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.

Turning the Lens toward Community

Traveling across the world to teach any form of media arts to youth requires a willingness to rethink what we already know about the processes of teaching and learning. What is perhaps more important than developing a curriculum is our willingness to incorporate into our classrooms the values that govern the social environment in which our students live.
When I lived in Ghana, West Africa teaching Junior High English, I became friends with a local photographer named Godwin Yao Azameti. We discussed the idea of teaching children photography as a way of combating what Godwin termed the “Western cultural tsunami,” a powerful wave that not only drowns indigenous perspectives in Ghana, but also shapes the way youth value their own culture. How have those shiny and impossible images beamed worldwide in the form of western magazines, movies and TV affected the way Ghanaian youth see themselves in relation to the outside world? What does it mean for their generation that even representations of their own culture in mass media have largely been shaped by the words and lenses of foreign visitors?
Godwin and I decided that the first step in reinstating an indigenous approach to media making was for youth to own and understand cameras—”foreign” instruments that had historically been used by visitors or researchers to document “cultural” phenomenon. Understanding the process of creating permanent images—the choices and consequences of capturing and reproducing information—could help students develop a sense of subjectivity in the midst of the great “wave.” Our hope was that an opportunity to redirect the lens would encourage them to seek out and emulate the values of their own communities.
Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program
Thus began the Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program, a series of afterschool photography workshops at the Gina International School, in which we encouraged Ghanaian youth to reflect on their communities. At first, we opened the program to only five of my most serious academic students in junior high English at Gina International. The intimacy of this group was beneficial in the early stages, but more importantly it reinforced the values of the school by rewarding those who worked hard, motivating others to follow.
In the first few classes, we talked mainly about the technical aspects of our cameras; essentially, how does this machine work? How do I hold it? What is happening inside? We looked at pictures from the local newspaper, foreign magazines, and even pictures taken by other children around the world. We listed all the objects within the frame and all the objects we imagined were outside the frame. Then we cut squares out of paper and practiced making smaller pictures by reframing existing ones. We talked about how the image in the viewfinder changed depending where we stood. The idea was to help the students see that each photograph constituted a series of choices.
For all the students, this was their first time holding a camera, a machine that had until now been used to take pictures of things out of their grasp—New York skyscrapers (buildings that actually touched the sun), Arnold Schwarzenegger (the most powerful man on earth), and Kwame Nkrumah (The champion of Ghana’s independence). But these were all objects from a world to which they did not belong—famous and impossible things.
The idea was to first demystify photography as a phenomenon. As a Ghanaian, Godwin had a unique way of communicating with the students and helped reinforce the idea that photography was something that could belong to them. After all, Godwin explained, photographs were how he made his living.
I knew as their English teacher that for these students there were right and wrong answers to every question. The trick to school, they had learned, was discovering the right answer, memorizing it, and being prepared at all times to deliver the information on cue. Often this included chanting in unison as a class.
For this reason, my creative writing assignments had worried them. I was encouraging them to say something different and unique from one another. Creativity was dangerous, for it left them exposed. For instance, I’d asked them to write about a dream and later to describe someone they admired. They found these exercises challenging, for what is the most interesting and relevant dream to have had and what are the four most appropriate reasons to admire one’s older sister? These rules had yet to be defined and memorized. Godwin and I recognized that there were rules concerning photography in Ghana too.
Approaches to Youth Photography in Ghana
First of all, a camera was a strange object for a child to carry around, unless he or she was on his way to deliver it to someone older. Many parents would have never owned a camera themselves and would be wondering how their child could have become qualified to undertake such an adult, if not foreign, task. For this reason, I sensed my students were hesitant to take on this responsibility and were relieved to hear that our first week’s assignment was to take portraits of family members to be presented as gifts. This was an important first assignment because it began the process of establishing trust with the students’ families—a very important step to teaching photography and youth media in Ghana.
Most of the student’s early rolls of film were of household chores—cooking, cleaning, bathing their younger siblings and putting them to bed, and studying their daily lessons. While younger siblings proved ever-loyal subjects, after a few rolls of shots in the confines of their own rooms, we began encouraging our students to venture out into their larger communities, though not without warning.
According to the custom of their culture, an elder member of the community could call a younger child and question him/her about his camera, even confiscate it if the elder felt that the child was behaving disrespectfully. And what is more disrespectful then taking a picture of someone without asking permission? Still, we wanted the students to take photographs that truly captured the vibrancy of their environment. Thus, in those early classes, we practiced both hiding the cameras in the torn seams of school uniforms and asking permission to snap a photograph.
In the next few months, we allowed more students to join the class. The understanding was that hard work and good behavior were the ticket to get in and would have to be redeemed weekly. The school was pleased about this policy, and my students seemed to work harder. I asked the first group of five to teach the next group what they had learned.
Peer to Peer Training
Peer-to-peer training became a staple in our workshops and allowed students to process what they had learned. For example, after a few weeks of shooting, the experienced students could explain in their own words what “capture” and “portray” were supposed to mean. This greatly enhanced the experience of new students in the class because photography immediately appeared to be something that they too would be able to grasp.
More experienced students proudly warned new students about amateur mistakes they’d made, like forgetting the flash in the dark or allowing a finger to block the lens. Godwin and I urged the students to return to this idea of each photograph consisting of a series of choices. In these classroom discussions, the students were able to see the ways in which their photographs affected their peers, and relate this to their choices in setting up a shot. We urged them to notice which questions their images answered or left unanswered, the elements they found undesirable or beautiful in each other’s work, and most importantly, the aspects of their shared existence that they had all chosen to represent in their work—the values they shared as 11 and 12-year-old Ghanaian children.
Capturing Culture through Writing and Photography
In many ways, learning photography was for these students—like learning English—a process of internalizing a second language. Their assignment in both mediums (written and visual) was to capture and portray their immediate environment—their community. While a novice in any language may be able to instantly convey basic ideas, they will often create garbled and meaningless sounds (a finger over the lens) or accidentally convey the opposite of their intended meaning (the subject’s smiling face appears as a grimace in low light).
Bringing the photographs into our English classroom enhanced our students’ skills in both media, while enabling them to express a more holistic perspective of their environment. In my English class, we suddenly had amazing visual tools to work with. Simply describing the events that took place before, during, or after the time a photograph was snapped became page-long essays. While the people and events depicted in these photographs were obviously important to the students, what they seemed to value even more was the opportunity to explain an image that might otherwise generate a rumor or embarrass someone—something not taken lightly in this close-knit community.
For example, Bushiratu Abubakar, one of the braver and more curious photographers who had snuck through her house to snap her father asleep in his bed, was quick to explain in her essay that her father was a hard-working man and only slept so deeply after a full day working to support his family. In fact, she was so eager to disprove any semblance of laziness portrayed in the photograph that the next week she did a series of portraits of her father in the same bedroom drinking his early morning tea and reading the newspaper, which she titled, “Lost Time is Never Found.” Mr. Abubakar, for his part, would become a willing and dramatic subject in many of Bushiratu’s photo essays because, I believe, he trusted his daughter’s motives for snapping his picture. Seeing Bushiratu’s pictures, the other students also began to construct and direct scenes.
Theophilus Ansah photographed himself with his friends in various poses with his uncle’s mobile phone. It was here that we asked the students to consider the question of truth telling and encouraged them to seek out examples of media that might convey a false truth. For instance, if a well-dressed man is standing next to a new car, should we assume he is wealthy? How easy is it to wear another man’s clothes or borrow an object for a photograph? What are some scenes from films that might not be real and how might a photographer have used a camera to create an illusion? These were questions we hoped our students would be brave enough to ask of Arnold’s Terminator.
As our English assignments often mirrored the photographs, the photo assignments began to compliment the essays. One assignment was to interview an elder in the family to learn proverbs or wise sayings. In their essays, the students tried to explain what these proverbs meant. In our photography class, we thought of ways to represent these proverbs using still images.
After the rolls of film came back, the students wrote second drafts to their essays, using the photographs they created to elaborate on the themes. Since our students were mostly girls, most of the proverbs they heard from their elders were about charity and chastity, though many touched on greed, forgiveness, respect for one’s elders, and even the inevitability of death. While the act of writing down one’s parents’ rules might not have appealed to junior high school students in the U.S., our students seemed to love this assignment most of all. As a class, it enabled them to represent the rules of their culture, the values they shared as Ghanaians. As individuals, it allowed them to honor and respect their families by displaying in a more public way the extent to which they had been raised well.
While the students treated their photographs like collectors’ items—hiding them in their textbooks, under mattresses, and in back pockets—what impressed me most was their willingness to give them away to family and friends. In this spirit, in January 2006, with the support of the school community and the blessing of the students’ families, Godwin and I organized an exhibition of the students’ photos and writing at the University of Ghana. The event, like the images themselves, was a celebration of the school community. It became a forum for parents, teachers and visitors to praise the students’ creations. It was in many ways the most essential aspect of our program for it helped the students grasp the greater impact of their work and assured them that what they had created now truly belonged to them as well as their community.
Best Practices to Teaching Youth Media Globally (and locally as well)
Gain the trust within your community and include them throughout
• Learn people’s names and how to greet people in the local language as well as gain familiarity with cultural customs and taboos. Getting a sense of culture and language will better situate a youth media educator in a foreign country to teach and implement a media program.
• Ask permission from parents to conduct a media arts workshop. One way of sustaining a trusting dynamic with parents and the community is to have students involve their families in assignments early on. For example, taking family portraits or “day in the life of” shots work well.
• Generate opportunities for families to see their children’s work on display and offer feedback. Having a culminating exhibition was powerful for the photographers, their families, and their community.
Incorporate cultural customs into classroom
• Assign students to write about or demonstrate the rules of their society as they pertain to expectations of youth. Such assignments serve as a guide for young people to examine their own interpretation of culture, social rules, and identity.
• Create rules for your own class that incorporate or parallel these customs. For example, even having access to the photography class required young people to work hard and have good standing with the school and local community.
Collaborate with local media makers
• Include members of community in the teaching and curriculum building process. For example, my relationship with Godwin helped create and launch the program. Additional collaborations helped organize the culminating exhibition of our students’ work.
Incorporate Peer-to-Peer Training
• Allow experienced students to teach new students and incorporate the language and teaching methods they use with your own teaching. This was extremely effective in my classes in Ghana, where experienced students could explain and teach photography, expressing their interpretations and lessons learned to their peers. Educators ought to observe and learn from youth as they lead and interpret/share information.
Combine media
• Encourage students to act out, write about, or discuss their own photographs as well as each other’s work. Writing a story alongside a photograph engaged Ghanaian youth to represent their perspective, their choice of story, and their community—a task that was unfamiliar to youth who are often taught to memorize and recite as opposed to create and analyze.
There is much to be learned from teaching youth media globally. Our most important challenge is to alter our existing pedagogical approaches to meet the needs of the communities in which we work. As educators, we need to encourage youth to own and represent their cultural identity rather than passively embracing western conceptions of identity, which affect youth around the globe.
Our success as facilitators is dependent on our ability to provide young people with the tools they need to explore and our willingness to follow their lead. This will allow youth media makers to work within the value system of their own communities to produce media that they and their families can be proud of.
In the Zongo Junction Youth Photo Program, our students turned the camera lens toward their community, a space beyond the reaches of the Tsunami in which to explore their identities.
Sam Bathrick is the Co-founder of Deviwo Projects, a collective of media makers and educators who seek to enable Ghanaian youth with the skills to document, preserve and re-invent their own culture. A native of Atlanta, Bathrick lives in New York City and aspires as a writer, teacher, and musician.

Explorers of Exchange: Girls Traverse the Digital Divide

We live in a digital age where it is assumed that all young people—a generation targeted to consume and use media—have access to media and media making. From cell phones to iPods, MySpace and YouTube, young people seem to have multiple ways to communicate with one another and express themselves freely.
For example, a recent Yahoo! News article describes a technological utopia in which the rosy-cheeked youth of the world pirouette from social networking websites to digital file sharing in a global dance of communicative bliss. According to Yahoo! “The My Media Generation is the first to fully leverage the freedoms that new technology has provided, and they are putting it into practice in all aspects of their lives.” It’s no news to youth media educators that this vision appears only to those whose eyes are already accustomed to gazing at monitors glowing with the limitless promise of the Internet. However, the reality of globalization and communication technologies is a digital divide between those who have access to information and resources, and those who don’t. This clear digital divide in the United States also exists in communities around the world, where access to media and technology access hinges on an imbalance of gender, race, and class.
Building Access on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City
The Lower East Side (LES) Girls Club was founded in response to a grave discrepancy in access based on gender, race, and class in our own neighborhood—the Lower East Side of New York City. Founded in 1996, we sought to address the egregious disparity in programs for youth in the community, particularly for young women of color from low-income backgrounds (there were three “boys-only” clubs in the neighborhood at that time and no comparable programs for girls).
One of the first programs offered was photography because of its power to capture an individual perspective and share this viewpoint with others. Initially darkroom-based, we quickly turned digital and, by the end of 1999, our students were exhibiting their own “day in their life” work at museums and galleries throughout the city. Our “digital diaries” approach was born.
This approach works by connecting young women with technologies to examine, document, and display their lives and communities, providing them with a safe, all-female space in which to do so. Each girl who joins the Girls Club takes a quick, one-on-one, “Tech 101” class that gets her up to speed on blogging, pod casting, creating quick-time movies and slide shows, zipping around on Google Earth, exploring Second Life, and more. Using technology education, we encourage girls to become part of the digital age.
Girls need safe spaces to explore technology and be part of the digital landscape, particularly when mainstream media pressure young women to remain absent from such landscapes. Advertisements, mainstream films, television, and even institutions perpetuate gender-coded messages that can make girls feel objectified and voiceless, valuing appearance over skill or action. We seek to increase girls’ confidence in using technology by placing cameras in their hands and paying attention to their stories.
This attentiveness encourages young women to speak, to share, and observe the world in which they live in, starting in the Lower East Side. But we quickly realized that low-income young women of color needed to be part of a global dialogue—and what better way to do so but with other young girls from a different country. The LES Girls Club embraces and values perspectives of the “other”––new people, new experiences, new ideas, and new environments––while using photography and digital media to cultivate a critical gaze in local and global communities.
Village Voices/Virtual Journey
The notion of cultural exchange has been integral to the LES Girls Club from the start. As an anthropologist, I have been working in Mexico for over 25 years, where I met the director of the Indigenous Photography Archive in San Cristobal and realized the similarities of our goals. The Archivo was training young indigenous photographers to document their communities using disposable and 35 mm cameras, technologies that, like the LES girls, these young women would otherwise not have accessed. The meeting was both logical and organic and took place at a time when our needs coincided. As a result, the opportunity to initiate the Village Voices/Virtual Journey project presented itself.
The Village Voices/Virtual Journey thus began as a collaborative project between the LES Girls Club and young women from the Indigenous Photography Archives in Chiapas, Mexico. The project (2000-05) built a working relationship between our organizations and entailed, among other things, LES girls introducing digital technology to young women in the Chiapas program. In addition to creating this technological exchange, the first four years of the program also included two exchange trips, with LES high school girls going to Chiapas and young Mayan women coming to New York City. These four trips were complemented by exhibitions of the visiting girls’ photography of their experiences in the host city and a published photography book combining both their projects. These exhibits and the book documenting the lives of teens in New York and Chiapas are only the by-products of what has been an ongoing lesson in global exchange and girls’ empowerment.
This partnership has resulted in the founding of a sister girls club in Chiapas run by our Mayan photography partners (described below) and a blogging site called “Girlville.” Like all cultural exchanges, one’s impression of the “other” hinges on which “others” one meets, and what access beyond the standard tourist experience one has. In this case, access was extraordinary for both groups of young people. Because the project unfolded over time, it fostered rich dialogue as the young girls, linked by a digital global platform, grew into and out of adolescence.
Girls Documenting Shared Culture
The sustained combination of photography, travel, and conversations revealed powerful similarities among the young women of Chiapas and the LES Girls Club. The process of documenting cultural differences, even the obvious and superficial, quite literally generated an expanded collective vision of the world.
Key to the collaboration was that each group had the experience of being both a visitor and a host. This allowed us to observe significant similarities in our own communities regarding, for example, gentrification and globalization—that we come from places where we, the indigenous (or marginalized) cultures, are the subjects of outsiders’ gazes. In Chiapas, buses daily bring tourists into town squares and markets viewing the way of life of the “native,” which tourism has greatly affected. On the Lower East Side, patrons stare from the security of new and expensive bistros and bars, or gaze down from double-decker buses at poor girls of color, often unreflecting about the changes that have challenged our communities and neighborhoods.
Since the publication of our co-produced photography book in 2006, our relationship has continued to deepen. When we returned to Chiapas with copies of the book, the Mayan women said “We want to continue working with the Girls Club.” In fact, they envisioned creating their own girls club based on our program to engage young women in environmental, ethical, and entrepreneurial projects with a strong digital and technological skills component.
After continued collaboration and fund development, there is now a thriving young girl’s club—Club Balam or “the little jaguars”—in San Cristobal de las Casas. This group meets every Saturday at Na Bolom, a prestigious research center that acts as the sponsoring cultural institution. Participants go out on digital photography trips and post photos and blog entries to the website, Girlville, shared with our LES girls, who then respond in kind. Thus, the partnership continues on the web.
Exchange and Technology for Young Women
For youth media organizations or efforts interested in global projects, international exchange is crucial. The Girls Club introduced young, marginalized women face to face with one another, using photography as a starting point for continued communication and sharing of perspectives. This exchange provided fertile ground for exciting collaboration that continues on the web, extending the girls interaction with technology.
As the LES experience makes clear, digital technology can serve as a powerful vehicle fostering discussion and growth. Just as the young women of the Village Voices/Virtual Journey were able to see their shared experiences with gentrification and globalization in their photographs, any young person making media—photography video, music, or radio—can use technology to bridge real or perceived differences. What greatly enhanced the Village Voices/Virtual Journeys collaboration was that each organization was able to travel and meet the other and to witness first-hand their shared circumstances in terms of poverty, race, and gender.
We must continuously challenge the role of women by becoming independent actors in our own cultures—and it may just start with the click of a camera. It is critical for young women to engage in digital media and technology, for these technologies are part of the new global experience. With them, young women can become 21st century explorers, with cameras and computers, participating in shared ethnography of their own, and others,’ experiences.
Lyn Pentecost is the Director of the Lower East Side Girls Club in NYC and is currently leading the Lower Eastside Girls Club Capital Project to build the first all ‘green’ state-of-the-art Girls Club and Center for Community in New York City. The center will allow the Lower Eastside Girls Club to greatly expand their innovative digital arts programs: film, photography, podcasting, physical computing and interactive telecommunications- while also offering computer training and free wireless service to the surrounding community. For over a decade, Pentecost was an adjunct professor of “Ethnographic Film Theory” at City College and developed and taught courses in “Teen Culture in Urban America” and “Urban Schools in Crisis” for the Metropolitan Studies Program at New York University.