Jean-Marie Casbarian On The Value of Curiosity

An interview with a member of the General Studies faculty

Describe your teaching philosophy and your reasons for becoming a teacher.

One of my earliest memories as a young student of photography was my relentless curiosity that kept searching for that invisible essence that's embedded deeply within an image. It's a special ingredient that deliberately provokes the viewer, taunting him with more questions than answers. Over the years, I have come to realize that it is through this so-called elusive answer that I continue to evolve and mature as an artist; and this process of incessant questioning informs my teaching. I see my role as a conduit. I try to provide students with as much stimulation as possible as we begin the task of learning and understanding a visual language. Of course, we look at photographers. But we also might look at film, dance, and performance. We might examine sound. I'll offer up readings that point toward theory and criticism; but I’ll also assign literary works and personal essays. I firmly believe that when given an intimate forum in which to exercise critical thinking and discussion, the willingness to find one's truth is likely to emerge.

From the outset, students are required to make a series of images. I tell them that if they show up to the studio every day, something just might happen. Open-ended assignments are carefully designed to encourage conceptual thinking with lessons advancing as their vision matures. They begin to understand the notion of process and how each work is a part of a greater whole. By the final project, the greater whole may be one video, a series of ten photographs, or a narrative of three. I encourage students to collaborate. As they interact with each other's work, they learn to let go of control. They become participants in a collective that either collides or intersects, complicating their process. This complexity can go two ways—it may rupture or, more often than not, it erupts into something greater than they originally conceived.

Establishing a dialogue between student and teacher is precarious at best. I aspire to be the provocateur, turning their questions back on them, so that they learn to answer their own inquiries. Thus, they take responsibility for the images and artworks that they create. Through the labor of realizing their concepts, they learn to accept that original thoughts and preconceived ideas may transform and morph along the way. I teach them how to capitalize on their intuitions, recognizing when to deconstruct and when to rebuild. My method is to question their motives, leading them to a deeper understanding of their work and process.

Making an image is easy. Understanding the reason for a particular form and a conceptual context is a different matter. By challenging their visual integrity, I want to make my students aware that process, with all its complexities, requires pushing through their failures. When they come out the other end, they will inevitably find their voice.

What is your favorite aspect of teaching in the General Studies program at ICP?

I love that the GS program is a convergence of diverse cultures from across the globe. The students embody a vast range of language and custom, career and personal background, regional sensibility and aesthetic. They are open and afraid and fearless, all at the same time. These students have an intoxicating enthusiasm that can be contagious. I find myself being swept away by their hunger and drive to push their work to the next level. In turn, they inspire me to teach at my best. It’s a reciprocal dedication and one that thrives within the strong sense of community that these students build and keep alive throughout the year and beyond at ICP.

Do you see a relationship between teaching and your own photographic practice?

Teaching is a creative process. It's hard to separate the act of teaching from one's studio practice, as the two oftentimes feed off of one other in unexpected ways. I'm excited by what I teach and this inevitably trickles down to my students. I might feel selfish at times, but I know that I’m in top form when my teaching is a reflection of my own curiosity and experience. Thus, the research that I devote to developing a course throughout the term cannot help but inspire my own studio practice.