At Bellaire High School, in fall 2020, photographer and educator Rebecca Kiger had her students list questions for themselves that would become the basis for their personal photography projects.
Jessica Rosen, a junior at the Ohio school, wrote: “Do you want to grow up the way you were raised?”
She ended up making a book of pictures of her family, which “is about how everything is different now than when I was younger.”
For the past year, students around the country have adapted to remote classes, but not every student has been encouraged to process their emotions within the “new normal.” But that’s exactly what 19 students from four youth photography classes around the country did. While learning photographic technical skills, they were also encouraged to focus on personal projects, prompts and missions in order to cope with their current lives.
Giving students the space to explore their feelings within the pandemic can be credited to the environment created by their teachers.
Oluwaseyi Akintoroye, age 18/The Remote Ally Project, Detroit, Michigan
“I feel like I’m safe with all of those people,” Jessica Rosen said about Kiger’s class.
Some of these students’ first encounters learning photography began via a Zoom room in the midst of the pandemic. All were taught by professional photographers navigating teaching spaces and freelance work.
In Detroit, the Remote Ally Project — led by photographers Khary Mason and Romain Blanquart of Capturing Belief and Erik Paul Howard of Inside Southwest Detroit — began in March 2020 to create a platform for youth “to process what they were going through after being forced into isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Blanquart said they are first and foremost a mentoring program “that uses photography as a tool to engage young people.” Mason added that he “wants the students to understand that no matter what they do in life, they have to mentor someone”.
“Visual literacy is so important. It is it’s own intelligence.” Howard said. “And I think that mentoring plays an especially important role in developing that visual literacy.”
Photographer Abigail Harrison leads the West Slope Photojournalism Workshop at Paonia High School. While learning the ins and outs of the camera, Harrison also guides her students through ethical questions: “How are we good listeners? How do we take in a scene without disturbing it? How do we acknowledge that we change everything that we touch?”
Paonia High School student Apollo Rodriguez acknowledges the different cultures and opinions that permeate the town.
“[Paonia] is a meld of so many opposing and sometimes conflicting people, but it still is an evermoving and working area,” Rodriguez said. “I think most places are that way, and everywhere is unique, Paonia especially. Through photography I think that I have had an easier time expressing the culture and showing the people at my school on a level that you couldn’t get through just a description.”
Kage Coxwell found photography to be an opportunity to explore the space he already inhabits.
“Spending time with [my] family on the ranch is a great feeling that never really goes away for some of us. Every year, more and more family ranches get bought up by big corporations and that is heartbreaking to me. The more ranches that become corporate the fewer families that get to teach generations and generations about what ranch life was like in their day.”
In Kettering, Ohio, outside of Dayton, photographer Amy Lynn Powell teaches Photo I, II and College Credit Plus courses at Kettering Fairmont High School. Powell’s motto is: “This is art class. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.”
She says, “As an art teacher I don’t want to add to the pandemic stress that students are currently facing.”
Powell’s photography classes were remote. Until in-person class resumed, she taught via Zoom and her students elected to keep their cameras off during class.
“Until they opened [in January] they weren’t required to turn on their Zoom cameras so I essentially [didn’t] know these kids. I hope I had a good impact on them. It was tough on me and I think tough on them,” Powell said.
“Our district has just been really most concerned about the mental health and well-being of our students not whether they learned everything they were supposed to learn this year,” she said.
Powell said she gave her students her home address so they could pick up the point-and-shoot cameras to complete their projects.
“They came and got them off my porch. Some of them picked them up from school. And a couple kids who couldn’t get them, I would just drop them off to wherever they live,” Powell explained.
“I really thought it was important to give them a hands-on experience, because they were having so much screen time, being on their computers, and I didn’t want them to only be photographing with their cellphones. I’m very lucky to work in a school district that will support those kinds of things,” she said.
In Appalachia, through The Rural Arts Collaborative and the Ohio Arts Council, photographer Rebecca Kiger teaches at Bellaire High School, bordering Ohio and West Virginia. This year the students’ zine documents their experiences through the pandemic.
This is where Jessica Rosen began her question-based personal photography project.
The question that sparked Maddie Beckett’s personal project is, “Where do chemical imbalances come from and how do only certain people get them?”
“I still don’t know why it happens,” Maddie said. “In my experience with it, it kind of sucks and along with a lot of other people I wish there was a real cure. I’m learning how to look at it from a different way. I feel like I haven’t learned that much about chemical imbalances because it’s something a doctor would have to explain, but I feel like photography is a way to look at it from a different perspective and understand it more yourself.”
Jessica Rosen found that she doesn’t take the “same pictures as I used to. I could look at everything in my room right now, but if I pull out a camera, I can make it look so much different than what it looks like right now. The lighting changes everything. You could take pictures of anything and it could turn out in a beautiful way if you do it correctly.”
The pandemic, through the eyes of American youth
Through the efforts of these four initiatives and others like them, “the whole pandemic was essentially documented by kids’ eyes,” student Stephanie Ruiz, of the Remote Ally Project, told Inside Southwest Detroit in November 2020.
At first, Rahmyza Muhammad had her doubts about joining the project. “I thought it would be boring to be taking pictures in our own homes. I thought, who would want to see pictures of what I see every day?” she said.
“But after doing the first [photography] prompt, I thought of how fun this could actually be and I also learned you can connect remotely as if you were in person.”
Tanis Brock at Kettering Fairmont High School agreed with Muhammad.
“Pretty much everything I know about photography I learned in Ms. Powell’s class. In class we learned about the history of photography, some editing techniques, and even had a chance to explore using an instant black-and-white film camera,” Brock said.
Faith Frazier of Paonia, Colo., used photography to see deeper into her community.
“While our county was on stay-at-home order, everything felt off. I remember driving down Grand Avenue and it being virtually empty. Everything felt far too quiet. Even in the pandemic, however, the community still found ways to support one another,” Frazier said. “People brought their instruments out into their front yards, often playing together. I remember that at 8 every night, everyone would go outside and howl or make a lot of noise.”
“Photography is really important, and it really does affect all aspects of your life,” Oluwaseyi Akintoroye, of The Remote Ally Project, said when asked what she wants people to know about photography.
“When I just got into it in fifth grade, I really didn’t expect it to influence my life so much. I’d say it’s a great thing for young people to get into.”