Photography in the Field: Empowering Youth and Affecting Public Policy

At Critical Exposure, a national non-profit based in D.C. where I work as an AmeriCorps VISTA, young people use photographs to share their opinions about issues directly affecting their lives: educational inequality, youth homelessness, teen pregnancy and the dropout crisis. Critical Exposure starts with youth empowerment workshops focusing on documentary photography and social advocacy. Once students learn the basics, they document issues important to them and show their images in exhibits, community events and through media coverage. Often these youth photographers and their images go beyond raising awareness to creating the public and political will for social change: the youth who have participated in our programs have, in many cases, been effective in using their photographs and voices to create tangible policy change.
In some respects still photography is particularly suited to social advocacy and youth empowerment. Photography offers the benefit of fewer steps in the production process than with film/video or radio, and it requires little more from the audience than a glance. Even so, its impact is visceral and immediate—often for both the viewer and the photographer. Yet, photography still remains on the outskirts of the youth media field. Photography must be valued as a key youth media medium. Through photography, young people can project their stories, images and viewpoints and reach decision makers to affect change.
As Christina, a 10th grade student in Philadelphia who worked on a Statewide School Funding Reform campaign, says, “This experience was very overwhelming for me because I had something as small as a 35 mm camera, but to me it meant so much more. The opportunity to take pictures was my first time to finally be heard, not only by my friends and family, but by the media and public. I learned that even the smallest camera can give you power to benefits society.”
Case Studies at Critical Exposure
Study Number 1
Imagine a photograph of a urinal in your high school taped with a piece of cardboard taped on which is written “Out of Order, Do Not Use.” The rest of the image is filled with the stark white walls of the bathroom; there is nothing in the frame to identify the location beyond the absolute basics: a boys’ bathroom with a broken urinal.
The photographer, Ken, wrote, “I hope when others view Out of Order it makes them think about how we feel when surrounded by visuals like the broken urinal. Although we are used to visuals such as this in our school, they affect our thoughts. We feel as though we do not deserve better. Therefore, we are less inclined to strive for better.”
Similar images of school facilities, such as bathroom stalls without doors, moldy ceilings, broken windows, and outdated equipment have been captured again and again by our youth photography participants. In D.C., students documented the physical conditions of their schools and presented their work to City Council members to encourage them to pass a bill that would increase school funding. The City Council passed the School Modernization Bill, which provides $3 billion over the next 15 years for school modernization, in February 2006.
Study Number 2
Critical Exposure teaches students like Ken to use photography to highlight issues that are important to them, and in turn, use their photographs and opinions to raise awareness. For instance, Critical Exposure worked with students in Pennsylvania to document the effect of underfunding in their schools. Their photographs were displayed in public spaces, including art galleries and the State Capitol, and were also used in a television ad and a YouTube video. Our partners in the project, the Education Law Center and Good Schools Pennsylvania, used the photographs in their campaign.
In June 2008, they achieved a significant victory: youth working with Critical Exposure helped push the Pennsylvania State Legislature to approve a historic $275 million increase in education funding for the 2008-09 school year and funding distribution methods changed. Baruch Kintisch, one of the campaigns lead organizers, said, “Without Critical Exposure, student voices would not have been heard in the same way. They inspired and taught us how to help students express their voices and helped us become much more focused on the power of students speaking for themselves, visually through photography and through their writing. Our campaign would definitely not have been as successful without their work.”
Critical Exposure has also worked with youth in D.C., Baltimore, Albuquerque, Austin and New Orleans. It uses an ‘arts as advocacy’ model that combines the creative and introspective characteristics of artistic expression with the transformative focus of youth advocacy to create a powerful tool for youth empowerment and social change. The arts are already an effective means to attract people’s attention and to transmit a message or point of view; combining the arts with advocacy, as Critical Exposure does, simply amplifies that message while using it for a specific end goal that will (hopefully) result in concrete improvements in the lives and conditions of our partner communities and schools.
Furthermore, Critical Exposure’s photo projects help form a bridge between youth groups and advocacy organizations that all too often speak on behalf of youth without incorporating youth voices into their campaigns. Critical Exposure’s photography projects bring youth voice to the forefront in a creative and empowering manner.
Study Number 3
It’s easier to hand policy makers a hard copy of a photograph than to have them sit down to watch a movie or collectively read an article from a youth journalist. And, unlike writing or radio, our students’ photographs take outsiders and decision makers immediately to the issues.
For example, after seeing Critical Exposure student photographs in a campaign for an increase in funding for school facilities in Maryland, (Maryland) State Senator Nathaniel McFadden said, “As a legislator from Baltimore City, I believe that the compelling photographs and testimony from students working with Critical Exposure were an important factor in convincing my colleagues to support increased funding for public schools. In fact, we were able to triple the amount of money we received this year in Annapolis thanks in great part to their efforts.”[1]
Moreover, youth photographers have a unique “insider” perspective and, in most cases, first hand experience with some issues that other photographers who are not from their communities and who do not share their experiences would be less well equipped to document. In D.C., formerly homeless youth took photographs and developed testimony about the need for more funding to address youth homelessness. Due in part to the student testimony, members of the City Council publicly committed to allocating $4 million to youth services. Jim Hubbard, another leading figure in the field of youth photography programs and the founder of Shooting Back Education and Media Center in Washington, D.C., says that the homeless youth with whom he worked in D.C. in the 1980s capture moments impossible for an outsider to have ever perceived or experienced (Shooting Back, 5) [2]. There is no one better to document pressing issues than the youth who are most affected.
In addition, the intimate access that our youth have with the subjects they have chosen to document lends a weight and power to their images that would be harder to achieve for an outsider photographing the same issue. Instead of being passive subjects within a photograph, these youth are instead active participants in documenting issues that are important to their lives and learning to present them to policy makers.
Relevance: Photography as the Most Democratic Art Form
Wendy Ewald, a veteran photographer and teacher, writes in her book I Wanna Take Me a Picture, “Photography is perhaps the most democratic visual art of our time” [3]. The democratic nature of photography is especially true in regards to the accessibility of the medium. Photography is often more portable, versatile and accessible to youth than some other media forms. Moreover, it is not necessary to purchase expensive equipment to conduct photography projects. Instead, photography has become more accessible due to the ubiquity of small digital cameras, disposable cameras and, especially, camera phones.
The widespread availability of these options also means that many of our students are familiar with taking photographs of their friends, families, birthdays, and other events. This familiarity with taking pictures means that many students have, at the very least, a basic foundation of photography on which youth media educators can build. Once the basics of composition, framing, point of view and lighting and documentary photography are introduced, the road is paved for a smooth transition from photographing friends and family to documenting more serious issues.
At the same time, Ewald continues, “Photography offers a language that can draw on the imagination in a way we never have thought possible before”[4]. Photography can be used as an outlet for visual creativity and documentary storytelling, and as a building block for developing literacy and writing skills.
One of my students from the past year, a 20-year-old who has dropped out of school multiple times, created a pair of compelling images to tell a story: a dark, moody, black-and-white photo of seven liquor bottles on a windowsill in the shape of a half moon, alongside a photograph of a beloved brother in a vibrant, red graduation gown. The first photograph, says the photographer, “represents my pain and life struggles,” and the second “represents my brother in a way that words can’t.”
Suggestions for the Field
Youth photography projects provide a wonderful opportunity to make a mental shift from thinking about photography as fine art to using it as a tool for visual creativity, documentary skills, literacy and writing development, youth empowerment, social advocacy and policy change. I have always believed in the power of the still photograph to affect public opinion and, at times, instigate calls for social and policy change; I would not have worked as a student photojournalist and photo editor at my university’s newspaper for three years if I was not entirely convinced of the power of this particular medium.
Since making the switch from photographer to teacher, I have become convinced of something else: that youth photography programs are very effective at achieving change on an individual, community and statewide level. Instead of my students being the passive subjects of a professional photographer’s story, they have the opportunity to take ownership over serious issues that affect their schools and communities, and take the initiative in using their vision and photographs to advocate for policy change.
Though some may consider photography a more traditional medium than some of the new technology and forms of media, it offers certain advantages including accessibility, versatility, portability, cost and time. Photography is a great way to amplify youth voice and has many different formats and ways it can be used. Photography can be used to create traveling exhibits displayed in coffee shops, restaurants, schools and other venues, signs for protests or marches, YouTube videos, postcards to send to legislators, bus station posters, briefing books for policymakers, t-shirts, or even billboards.
Youth media practitioners should consider including photography as a component of their media projects. Photography can strengthen print and film/video programs, helping young people process what story they want to tell and how to get their message across. As a tool easily shared with others and linked between the visual and media arts, photography ought not to remain on the outskirts of the youth media field.
Emma is from Brooklyn, NY and is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she was a photographer and photo editor for The Michigan Daily. She currently resides in Washington, D.C., and works for Critical Exposure, teaching photography and social advocacy to middle and high school students in the D.C. public school system.
[1] There was a $100 million increase in funding for school facilities in Maryland, and a doubling of school funding in Baltimore City from $21 million to $40 million.
[2] Hubbard, Jim, comp. (1991). Shooting Back. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, p. 5.
[3] Ewald, W. Lightfoot, A. (2001). I Wanna Take Me a Picture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, p.14. Wendy Ewald started Literacy Through Photography, a project based at the Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC, that encourages students to express themselves through photography and writing. LIT also runs workshops for educators and artists to train them to teach photography and writing using the LIT model. Critical Exposure’s co-founders and co-directors, Adam Levner and Heather Rieman, both participated in Literacy Through Photography workshops.
[4] Ewald, Lightfoot, p.14.
Ewald, W. Lightfoot, A. (2001). I Wanna Take Me a Picture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Hubbard, J., comp. (1991). Shooting back. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Levner, A. (2007) The Most Valuable Resources for Equity and Excellence: Students, Voices in Urban Education.