Rachel Papo's Captivating Photos of Homeschooled Kids [Slideshow]
October 10, 2016
by Dan Halm
In 2010, to escape the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn, photographer Rachel Papo (MFA 2005 Photography, Video and Related Media) moved with her husband and infant daughter to Woodstock, New York. One afternoon at a neighborhood café, Papo started a conversation with a bright and charismatic five-year-old girl named True. It turned out that True was being homeschooled, a practice Papo knew little about. Homeschooled children do not learn in a formal setting, but instead are taught outside the classroom by a parent or tutor. Intrigued, Papo spoke with True’s mother and, with her permission, visited the girl’s home to take photographs capturing her nontraditional educational experience.
Spending the day in True’s world and seeing up close her vitality, enthusiasm and imagination piqued Papo’s curiosity—as did the idea of homeschooling, since the photographer herself had an academic-minded upbringing. “Half of my family are teachers and we all went to school and university,” Papo says. “So at first I didn’t see how this could be a positive thing for a child.” However, based on her time with True, she decided to seek out other members of Woodstock’s homeschooling community, and began what became a two-year project of documenting their lives, with a special focus on True, photographing her in every season and attempting to capture every activity that she did. The result of that work can now be seen in Homeschooled (Kehrer Verlag), Papo’s second book, published this September.
“Rachel decided to explore this controversial topic in depth in order to challenge her own prejudgments on the issue,” says Brian Clamp, director of ClampArt, Papo’s New York gallery. “However, as she got to know her subjects, the photographs became less about homeschooling and its successes and failures, and more about the children as individuals—their personalities and interests—and the magic of growing up surrounded by nature.”
While working on the project, Papo says, she “was having mixed feelings all the time. . . . But then I would see the children and how intelligent, mature, thoughtful and sensitive they are and think, ‘This is amazing for them.’ . . . The children were all really special, no matter what the parents’ ideas [for homeschooling] were.”
“I’m just an observer and pretty much reporting what I see and feel,” she says. In her eyes, Homeschooled is very much in line with two of her other major projects: one documenting the lives of 18-year-old female Israeli soldiers—published by powerHouse Books as Serial No. 3817131 in 2008—and the other on students at the renowned Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia. “The dominant thing in my work is my emotions toward these children,” she says. “They are under these institutions that they can’t really do anything about. . . . I feel some kind of sadness in those situations.” In the past, she has chosen subjects with whom she can personally identify—Papo both served in the Israeli army and studied ballet as a child. But despite Papo’s unfamiliarity with homeschooling, she was still able to find a connection with the children she photographed, as they brought back memories of being their age.While Papo's work for Homeschooled offered her plenty of exposure to what most would call an unorthodox method of education, it still left her with questions. Homeschooled children “do seem to have freedom, because they are not in school,” she says. “But are they free, or are they actually jailed in a different way within their own house or within their own family? Who’s more free, the ones who are out in the world?”
Papo finished photography for the project in 2013, when her family moved again, this time to Berlin, for its arts community, relative affordability and family-friendliness. While there, she began selecting images for the book and reestablishing contact with her subjects and their families, asking them to reflect on their lives and education for the book’s text. “People were really curious, beyond the pictures, to know more about the children,” she says. “So it was a very interesting process and I think [putting together] the book really helped me to understand it further.”
As for True, now nine, Papo is looking forward to reconnecting with her when she’s back in the States. “I can’t wait to talk with her because when I left, she was six and just a little kid. Now I’m sure she has a lot more to say.”
A version of this article appears in the fall 2016 issue of Visual Arts Journal.