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Kids and Cameras: Views of Baltimore

Project Overview

Giving at-risk youth the opportunity to express themselves through photography.

Identifying the Problem

In Barclay, a distressed neighborhood in Baltimore City, schools are overcrowded and art programs are under-funded.  For the youth in the neighborhood, there are many ways to attract negative attention, and far fewer opportunities to gain attention for doing something positive.  As is true of many children, the youth in Barclay have a unique perspective of the world, but they rarely have any outlet for sharing their views with their families, friends and the larger Baltimore community.  Aditi and Elizabeth wanted to empower a group of students to use their artistic voices to share their views on difficult issues in a way that would provide an opportunity for them to communicate their ideas with people who might not otherwise hear them.

Creating A Solution

Aditi and Elizabeth took inspiration from documentary filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, who gave cameras to children living in the red light district of Calcutta and taught them how to use photography as a means of artistic expression.  Aditi and Elizabeth decided to give disposable cameras to six Barclay students and help them use the cameras to express themselves.  They then coordinated a 40-print exhibition of the students’ photographs with accompanying stories written by the young artists.  The project was advertised by the Baltimore Sun and the University of Baltimore.  The exhibition opened with a reception at a Baltimore gallery, and was attended by more than 75 people.  For two hours that afternoon, these kids – for whom chalk outlines on streets, gang markings on buildings, mothers with drug additions, and fathers who don’t come home are all parts of life – were stars of the show. Reporters, family, friends, community members and people from Baltimore and Washington, D.C. came to see and hear what these kids had to say, and the response was very positive.

Those who attended the exhibition were very moved by the children’s photographs.  One of the photographs was of one of the kids, Norman, playing dead in the middle of the streets.  As one resident viewed the photograph, tears began streaming down her face.  She whispered to Aditi and Elizabeth that Norman’s father was shot in gun violence about a year before the photograph was taken, and Norman never acknowledged the tragedy.  He never cried.  He never showed any emotion at all.  Aditi and Elizabeth were shocked and saddened to hear of the tragedy in young Norman’s life, but also relieved to know that the camera provided Norman with a small outlet to come to terms with a devastating injustice in his life.  

The children who struggled to live in a distressed neighborhood transformed into proud, young professionals when their artwork was on display.  Norman skipped football practice in order to attend the exhibit, and proudly stood next to his photographs, showing off his artwork to his friends.  Danielle did her hair and wore fancy shoes.  Troy wore a button-down shirt, which he made sure was tucked in every time one of the guests at the gallery came to speak to him.  Each of the artists radiated pride and a sense of ownership of their accomplishments.

The exhibition traveled to three other locations, and on the day the group moved the photographs to their final venue, a pizza restaurant near Barclay, Aditi and Elizabeth treated the students to lunch.  They had left a guest book at each of the exhibition locations, and while they waited for their pizza, they read excerpts from it to the young artists.  After a couple minutes of reading the comments of those who had attended the exhibitions, one of the young artists, Brian, interrupted and said, “I didn’t think anyone would care about my pictures.”  In a few short weeks, he had seen that, in fact, the opposite was true: He had something to say, and people – inside and outside Barclay – wanted to listen and wanted to understand.

Aditi and Elizabeth both believe in the power of giving cameras to children as a means of empowerment and greater understanding.  Aditi has conducted similar participatory photography projects in Washington, D.C., India and New Orleans, and Elizabeth has led a similar project with at-risk youth in Battambang province, Cambodia.

Lessons Learned

Aditi and Elizabeth began the project knowing that they would be working with youth who were growing up in a very rough environment, and while they hoped that photography would help the children to express their view of the world to others, Aditi and Elizabeth could not be sure that using a camera would have the desired effect.  However, they were pleasantly surprised by the students’ interest in photography, and even more surprised that they were able to build connections with the children just by talking about their photographs.  Following the project, they wrote an essay, which they included in the Kodak photo book of their project.  The following portion of the essay expresses the challenges Aditi and Elizabeth faced, as well as what they learned along the way.

On an unusually warm and sunny February afternoon, we stepped out of our rental car onto the streets of downtown Baltimore, ready to meet the kids. “Here goes,” we said aloud to each other and ourselves, taking a deep breath. It was the first of four Saturday photography workshops we would conduct with a rag-tag group of inner-city 11 and 12 year olds. We were incredibly nervous and entirely unsure of what to expect. Beth had grown up in a Baltimore neighborhood just 10 minutes north of theirs, but looking around at the boarded up houses and trash strewn alleyways, we felt like we were from another planet. We were obviously outsiders.

That first day, we presented a slide show of our own pictures as an introduction to photography, including an image of a hungry cat trying to jump into a dumpster. The scene had struck us because of how desperate the kitten looked. We were touched by the hunger expressed by the animal. When Danielle looked at it, however, she noticed that there were flowers growing next to the dumpster: “Why is something so beautiful growing next to something so ugly?” she asked. Why, indeed; we hadn’t even noticed. It was only the first of innumerable times that one of these young artists would perceive something we had never even thought to look at.

After our brief introduction to photography, we went outside with the students to take pictures. Damond scaled walls. Norman jumped fences. Danielle sat on the swings. Ivan climbed trees. Troy skateboarded. Brian ran down alleys and up porches, and we watched and worried: “Did they listen to anything we told them about taking pictures?” After processing their first rolls of film, however, we knew that our message has resonated with them. By the second Saturday, we had six rolls of black and white photographs that were not only great art, but which also expressed powerful messages. We worked with the artists to write captions to accompany their photographs, and over the course of four weeks, we realized, fascinated, that disposable cameras had become invaluable tools of expression. Brian captured his love for his mother. Troy showed his appreciation for his Grandmother… and his skateboard. Norman broached the problem of unemployment. Damond demonstrated his sense of self , and Danielle purposefully exposed the problem of litter in her neighborhood.

In those four weeks, we saw how pictures shorten the distance between people, and we learned that cameras can help strangers become fast friends. Before each workshop, we drove through the neighborhood for at least half an hour, rounding up the kids off of street corners and playgrounds. They were always hungry, sometimes dirty. We asked them questions: How is school? How is basketball? What are you doing this summer? They made fun of our driving: Watch out for that curb! Why are you so bad at parallel parking? We learned what their favorite songs were. They asked about our families.

As we became more and more comfortable with one another, our young photo students began to open up. Brian told us that he and his mom would be going on a cruise to Annapolis with her NA (Narcotics Anonymous) group. Danielle said that her stepfather was moving out, and she let us read a short story she was writing about a pregnant teenage girl who drops out of school. Troy admitted that no one had cleaned and bandaged the gash on his arm after he fell off his skateboard. Every time we left the city, we were both incredibly frustrated and angry at the injustices and challenges they faced, as well as extremely heartened as the relevance of our differences dissipated, and the connections between us became stronger.

Funding

Aditi and Elizabeth needed to raise money for a rental car to drive from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore that they could also use while they were in Baltimore.  They also needed to purchase disposable cameras to give to the children, and print 8x10s of the photographs, frame them and produce captions.  They also wanted to create a keepsake book of the exhibition.  They received funding from Humanity in Action and Telesis, a mission-driven development company that is currently working to revitalize Barclay.  They also received substantial material donations from Kodak, MotoPhoto, CVS and Pier 1 Imports.  Aditi and Elizabeth raised a total of $2,000 to fund this project.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2006

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