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Photo Workshop For Shelter Clients Shows And Tells It Like It Is...

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Two photography workshops for clients of the Shelter- one for men and onefor women- were held in June andjuly. Over the course of two weeks, the participants learned to use medium-format cameras and joined in discussion groups. Funded by the Washtenaw Council for the Arts, the project has been widely welcomed by theAnn Arborcommunity as an inspiring thought-provoking project that says as much about homelessness as it does about the society in which it exists. After a quick lesson to master the basics of these plastic cameras, our group of eight students and four instructors perked up as we headed for the sidewalks to take pictures. Clomping down Washington Street, cameras in hand, we stared up at a shadowy fire escape cross-hatching the sunset against beige brick. We were all looking at the world around us with new, wiser eyes. And the world was looking back. Car windows at the traffic light started rolling down, curious faces braving 90-degree heat to ask, "What's going on?" At first, I worried this attention would make the workshop participants nervous; after all, - - they usually spent their days trying the best they could not to be noticed. At night, most checked into the Shelter Association's Huron House for homeless men. They all knew the stigma that citle "homeless" implied. They dealt with it by camouflage, never feeling quite at ease on these streets that the rest of us moved through without thought. But with cameras in hand, they held a new title today: photographers. "We're a photography class, out on an excursión," I shouted back co the drivers-by and they waved approval and drove on. Later, I hoped, they'd read this and better understand. This is where it all started for these guys- on the streets- and this, we hoped, would be where it turned around. In our discussions the next day, many of the participants pointed out how pleased they were that people in cars were taking notice of them. A participant named Johnny commenced later, "A camera is like power, people look at you different when you're holding one." A grant from the Washtenaw Council for the Arts turned a whimsical idea to teach photography to the homeless clients of the Shelter into an earnest endeavor. 'Tve been a Board Member of the Shelter Association for over a year," I explained to the eight men who gathered on a very sticky Saturday in June, "and even though I've attended all the meetings, I am embarrassed to say I have no real idea of who 'the homeless' are who I was supposed to be representing." When I imagined trying to learn from them, it was with the idea that I'd be photographing :hem- but then I thought it might be their preference to learn photography from me instead. Happily, it turned out to be true. While some people expressed ment that we would noc use "professional" cameras, they began to appreciate the simple, re-usable $20 Holgas, and the expressiveness that was possible with them. The best feature of these cameras, however, turned out not to be dependent on technology at all, but on psychology. Photography is a good ice-breaker. It can ease the discomfort of connecting with strangers. Why not use it to bridge social aries? "You really can'c be shy to be a photographer, can you?" i sotneone asked me recently. Actually, the opposite is crue. You can be shy, buc the camera distracts people from noticing. And as Johnny noticed, it is also a symbol of authority all its own. It worked the same way with the participants in the workshop. Each could put aside their social shyness and public persona of "a homeless person" for a while as they became "social documentary photographer." The most valuable educational tooi we had to use in this workshop was the innovative "Photovoice" concept pioneered by U-M Public Health professor Caroline Wang. This workshop teamed Wang and her gradúate student Jennifer Cash with myself, and several professional photographers from the community- Linda Wan, J. Adrián Wylie, and Rita Koehler- to balance artistic concerns with emotional and expressive outlets. The "Photovoice" technique has three aims, the first being to enable people to record and reflect their community's strengths and problems; che second, to promote dialogue about important issues through discussion and photographs; and thirdly, to reach policymakers. It also follows the premise that, as Wang explains, "what experts think is important may not be what people at the grassroots think is important." The range of images, as well as the ideas they represented, surprised not only us "experts" but the photographer-participants, too. Once they were asked a specific series of questions as they looked at their photos, they could easily communicate the layering of thoughts and motivations that went into their favorite images. Art is a universal form of communication, and as the title of the workshop alludes, the goal was to turn light energy into images that spoke volumes, sang, wept or raged. The gift we got from the three women and eight men who joined the two series of workshops was the gift of understanding. It's a hard gift to give, it means opening up a part of one's self that instinct tells us to lock down. It is a gift for the whole munity, the communion of art and discussion, simple in its understated eloquence and precious for the giving. Other events highlighting the work of the participants in the Language of Light workshop include an art exhibit opening reception at Michigan Guild ofArtists & Artisans gallery at 118 N. Fourth Ave, Fri. Sept. 12 front 6pm-8pm. Also, a free slide show open to the public at the Michigan Theater, Wed. Sept. 17, atlOamJollowed by a reception in the lobby. In addition, an article will appear in the fall issue of HUES magazine fHear Us Emerging Sisters, a national publication produced locally), andan exhibit is in the works at Wellesley College, as well as other events TBA. Lisa S. Powers is a staff editor at CURRENT magazine, runs a medical photography business and has freelanced for various local publications with both photography and writing. Afier this project winds down, watch for an exhibit ofher own Holga photographs. ■ ' 1 wnl T wi.


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