Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Families: A Jr. High School Youth Program that Explores the Diversity, Commonality, and Meaning of Families


Part of Families

The heart of this program is the photo-documentary project that places youth in a leadership role, listening, learning, and representing the lives of families in their congregation. Autonomy, creativity, and sensitivity are nurtured in the process. The end product is a visual, artistic representation of a diversity of families from the congregation. Typically, the project includes: photographs of families, descriptive information about families, and family members' comments—called write-backs—about their photos and provided information. A true diversity of families' needs to be recruited by the adult leaders who are supporting the youth in the project.

Project Goals

Participants will develop many skills and abilities through their work on the project. In the process, youth will:

  • Deepen their lived understanding, appreciation of, and connection to a diversity of families
  • Develop and realize the ethics of care and responsibility through the intimate process of engaging with families, taking their photographs, learning about their histories, and representing them in the project
  • Grow and deepen their compassion for families—others' and their own
  • Understand themselves as active interpreters and creators
  • Realize that all that is told or represented is interpreted
  • Become leaders within this project and their congregation

Project Formats

During the photo-documentary project, youth photograph and interview congregational families, create a collective, artistic display of their work, and share it with the congregation. The product or artistic display can take many forms, including a gallery display of photography and writing; a PowerPoint presentation of photography and writing; a slide show of photography accompanied by oral text or slide images of text; or an album or notebook.

Sharing the photo-documentary display is integral to project success. Youth need the opportunity to influence the congregation with their work. They also will benefit from receiving feedback from the congregation. Whatever format leaders choose for the product should highlight the youths' leadership in their photo-documentary project. A gallery display, including an opening event, is recommended. A PowerPoint presentation can also be wonderful. One advantage of a gallery display is that the artifacts of the project, including the photographs and the write-backs from the families, can be displayed for long periods of time. One advantage of a PowerPoint presentation is that it is economical, repeatable, and can engage a large number of congregants easily. A PowerPoint presentation can be included as part of a church service. Other formats can work equally well, and the presentation of all of them requires planning.

Project Equipment and Materials

The photo-documentary project requires the availability of cameras. Cameras are needed for four of the sessions and for photographing families. The type of photography equipment you use can influence the product. The degree of photographic experience of the leaders and youth and the availability of equipment will influence the complexity of the equipment you use. Leaders who wish to use larger and more complex equipment may need to draw on their own resources.

When deciding on type of camera and film, leaders need to consider the format of the photo-documentary end product. If the group decides to create a slide show, then slide-specific film is necessary for standard single lens reflex (SLR) 35 mm cameras. Digital cameras are recommended for print and PowerPoint projected images. Disposable 35 mm cameras can yield prints for a gallery or notebook display and CDs for PowerPoint displays. Doing a PowerPoint presentation decreases the costs associated with printing photographs, but makes engagement with participants completely dependent on work with computers.

Budget and the availability of loaned or donated materials will influence equipment decisions. If congregation members are able to loan photography equipment, expenses for the program are decreased. Disposable cameras can sometimes be obtained through donations. A congregational announcement might read, "Help our youth! Bring one disposable camera to the next service and we will list you as a sponsor of our youth Families program in the upcoming newsletter." However, disposable cameras may not be the most environmentally responsible choice. Digital cameras provide the most flexibility for the program and may yield the least expensive, most immediate print options. Images can be deleted or stored and transferred to computers. High-quality home printers combined with glossy photo paper create an inexpensive alternative to traditional film and printing. However, digital cameras themselves are expensive and may not be readily available to all youth. Budget considerations include cameras, film, batteries, the cost of prints, and any costs involved with mounting or otherwise displaying the final project.

The overall availability of cameras will influence the scheduling of photography for the photo-documentary project. If only one or two cameras are available, plan to gather many families together in one place—such as a fellowship hall—for photography sessions. Youth can simply take turns using the camera(s) when they are needed. If more than two cameras are available, there may be more flexibility in camera use.

Project Considerations

Although one method of doing the project is highlighted in the curriculum, there are many ways to approach the logistics of the project. Obtaining photographs, family information, and write-backs can be accomplished in a variety of ways. The following are the key considerations:

Recruiting Families

The success of this project rests on recruiting a true diversity of families to participate. The perspective of this curriculum is that families exist in the eye of the beholder. A child of parents who are not living together may claim two separate groups as his/her family. One older person living alone may claim a large number of children, grandchildren, and other members as his/her family, while others may claim themselves as a family of one. Families vary in constellation, ethnicity, sexual orientation, race, abilities, and composition. Careful recruitment assures that youth will capture a diversity of families that is realistic, not stereotypic. To ensure that a diversity of families is represented, you may need to recruit specific families. Be frank about why you are asking them to participate. Let them know that you need them to fill out the spectrum of congregational families to its fullest!

Ministers, religious educators, and lay leaders can all be helpful in recruiting families. Such a recruitment campaign can be complemented by youths' direct invitation to families to participate in the project. The recruitment of families through invitation should not replace a general, congregation-wide invitation. An open invitation allows families with a genuine interest to volunteer for the project. During the recruitment process you do not want to suggest that only selected families are invited to participate.

Youth Participation

Each group of youth has different strengths and needs. People often assume that younger participants will need more assistance in completing the project. This may or may not be true. Deciding factors include how much time youth can devote to the project, how easy/hard it will be for youth to make contact with families individually, and how much overall support youth will need during the project. If the congregation primarily lives in close proximity to the church, then photographing at families' homes may be feasible for even junior high school youth.

When choosing how to approach the steps of photographing and interviewing the families, leaders may be guided by the characteristics of the youth participating in the project. These characteristics can include interest and ability to work in small groups, the youths' availability to engage in project work outside regular session time, the regularity of individual youths' participation in the program, and the level of interest in the photo-documentary project.

Family Participation

A benefit of the photo-documentary project is the relationship building that occurs between youth and the congregation. When choosing how to accomplish photography and interviewing, consider what method will best build community and intergenerational respect. If photography and interviewing happens during a congregational Family Event, then the Family Event itself becomes a benefit of participation for families and youth. However for some congregants, attending a Family Event may be prohibitive. The process is the product for families. Respect the families' points of view. Some families are so busy that they will need the process of photography and interviewing woven into the fabric of their lives. For others, connecting from family to family, as well as being photographed and interviewed, will be most appealing. Leaders will have to choose one method that they believe will best appeal to the largest number of families.

Project Method

What are some ways to do the project? The first step is to enlist the help of the ministers, religious educators, and lay leaders in recruiting families that represent a cross-section of the congregation. While there are many ways to accomplish the photo-documentary process, four of those options are:

  • Hosting Two Family Events. We suggest initial family recruitment followed by two Family Events during which the families are photographed and interviewed. Ideally, all families involved in the project attend both Family Events. At the first Family Event, families are photographed. At the second Family Event, families view the photos of them, respond to the photos and narratives about them, and have an opportunity to create a write-back (in which the families express what they think of their photograph and the youth's interpretation; see Session 5 for a detailed description). It is also possible to have different families attend the two Family Events, thus leaving the collecting of write-backs to be done individually. If you can schedule only one Family Event, the gathering of write-backs can be collected individually or can be eliminated.

The scheduling of the Family Events needs to be well coordinated. Many congregations have families that live some distance from the congregation. A Family Event that requires additional travel to the congregation outside of regular worship or religious education times might be prohibitive. Therefore, scheduling a Family Event either before or after the regular worship service might work best. Consider a pizza party, baked potato bar, an ice cream social, or a Family Event breakfast. Providing food will not only ease the concerns of families in need of breakfast or lunch, but will also provide an atmosphere more conducive to extended fellowship.

  • If your congregation has regular programming on a weeknight—such as Wednesday night programming—a weeknight might work. Be sure to take into consideration families with young children who have an early bedtime or elders who might not wish to drive after dark. These families might be unable to participate in a weeknight event.
  • Hosting One Family Event. Hosting two Family Events gives youth the opportunity to engage with families longer and provides time for families to review the photographs and produce the narrative portion of the project. However, if scheduling allows for the hosting of only one Family Event, youth can set up individual appointments for photo feedback and narrative development. Remember to keep safety in mind. Individual appointments with families are best scheduled at the congregation when other adults are present.
  • Including Families in Other Programming. If you are using Families as part of weeknight or youth group programming and the sessions are held at a time that does not conflict with congregational worship, you could invite families to two sessions: one for portrait photography and another for feedback and narrative development. If you choose this option, you will need to either add two sessions to the program (making a total of fourteen sessions) or replace two existing sessions with these two. If you decide to replace sessions, choose between Sessions 7, 8, and 9.
  • Photographing Families in Their Homes. A home setting often makes the family photographs more interesting. If participating families need to represent absent family members in their photos, photography in the home can make the task easier. Photographs of absent family members or props that represent them can be included in the documentary photograph. The difficulty with this approach is that you must schedule each family individually, coordinate transportation for your youth participants, and make sure your congregation's safety policies are enforced. Safety steps might require youth to be accompanied by an adult family member or one or more of the Families co-leaders.

When considering how to carry out the project, allow time for:

  • Inviting and scheduling families
  • Photographing families
  • Interviewing families
  • Developing or printing and selecting photographs
  • Conducting write-backs where families respond to the photographs and youth writing

Co-leaders are ultimately responsible for the safety and happiness of both the participating youth and families. To that end, leaders need to design and oversee the project process.

Project Ethics

Representing others is a privilege. Accompanying youth through the process of representing others provides an opportunity to nurture the lived principle of respecting the inherent worth and dignity of all beings. Throughout the program, youth will have opportunities to experience the feelings associated with sharing representations of themselves. This helps develop an effective basis for the sensitive representation of others.

As youth represent others, you may need to develop and guide their ability to be actively compassionate. Reminding them that there is no way to be truly objective can free them from a false sense of objectivity and nurture authentic interaction. Ultimately the project's aim is to represent participating families in the way those families wish to be represented. Leaders must make sure that families have completely offered consent. It is important to have families view the representations and provide their own interpretations prior to the final display. If families object to any aspect of the representation, then that representation—whether it is a photograph, text, or write-back—must not be included in the final display. Engaging respectfully in the representation of others is a faithful act, which nurtures mutual respect and trust.