The Travelling Camera Obscura Project – the Journey

When people see my exhibitions, they often ask “Where did you get the idea to do this”” or “How did you know to do this?” The truth is a long winding road, consisting of play, curiosity and errance.

The journey into the world of lenses, pinhole and cameras starts in 2013, when I first encountered the power of a magnifying glass pointing outside while I held a white sheet of  paper on the other side. I didn’t discover this by myself. I was shown. By my daughter, one night, as she came back from Science Club. I was 46 years old. How had nobody told me this before, and how had I never noticed it?


A projection of the jungle from a magnifying glass onto a white surface.

I delighted in moving screen and lens in order to find the focus of the lens. I discovered “Magnifying sheets” from Popular (a local stationary shop) in different sizes and various focus lengths.

2. lens

One of the early contraptions holding the lens at a variable distance from the screen.

And decided the phenomenon could be observed in a box. But since you can’t be in the box to observe the projection, we need to make the projection screen partially transparent so we can see the image formed from the other side.

Box projection

Box projection: using tracing paper as a screen.

Only later did I realise all these are classic primary school explorations. I certainly don’t remember optics lessons  other than the diagrams telling me in various cartoon forms that “Light travels in a straight line” (Which, considering we know it is a wave, is rather ironic). I didn’t remember any hands-on explorations.  And interestingly, anybody who saw my experimental setups and experienced the image projections was surprised and interested to understand how it worked… nobody seemed to remember having had such a lesson in school.


Looking at the drawings hanging through the lens and onto the screen.

Little by little, at the same time, I had read somewhere about a very simple pinhole photography project that could be done without the need for a darkroom and chemicals. And I decided it would be the right project to offer to my daughter’s class (a tradition: every year, I would introduce myself to my children’s teacher and offer to run a class, workshop, etc… I see this as an opportunity to work and explore with a few children and my own at the same time). Only when the teacher got back to me for details, I decided it was time to move from “Internet description” to actually making the project… that I realised it was not a suitable project. And since I had talked about pinhole photography, I had to devise a simple pinhole photography workshop.

Beercan camera

The earliest pinhole camera was a beer can. Made in 5 minutes.

First thing was to make my own camera and see if I could take any picture. My first camera was born. It was a beer can I picked up on the way to the studio – picking trash: the best for inspiration. I followed the instructions to make it into a functional paper camera (single load). I had a darkroom, created in the spare bathroom with the help of my studio-mate Richard Kearns. He also gave me my first tips to produce an image.


One of the first photographs produced using the beer-can camera. It might look abstract to you, but it is a photograph of 2 paper sculptures outside my studio.

But now came the question of how to make the children visualise what was going on in this black box (the beer can), and how it could be capturing a photograph on the light-sensitive paper. How is the image formed? Can we see the image being formed? So I imagined a cross between my early camera obscura and the pinhole where the surface meant to receive the light sensitive paper would be a translucent surface which we could look at from the outside to see the image being formed. Of course we need to create the dark environment so the image is visible and not flooded by ambient light, so I added the black curtain.



Yaso, trying to “See like a camera”, wearing the special tracing-paper camera, complete with hood for darkness.

The first prototype wasn’t working – we needed more distance between the eyes and the screen. So a shoebox was added between the beer can and the eyes, the hood was kept, and we had the “Outdoor Cinema” ready to be experienced, pointing outside.


Wearing the Outdoor Cinema box

I was ready to step into the classroom and get the kids to explore photography and image-making with a dark box.


Variety of students’ cameras, made from recycled boxes


One student’s camera with the 4 attempts. One produced a good shot, while the others provided information for troubleshooting.


In 2014, the combination of lens experiments and pinhole photography led to a show I curated for the ArtScience Museum, entitled “Hands On Lenses”. 


The top display shows various scenes photographed by each of the 5 individual cameras displayed below. At the bottom, the “portable cameras” can be worn to walk around the space and experience “seeing like a camera”.

Since then, I have been exploring different ways fo using pinhole cameras, trying to imagine what current photography might look like if instead of developing expensive cameras and cheap film, technology had led to cameras so cheap that the price of the film/paper would be more valuable than the camera. The result of this exploration will be discussed in a different post.



The first room camera obscura: The Dream Room (France, 2014)

In parallel, I have been exploring Camera Obscura – different combinations of lens, screen and lighting conditions that let us see the a projected image. This includes full room camera obscura, which we can walk into.

An ongoing project…



2 Responses to “The Travelling Camera Obscura Project – the Journey”
  1. Isabelle – great post – we should have you on as a guest on The Lensless Podcast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: