When I saw the work of photographer “Fiddle Oak” last month, I was so blown away by the level of maturity, boldness, and confidence exuded from his images. He’s 14, people! And according to the story, he’s been creating shooting and manipulating the work since he was 8.
It’s had me thinking about my own journey and how I have finally, at a much later age than 14, found my boldness. My own empowerment through my images and stories. And though I have the resources to help me achieve what I want to say, my internal issues…my insecurities are not that different than some of those just starting their young adult journeys. While the 14-year-old prodigies come along, the rest of us need to find each other and do what it takes to encourage our stories.
Here in Seattle, we’re fortunate to have an organization that dedicates their efforts in doing just that: Youth in Focus. Their mission is to “empower urban youth, through photography, to experience their world in new ways, and to make positive choices in their lives.”
Youth in Focus was founded in 1994 by Walter Bodle with the philosophy that “what makes a difference in a child’s life is an adult that cares.” A sentiment strongly shared by the current Executive Director, Trina Gadsden.
A photographer herself, Trina is about to celebrate her first year with the organization. What I found most fascinating about her was her own journey leading her to this job. A journey that included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and many life-affirming trips to Africa. She is perfect to be heading up an organization dedicated to inspiring and empowering young people.
Trina is an authentic explorer who wants to encourage and foster that frame of mind in the youth she serves. She is a big picture thinker. “Everyone who walks in here is accepted for who they are and not labeled in any way. There is something unique about this kind of community environment, and then you surround the students with great adults – teachers, and give them cameras.”
“It’s not necessarily that they tell their stories, though most do, but that there is a space around them of having this new empowerment, that if they choose they to they can, or maybe they just take pictures of their friends – but that also is a way for them to connect in a different way.”
“We have two dark rooms and one digital lab. There is that experience of having a tray, and a white piece of paper, and chemicals, and all of a sudden your image shows up – it’s an incredible feeling of hey, nicely done! It’s theirs. It’s really amazing to watch. And to a certain extent, it happens in the digital lab as well.”
Students come to Youth in Focus in a variety of ways, but many come because their friends have attended. There is an application and interview process. Each class is limited to 11 students with one teaching artist and several adult volunteer mentors. The program is free to the student.
As Trina explained; “Our annual budget is just under $400,000 and we estimate cost per student a little less than $1,400 – it varies depending on if we can get funding for Partner Programs, or not – between core classes and partner programs we usually serve 250-300 students a year.”
I met with one of their long time teaching artists Zorn B. Taylor. Before coming to Youth in Focus, Zorn was a social worker, but had always wanted to learn photography on a more advanced level. He came into possession of a Canon 35mm and a friend of his, (a program director at Youth in Focus at the time), became his mentor and taught him. Like Trina, he eventually left his job and went back to school – for photography. He eventually came to work here.
“I truly love to teach. To pass along what I know. I got here and I haven’t looked back. I get something out of this every day.”
I asked him if this program really does changes lives. “First off, photography is about telling stories. It’s a visual medium that’s easy to tell a story that maybe you can’t talk about. For example, I taught an advance digital class and our theme was The Pursuit of Happiness. There was this shy, young man who shot all these photos of his dad who was dealing with cancer and treatments. When his parents came to the closing show, they were so astonished by the photos. They said that they didn’t even know that that was what he was feeling. It was remarkable.”
Zorn also went on to say that he tells his students “your job is not to just take pictures, your job is to solve problems visually. The picture is the end result. Photography is a process. To problem solve and think through the process.”
The day that I was there, I was so impressed by not only the space, but also the professionalism of the environment. The students were preparing for their end of session show. Some were in the digital lab editing their assignments. Some were preparing to frame their work. A larger group was working together to create the display wall.
Everyone was focused on the task at hand. I asked one student about the work that she was framing. She had photographed her mother and sister. She explained to me how she coordinated the shoots and her subjects in order to capture the vision in her head. The level of skill exhibited in those two photographs (and her framing ability) belied her age – 15.
Youth in Focus has been recognized as a model program by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, for providing “life-changing activities” to youth.
About the author: Tiffany Diamond is a freelance photographer based in the Pacific Northwest. She specializes in portrait, lifestyle, event, and documentary photography. Visit her website here.