By JON COX
Students from the Ada Jenkins Center and Barium Springs Home for Children showed off their photos to an appreciative crowd at Davidson College’s Belk Visual Arts Center at Thursday night’s YouthMAP Spring Gala. The Gala, the second in YouthMAP’s short but successful history, is the climax of a four-month mentoring program that aims to empower disadvantaged students through photography.
For many of these students, who ranged in age from 12 to 17, it was the first opportunity to show how much they had learned about photography in four months.
Since January, students from Barium Springs and Ada Jenkins have been paired with a mentor from Davidson College recruited by YouthMAP (Youth Marketing and Photography). These mentors teach their mentees to create art with DSLR cameras, which to uninitiated students look like intimidating black boxes. Over the course of a few weekly sessions and field trips, students learn the basics of composition, lighting, and storytelling.
The resulting photos on display in the arts center, whether of a light dusting of snow on top of a basketball or a swing-set silhouetted against a cloudy sky, are undeniably beautiful.
No one at the Gala was more surprised by the quality of the photos than the photographers themselves.
“I played sports. I didn’t take pictures,” said Carlos, a high school sophomore from Barium Springs. After being impressed by a photographer at a Davidson football game, Carlos decided to sign up for YouthMAP’s very first session. He’s continued to come every week for two semesters, and has become an advocate for the program, encouraging his friends to like it on Facebook.
Though he began the program with the firm opinion that photography was “kind of lame,” he’s come to see his love of sports and his love of photography as complimentary. “Now I would know how to set up a camera to film myself playing basketball,” he said.
Some students, less enthusiastic about the aesthetic side of photography, took the “marketing” part of the YouthMAP acronym to heart, pitching their photos for sale to passersby. “$25 is the limit,” bemoaned 12-year-old Demetrius, after trying to persuade me to buy his photo of a giraffe.
By the end of the evening he proudly told YouthMAP cofounder, sophomore Max Feinstein, that he had a buyer for his giraffe photo, the proceeds from the sale to be split between Ada Jenkins, Barium, and YouthMAP.
Feinstein co-founded YouthMAP with Davidson sophomore Aly Dove in the spring of 2013. They met under unusual circumstances for the co-founders of a non-profit: “We were homeless buddies for 48 hours in Washington, D.C.” said Feinstein, referring to the “Urban Plunge” alternative spring break sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement.
While living on the below-freezing streets of D.C. in February, Feinstein and Dove visited an arts and crafts center that sold the handiwork of local homeless artists. “You would see women who had terrible, terrible circumstances, but were able to transcend that through art,” Feinstein said.
He was inspired to attempt something similar in Charlotte. With his passion for empowerment through art, and Dove’s experience teaching children the basics of photography during mission trips to Nicaragua, they had the kernel of the idea that became YouthMAP.
After winning the first-place prize of $2,000 at the 2013 Ideas of March campaign (sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement), and with support from community organizations, Dove and Feinstein were able to purchase digital cameras and begin teaching basic photography to children at Barium. The program started with just six students, but has since expanded to include students in the Ada Jenkins LEARNWORKS program.
Now that they have snagged the second place prize and the audience choice award in this year’s Ideas of March (a net grant of $4,500), Dove and Feinstein hope to expand the program into partnerships with universities in Charlotte, and purchase more cameras.
YouthMAP has continued to evolve in other ways. Sophomore Scott Cunningham, who joined during the fall semester and has since become a co-executive and a driving force in the organization, has tried to bring more social consciousness to the students’ work. “I hope to create a stronger sense of engagement between the kids and their community,” he said.
This new point of view inspired a series of field trips to local non-profits this semester, including Lazy Five Ranch and the sustainable market So Much Good.
Talking about the partnership with local non-profits, Dove was quick to point out that YouthMAP is about more than the photography. “A lot of the point—it’s centered around photography, but photography is the tool for [the students] to establish these relationships with community members.”
For the aspiring basketball professional Carlos, the relationships formed through his experience with YouthMAP went deeper than the local community. Cunningham described a conversation he overheard between Carlos and a group admiring his photos.
“He took some of his photographs home, that we printed out for him, and he showed them to his parents, who he hadn’t seen in a while. He talked about how they looked through his photographs and they started to cry, and his grandmother started crying and his brother started crying.
“I was standing next to him, hearing this story that he was telling strangers looking at his photographs.
“It was just a very moving moment for me to see the power behind his pictures. And the ability of them to bridge connections between him and his family and between these complete strangers, and the sort of confidence I think and I hope it kind of gave him.”
See more about YouthMAP and examples of students’ work at youthmapnation.com
EDITOR’S NOTE: One photograph from this article has been deleted at the request of Barium Springs Home for Children and event organizers.