Sunday, 08 June 2008 00:00

Tennessee youth share culture through photo project

Written by Katie Connors
Participants in the Growing Tennessee photography program Participants in the Growing Tennessee photography program Katie Connors

The sound of rewinding camera film mingled with laughter at Fender’s Farm in Washington County last fall as a group of seven young photographers took their first field trip of the year. They were part of Growing Tennessee: Rural Youth Cultivate Common Ground, a program that unites youths from different cultural backgrounds.

"Watch the sun and keep your finger off the shutter," reminded photography professor Alice Anthony, of Milligan College, before participants began the corn maze on the warm fall morning. "Be more selective and remember to turn in the rolls of film."

Growing Tennessee began in 2006 through a partnership between Tennessee Migrant and Seasonal Head Start, run by Telamon Corp., and 4-H, a youth organization supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said Jane Crowe, Telamon program development coordinator.

The Unicoi class, along with others in Greene County and West Tennessee, is sponsored by the Tennessee Arts Commission as a youth initiative for at-risk teens. It allows participants to share cultural traditions through the lens of a camera.

"Photography is a very accessible medium that children can learn very easily," Crowe said. "They love seeing the pictures they take and it’s a natural segue into discussion."

Artistic activity allows participants to interact on a deeper level than they do at school, Crowe said. The youth are split into groups to interview one another, later sharing photographs and stories.

'Seeing the world in a different way'

"It taught me how to see the world in a different way and show people our world," said 17-year-old Lilliana Ascenio, whose photography appeared in New York City on a Times Square billboard in 2006.

"Like we say, a picture says a thousand words."

The grant from the Arts Commission supplies the necessary equipment while also paying the stipend for professional photographers or professors who facilitate the classes.

This year, Olympus cameras donated 14 digital cameras plus memory cards, allowing participants to learn on both digital and traditional film cameras. The program began with traditional cameras so participants would not snap photographs without thinking, said Chuck Rector, a Milligan College junior who has volunteered with the project since it began.

Rector and other instructors teach participants to pay attention to distracting lines in the background, composition and other specific details regarding content.

Such careful attention has proven successful for participants, whose photographs have received attention locally and nationally.

"They’ve done more than I’ve done," said Rector. "Their pictures have been in magazines, newspapers and Times Square. They’ve accomplished quite a bit in a year."

But the classes did not begin as successfully, Rector said. Participants were shy and uncertain of their photographs. Now, they confidently arrange their friends in a group before snapping a picture and they huddle around to look at the outcome.

'This gives them a chance to see college'

Though some results are almost immediate, Rector said other lessons take students even further into photography when they use photographic darkrooms and equipment on a college campus.

"This gives them a chance to see college," Rector said. "It tells them, ‘You’re talented enough to go to school.’"

Second-year participant John Presnell, 12, is already interested in Texas State University. John said this program has sparked a desire in him to become a journalist or photographer at a newspaper.

For now though, his favorite photographic subject is his dog, Peanut. Through the class he has developed more than just film -- he has developed a friendship with Crowe.

"She’s given me advice and helped me learn a lot," John said. "She’s supplied everything we needed, film and cameras."

This also gives the parents of participants the chance to share in their children’s world, as well as other cultures, according to Crowe.

One such cultural exchange occurred in fall 2006, when Telamon organized a potluck dinner for the Unicoi participants and their families. Some brought beans and corn bread, while others brought refried beans and tortillas.

"The families don’t know one another because they don’t live in the same neighborhood or go to the same church," Crowe said.

"It’s been neat, though, because the parents get together to celebrate their children and they share that."

Crowe said the photography project is investing in the future, in the youth involved in the project, and that these pictures are a testament to that future.

"They are eye-catching," Crowe said. "They capture the emotion and spirit of other human beings. It’s hard to look at these pictures and not fall in love with these children."

The spirit of the children was seen last fall at Fender’s Farm, where participants linked arms while making their way through the corn maze. Occasionally they stopped to pose, or to snap a picture of one other or of the scenery. There was no longer any shyness between participants and their cameras. Instead, they clicked with confidence.

Today their favorite subject seemed to be each other. Lilliana asked four of her classmates — Zully, Laura, Jacque and Gabriela — to gather around one of the signs in the corn maze as a few other participants got their cameras ready for the pose.

Smiling with satisfaction, Lilliana said this is her favorite photograph from the field trip.

First published in El Nuevo Erwin Record

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