for sale online. A portion of the royalties will go to kids in underserved communities.
"We’re trying to combine artistic inquiry and scientific inquiry in a way that makes it irresistible to students," says Dr. Jerry James, director of teaching and learning at the CAE. After all, he says, inequality in the educational system doesn't merely mean an achievement gap, but a gap in experience, too. "If you look at the types of experiences certain kids don’t have access to—going to museums, going to concerts, working on projects like this—it just leaves them out," he says.
The CAE hopes to get 1,000 kids involved with Bigshot during its after-school pilot. If it's successful, the CAE wants to bring the project other schools. "There is an understanding that human beings do not learn one discipline at a time, and that we learn very different things at once," James says. "What was unique about Shree’s camera is that the students actually make the camera, and every component in the camera has an educational purpose. I would say that by far it's the most exciting science and art project we’ve ever done."