I am a Part of an Ensemble: Photo Gesture and Movement Prompt

Learning At-Home Activity: Photo Gesture and Movement

In the last month, the arts world has lost giants in music and theatre, who enjoyed long careers and still had a lot more to teach us. As we grapple with the novel coronavirus and its impact on certain members of our population, some people have expressed a cavalier attitude about protecting and valuing elders. This prompt showcases our appreciation for people who are still in our lives or have influenced our lives through their experience, knowledge, and kindness. Choose people or figures who make you happy and proud!

In this post:

  • First, we provide the steps about how to participate in this prompt.
  • Second, a CLI team member provides an example using her family photo album.
  • Finally, for educators and adults, we provide some context behind prompts like this that might ask your students to engage with the past.

Prompt Steps

  1. Look through digital or physical photographs that you may have and find a picture of someone you consider an elder. Note: An elder doesn’t have to be someone who is elderly! Try to find an image where the subject is doing a gesture. If a photograph is hard to find, or if you’d prefer to think about a celebrity role model of yours, do a Google search for that person and choose a photograph.
  2. Study the photograph. Think about how the person positions their body in the photograph. Remember a photograph is a single moment that is made permanent and still.
  3. Using your own body, mirror the gesture that the subject is making in the photograph. Try to be still. After doing this gesture, how does this connection make you feel?
  4. Think about what the person in the photograph was doing just before or after the photo was taken. What were they doing? How were they moving?
  5. Create a movement that incorporates the gesture, and your thinking about what happened before and after.
  6. How did this process make you feel? What did you learn?


Lydia’s grandmother loved history. Her grandmother’s family was fortunate to have the ability and resources to take and save photographs. Before Lydia’s grandmother passed away in December, she gave Lydia several photo albums to save and continue this record. Lydia looked through these albums for a good candid.

Because personal photography was fairly new for regular folks in the early 1900s, people often took photographs when they knew they looked their best—seated or standing with hands folded. Lydia found this photograph of her Canadian great-great grandfather, probably from the mid-to-late 1920s in Ontario.

An elderly man in a hat and suit has his elbows bent and raised up. He is holding a white cloth object. He is looking at a large dog, a Russian wolfhound, that is in front of him and looking off camera.
Writing on the back of the photograph reads: “Edmond with his Russian Wolfhound.”

In the top picture, it looks like Edmond might be holding a dog toy, or some sort of handkerchief. Lydia thinks he was trying to get his dog to look up or stand in a certain position. Based on the other photos in this album, Lydia thinks Edmond really loved his dogs, and had fun training them.

Lydia doesn’t have a dog. So she and her cat tried their best to recreate the gesture Edmond is making.

Through this process, Lydia found a connection—a love for pets & playfulness—with an elder she only knew through her grandmother’s stories. We hope you have fun engaging with your elders!

Context Behind the Prompt

How can you connect with or experience a person you can’t touch? Maybe the person lives far away. Maybe you can’t visit them right now. What if the person lived before you were born? How might you learn about them?

Performance studies scholar Rebecca Schneider, in her book Performing Remains, writes about the stickiness of time, and how times can touch through the residue of gestures and performance. It is important to think critically and use an anti-racist lens before engaging in activities that ask for embodiment. The past is always present (and affects people differently). As James Baldwin wrote in Ebony Magazine in 1965:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.

“The White Man’s Guilt,” by James Baldwin, Ebony Magazine (August 1965), pp. 47-48.

I highly recommend reading Baldwin’s entire two page essay, linked above. (Ebony‘s archives are available in Google Books.) Literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman’s critique of “the difficulty and slipperiness of empathy”—it often “fails to expand the space of the other but merely places the self in its stead”—in her book Scenes of Subjection is also a worthy read for this topic.

Setting creative constraints and being culturally proficient and aware about the students in your classroom ensures that embodied activities are useful, respectful, and robust learning tools.

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