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October 7, 2016

Faculty Profile: Gabe Peters-Lazaro

How exactly did you enter the film and media world? Have you always been interested in film?

As an undergraduate, I was a serious-minded academic. I thought I would study something like literature or philosophy and never really considered film. I took a film history class—pure cinema theory—and it completely opened my eyes. It all started to make sense. I saw film as something you could study as an entry point to everything about the world—history, sociology, music, drama. As soon as I got into that class, I realized that’s what I wanted to study, but I also knew intuitively it wouldn’t be enough to just watch and read media. To understand film, I would need to make it as well.

What about the world was it that film made you understand?

I was in my early 20s, and developmentally, this is a time when a lot of us are deeply invested in figuring out who we are and where we fit into the larger world. I was very interested in those questions in a deeply personal way, but I was also interested in understanding tools through which we could talk about what that really means. Film theory in the twentieth century did this. Film theory was interested in psychoanalysis, in understanding what happens when you sit in a dark theater and project your own identity into what’s happening on the screen, and how that can profoundly affect you. It shapes how we form our identities, and how we form our identities is putting our finger on something really important: how we negotiate not only who we are individually, but also as a culture.

Can you talk about your work in participatory media?

The tools of media-making and questions of identity led me to investigate how media is a vital part of our world today. I became really fortunate to work with Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova on a project they were part of called Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP). The basic question of that project was, what does political engagement and activism look like in the world of social media and in the world of young people growing up as media makers?

In the past, young people were seen more as media consumers. Today, young people grow up making and sharing media. We were looking at youth and youth-focused groups using media and storytelling to make the world a better place. There was also a big research project of these groups and a book came out of it as well as an extensive online archive of related media and resources. The big idea here is, how do we use these tools to teach people who might not know where to start? We used a lot of time to spread skills and make connections between groups who could benefit from the perspectives, tools, and resources to get there. You can check it out at http://byanymedia.org

Can you talk about what the Junior AV Club is and your role in it?

Junior AV Club was an important project that eventually connected me with the MAPP project because I was very interested in the educational benefits I received through making media. It’s just a powerful learning experience. I had been teaching Master’s and Undergraduate level studies at the time [5 or 6 years ago] and seeing the benefits was truly rewarding. Several of the folks I was working with, one of them Holly Willis, began asking the question: would the benefits of making media apply if we were talking about preschool and kindergarten students?

We started to ask questions with learning communities in that age range and making media projects. For about 3 years, we did about 3 sessions a year, and worked on what developmentally made sense for children at this age and where their imagination would go with that. They were always so surprising and imaginative.

There’s a disconnect with technology usage today. Every kid had taken a photo or video on their parents’ phone, but this wasn’t necessarily coming into the classroom. I don’t think we should spend more time necessarily on our devices, but it’s a reality that we have all these incredible communication tools, so it’s important to find a way to engage that in the educational setting. It’s not enough to let it exist outside of what we consider important in education and we need to teach media-making the way we teach other subjects.

You’re also a member of LA Makerspace. What is that exactly?

I’m on the advisory committee. LA Makerspace is basically built on the idea that building stuff and taking things apart is a powerful form of learning. It’s a community organization trying to create more opportunities for Los Angeles school children to get their hands on technology in a really literal way.

What other projects are you currently working on? Is there something in particular you’re excited about?

We’re launching an online site for MAPP, but transitioning to a new project because one thing we found in that work was the idea of civic imagination. Professor Jenkins said that if you want to change the world, you need to be able to imagine what a better world would look like. This idea has become central to our work. We want to empower people to embrace their imagination and figure out how to harness that inspiration and those stories to motivate people to join together and take action. We started to get that work rolling this past summer in Salzburg where we did workshops at the Salzburg Global Seminar. We found ways to connect people from across the world, create mashups of different people to find universal themes that connect us, and saw how we might inspire people to come together and solve problems that really matter. By starting with the imagination, you free yourself to address a problem in a really surprising way with energy you don’t always get. And the idea is using those things in new positive ways to have an effect on the world around us.

In my class titled Hypercinemas Studio, we get a chance to look at large format photography, aerial photography, and 360 photography, and we get to question what it means when you can shoot 4k video with a handheld camera and then see it on an iMax space. We’re seeing what can we do with it that we couldn’t do before, what can we tell we couldn’t tell before, and is it different at all? Maybe it’s more of the same. Is it adding to our ability to talk about things? How is this something new?  And students get to really be part of defining a new era of media making. Being in the School of Cinematic arts gives us the best chance in the world to do some exciting work. Part of that is also having some amazing students who do amazing things with it.

What words of advice do you have for future filmmakers?

With all of the classes I teach, it comes back to really asking questions about how the world works, and when do we accept compromise without ever realizing it? And if we ask those questions and if we become conscious of the systems in which we exist, then at least we get to make an active choice about how we participate. But if you never ask the question, then your participation isn’t active. And you don’t know what the repercussions of that are or if they are aligned with what you care most about.

Media making in all of its forms is an incredible way to ask all of those questions. Even if you don’t know where it’s going to take you, you will find something that matters to you. And if it matters to you, it’s going to matter to other people. To me, things like climate change, racial injustice, voices of women in film, these are things I want to address, and that might be different for someone else. But it’s about finding what matters to you. That’s the most important thing to me and what I try to get my students to think about. The world is an amazing and wonderful place, but at the same time I think we should all try to make it better, and I think we can do that by making great work.

Check out Professor Peters-Lazaro’s blog post on The Civic Imagination at the Salzburg Global Seminar's Academy for Media and Global Change: https://move.community/civic-imagination-at-the-2016-salzburg-academy-on-media-and-global-change-b7b3096fd4db#.niw0p5h2u