Perception and reality are always key factors in human behavior, but never more so than in times of world conflict. In the nearly two years since 9/11, perceptions about the United States, the Middle East, Islam, France, North Korea, war protestors and pro-troop supporters, among others, have been flying back, forth, and around, promoting stereotypes and fanning antagonisms. A little education — especially when it's gained through a personal connection — sharpens perception and makes for more realistic understanding. But where are young people likely to find that kind of opportunity? Using digital photography and the whisk-it-away technology of the computer, kids in a dozen schools worldwide — including one from Queens — have discovered each other, and the reality of each other's worlds, through the Hewlett-Packard/iEARN Digital Cultural Exchange program. A "global selection" of the resulting images, ranging from picture postcard views and close-ups of favored foods (like pizza), to ecological problems, were displayed early last month at the American Museum of Natural History during the student-run YouthCaN 2003 conference, and can now be seen by visiting http://www.hp.com/go/digitalexchange.
The Robert F. Wagner, Jr. Secondary School for Arts and Technology in Long Island City was one of the five U.S. representatives chosen for their diversity to participate in the program by the non-profit education organization iEARN (International Education and Resource Network) and Hewlett Packard. Along with Wagner, U.S. schools in Washington State, California, Wisconsin and Maine also produced photographic records, as did schools in Argentina, Canada, India, Australia, the Czech Republic, Lebanon and Senegal. The program was divided into four exercises. The first exercise introduced students to one another — and to the technology of the digital equipment provided by Hewlett-Packard — through the creation of class photos. (Rather than snap the typically uninspired long shot of everyone standing loose-limbed in front of the school building, many schools went whole-hog with the technology, making up composite class pictures). Exercise two put the spotlight on perception, with students breaking down into groups and answering questions, in visual terms, about their perceptions of the other Digital Cultural Exchange countries, later comparing their own imagery to the reality as captured on the other side of the world. (Exercise three reversed the order of the previous exercise, allowing students to respond to impressions of their own country). The final exercise, called "Let It Flow", involved images of environmental problems, followed by pictures describing the activities being done to improve them. Although the differences between locations are instantly apparent — Menomonie Wisconsin looks nothing like Maharashtra India — the students nevertheless discovered a great deal of commonality between them that extended far beyond which McDonalds is decorated with what. One of the most striking features is each school's love for the beauty of its own immediate environment; Wagner's image of the sun setting over Manhattan and Queens, taken from Queens with the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building prominent, is as touchingly evocative of "home" as the Hopperesque Maine lighthouse or the magnificent cityscape of Prague. There's no sense of one-upsmanship happening here, of anyone claiming "my home is more beautiful than yours." Everyone seems genuinely proud of the place they come from, and more than happy to share it. There are scores of such gorgeous, and even amusing, celebratory pictures, but the images of ecological problems are just as openly direct. Beach pollution, air pollution, trash, along with a picture of a woman measuring beach erosion and a storm drain sporting a stenciled warning ("Dumping waste drains to stream"), are dramatically contrasted with such shots as an empty, but brilliant, "blue, blue sky". Regrettably, there's also a preponderance of fast food trash; as one student wrote in an accompanying caption, hamburger wrappers and cardboard French fry containers helped drive home a cultural point: that fast food — and by extension, U.S. influence — is very nearly everywhere. So how accurate were the perceptions of other cultures about the U.S.? "Their impressions were mostly right," reports Wagner 7th-grader Laura Dolabela, who attributes the accurateness to the continual exposure the nation receives through television. Wagner classroom teacher Donna Bierschwale avers, adding that the impression held by young people elsewhere — not only of the country, but of New York City itself — was remarkably on the money. No doubt much of the perception about New York comes from the city's famed diversity, expressed by Dolabela herself in a series of pictures of various international food-related signs around Queens. Bierschwale, who teaches photography, computer graphics and computer skills, is enthusiastic about the program's social studies bent and says that Wagner created a class especially for the project, and will continue working on it until the end of the year. "The album will still be up and we'll still be uploading into it," she promises. "My students were very excited to start and shared a lot, experienced a lot. They didn't want to stop, so we're still shooting." And learning.