Program focuses on kids in need

Cameras: Pupils receive photo lessons, help on school work-- and provide others with a perspective on an often unseen part of Annapolis.

March 20, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Shaneika Collins sits on the floor of a ballet studio and raises her long arms to the ceiling. She throws back her head and beams as her photography teacher snaps away.

"Oh, I love it!" says Kirsten Elstner, a former New York Times photographer, circling around her subject. "That's great! That's beautiful!"

Shaneika's classmates rush over with their own Nikons and jump into the role of fashion photographer. For a moment, they're not at Bates Middle School in Annapolis. They're in Paris or Milan or New York.

But then the bus comes, and it's time to go home, to families without fathers, to neighborhoods poisoned by drugs and alcohol, to a city that doesn't seem to know they exist.

Elstner, who works with young teen-agers in after-school photography classes, is trying to change the popular perception of Annapolis -- quaint, white, well-heeled -- by exhibiting her students' photographs of life in the African-American and Hispanic communities.

"People see Annapolis as a wealthy community, with the boats and yachts, and that is a wonderful part of Annapolis," she said. "But people don't see a lot of the need in Annapolis, especially when it comes to kids. It's not part of what we show the world."

This school year, Elstner is running two 10-week Vision Workshops -- photography and writing programs for Bates pupils who need extra academic and social attention. From June 21 to July 12, their work will be displayed in an exhibit at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis.

Elstner, 37, hopes to expand the program to community groups and other middle schools, and to find permanent gallery space in Annapolis. Yesterday, she met with leaders of OHLA, Anne Arundel County's Hispanic community association.

"We're such an interesting blend as a community, and I just want to talk about that through the eyes of middle school students," Elstner said.

The pupils are happy to oblige.

Halfway through this spring's program, 14-year-old Shaneika mostly has taken pictures of her family. She is the third-oldest of 10 children, so she's never at a loss for subjects. But before this spring, her photo experience consisted of disposable cameras.

"Before the class, all you're doing is taking pictures -- there was no meaning in it," Shaneika said. "Now you know what to look out for, and the pictures mean more."

The 14 children who are participating in the Vision Workshop this year are part of the Gems and Jewels after-school program at Bates Middle. The four-day-a-week program provides pupils with tutoring, homework assistance, seminars on social and health issues, and field trips.

"I don't call them at-risk students. I call them at-promise," said the Rev. Sheryl Menendez, the Gems and Jewels director.

Elstner contacted the program last year, after she had spent more than a decade traveling the world for employers as diverse as National Geographic and the Red Cross. Often, she was drawn to children in trouble, and she wanted to do more than take their pictures.

In Annapolis, she's getting that chance.

"We're trying to give them a new form of expression and a new form of communication to describe their community," Elstner said. "Sometimes, kids who are having trouble in school or falling through the cracks are visual learners, so photography is a wonderful mechanism for them to work with."

In less than a year, she has raised about $25,000 in cash and in-kind donations. Nikon gave her a steep discount on cameras to lend to the children. Others donated paper and film. She hopes to raise another $60,000 to expand the program next year.

The program meets weekly, and each 90-minute session begins with a writing assignment, usually regarding the pupils' lives and families. Last week, they wrote about their families' history. Then they headed to the darkroom to work on film they shot the week before.

They haven't mastered the finer points of darkroom etiquette and sometimes open the door while film is exposed. But they labor over each print, tinkering with the light and F-stops.

"I've learned that pictures are not just what you take for the fun of it," said Tanara Johnson, 12, who has taken photos of her family and her bedroom. "You take pictures to see how people express themselves and how they feel inside."

At the beginning of the spring session, Elstner said, the pupils questioned whether their lives were worth documenting. But once behind the camera, they realized their experiences were as valuable as those of more prominent Annapolitans.

"That's an important thing to convey to kids -- you do have something to say, and it's important enough to put up on the walls of a museum," Elstner said. "And when you pull it all together, you can see they do have something to say."

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