Tony Hall is a photographer who became interested in learning through community photography projects with young adults. He created informal learning environments and allowed learners the freedom to set their own agenda. With the increased accessibility of technology, he describes his interests as "thinking about sustainable learning communities, shared learning in public spaces, using social media".
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Tony doesn’t see himself as a teacher. “I got into teaching through not wanting to teach,” he says. “A few people in a youth centre were interested in something I was interested in: photography. They felt that I could probably help them. And being outside school was important. Some of them were unbelievably bright. Some may have been failed by school, but there was a real mix of kids. They weren't much younger than me: I was 21 or 22; they were 16 to 19. Because I was seen as the photographer, I was the key character in that group. I could get stuff as well: enlargers from up in town; I could get film cheap in Soho. That was part of the deal.”

Tony sees learning as a social activity: “It's to do with relationships. Learning for me is not something you do by yourself — not in the way I do it, anyway. I've always felt I need to learn with other people. I never wanted to use the word "teaching" or being a "teacher". I have to use it to work in institutional spaces, but it's not a word that sat comfortably with me.

“Learning for me is never about being stuck in a classroom and someone telling you how to do something. It's always to do with a process. Various characters get involved in that process. Some are better at explaining things or presenting something, offering up bits of knowledge, or finding something we can use — but it's never just one person.”

Learning is a pragmatic, experiential process for Tony. “It's that make-do, but also making something out of that make-do. It's not learning something for the sake of learning; it's trying to make something. And then the conversations that came out of the practice, whereby you're involved in doing something together. Somehow what we were doing in terms of this thing called "photography" wasn't photography. It's more a case of us getting involved with each other and trying something out, having a bit of fun doing it.”

Tony’s experience with informal and community learning projects has made him wary of formal learning environments. “Institutionalised education isn't a place I want to be. I tried many times to be involved inside the space, creating groups and projects inside these organisations. But I found that I spent huge amounts of time dealing with the administrators rather than doing the learning stuff. The first learning project, building the darkroom, was being let loose in a space with a bunch of people who had a shared interest. Out of that came a lot of other stuff — lots of conversations, around music and culture. As long as we could get a photograph out first of all, then something else comes out that. You don't know what's going to come out of it, until somebody comes along and says, "I want to take this kind of photograph". And then you can talk to them in depth. What I liked about photography was that anyone could do it, at least in terms of getting started.

Tony worked with people in day centres throughout the 1980s. “A lot of time, I felt as though I was walking into their world, their environment, and I always felt that I needed to just be there, as a photographer, and that somehow the conversations would start. In one environment, for example, I set it up a dark room for people with mental and physical disabilities. It became their own space within this institutional space. They made it in a way: they made it their space with me. And it happened because people allowed themselves to get involved with me in a day centre, and because I was different from what was going on there. It becomes something we did together, making this dark room… accessible in a way.

“There were eleven or twelve people floating around who got involved. It's always the same: one or two people get interested, and then they know somebody else, who they bring in, who sits on the side of the group, but they then get involved, and once you've got a basic interest amongst those few people, then you can begin to get something out of it.

“When you actually begin a series of conversations with them, and continue over a period of time, they just want you to understand them a little bit. And because you're this person who takes photographs, they also want to do this thing called photography. Obviously I go in there with a sort of vaguely framed way of thinking around it, in terms of project I would like to do… but sometimes it never works out!”

By being seen as a photographer rather than a teacher, Tony feels he can accomplish more. “Because then you begin to look at what thinking is and what learning is. It is a social thing that's going on. It's us negotiating something to do with an activity together… For me learning's about change as well: changing yourself. It's not just thinking, it's changing your thinking a bit. That's the great thing about pictures, because you can negotiate through the picture without being provoked. So you're always displacing the activity and you're talking about this thing here, but you know you're talking with each other, really. You don't have to do eye contact all the time, so the picture becomes a little reflecting device.”