By Gary Takacs
Photo Courtesy of A'Niya Payne
Every year the Yoder Center in Lynchburg, Va., offers summer-camp programs for elementary-age children. These are opportunities to explore the city, meet new friends, experience adventures, and discover treasures in their own neighborhoods. Staff members introduce campers to tours, athletic programs, and art. One project is Picture My World, based on Duke University’s “Literacy through Photography.”
This Summer at the Center program took place in 2013. At the same time a sustainable neighborhood plan was being developed, in which adults were questioned on topics ranging from infrastructure to recreational opportunities. The decision was made to use the Summer at the Center program to get a youth perspective of the community. Partially sponsored by the Center for Community Development and Social Justice at Lynchburg College, 30 participants—ages 6 to 11—were instructed on photography basics, including action shots, camera angles, lighting, shadowing, and camera movement. Children were also given tips on potential photography pitfalls, like putting a finger over the lens, using the flash improperly, or failing to include faces in each shot. To keep track of the cameras, numbered cameras were issued to participants that coincided with the program roster.
Disposable cameras were released to the children with instructions to take photos of whatever they wanted to capture at home and return by a certain deadline. The developed photos were astounding: humorous, telling, and touching. The photos included trophies won, endearing self-portraits with family members, a play set in the yard, and a slobbery dog. Other photos told different stories—ones the photographers didn’t intend to tell: rooms lacking essential pieces of furniture commonly found in most homes, beds without frames, sparsely filled kitchen cupboards, and unsealed household cleaners. Photos were then distributed, and participants were shown how to improve their techniques before given the next task. This time, instructions were tied to the sustainable neighborhood plan.
The second disposable cameras were numbered the same way. On a group walk around the neighborhood, participants were asked to take photos of objects they liked, ones they didn’t like, ones that scared them, and items that made them happy. Photos of tall grass and weeds, litter and dump sites, flowers and flower beds, dogs off leashes, and the playground and park where the recreation center is located all were taken. The Geographic Information System Department then produced an aerial map of the neighborhood that was mounted on a solid display board so push pins could be used to attach the photos. Strings connected the photos to the exact location where the photos were taken. Red strings indicated what photographers didn’t like, and green stings were used for objects and locations the children did like. The board was on display for months following the project so residents could review the photos. The young photographers had discovered areas within the neighborhood that could be rehabilitated as well as those that could be used as a model for revitalization. It became clear that the adults’ concerns regarding the state of the neighborhood were echoed by the elementary-school participants.
In the future, the project will continue with a few minor adjustments. For instance, since developing the photos was the most expensive part of the project, financial support will be sought. Although initial photos were printed to show what could be improved, digital cameras can be used for the second stage to select specific photos, saving money. While numbering the cameras was helpful, another way to document an individual’s possession of a camera is to make the first photo on the roll a “selfie.” Finally, recognition for the participants is a great way to motivate young photographers—celebrating the final display with an art show is a must.
Recreation professionals try to program opportunities they feel will be beneficial and citizens will enjoy. This photography program gave a voice to those who might not yet be able to express themselves verbally; it painted a picture for those who don’t possess the finesse of a brush; it allowed a young generation to use traditional technology to capture life as it is today. And it provided a dialogue for multiple generations to share the common goal of improving the quality of life through art, community, and recreation.
Gary Takacs, CPRP, is a senior recreation specialist for the city of Lynchburg Parks and Recreation Department in Virginia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org .