By George Sells
A photography showing at a north St. Louis art gallery is turning some heads. But the story here isn’t just about the pictures. The people in them, and those behind them are even more extraordinary. This is the story of a group of teenagers from a low-income neighborhood who took an opportunity and ran with it.
The opportunity came by way of the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum, and a partnership they formed with Vashon High School a year earlier to help provide an arts program. Prior to that, the school hadn’t been able to offer any consistent arts education program for several years. That was a motivator to professional photographer Tiffany Sutton, who would design a photography program for the students. She says the lack of access for these teens lit a fire under her.
“Art is so important to everyone,” Sutton said. “It needed to be taught. Especially to people, to kids who don’t have a lot. I grew up not having a lot but art was always something I could share and express myself through. It was easy to play along with. Kids need that. To experience that. Especially in high school.”
She would discover quickly that point-and-shoot cameras, common to most adults, are a complete mystery to a generation that grew up with an iPhone or Android in hand.
“We had a class of about forty. So all summer long and up to January I went to Goodwills to find digital cameras,” Sutton said. “I found a lot of them for under twenty bucks. I bought as many as I could, tested them all out, and I just expected them to know it. I handed them these cameras and said, ‘go shoot!’ And they’re like, ‘How do we even turn this thing on?’ It was kind of amazing.”
Kids like Kamia Williams, a Vashon freshman, say just finding the on button was a challenge.
Another student, Aubrey Logan, had different concerns.
“It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar, but it was kind of scary because the big message was, it’s fragile. Don’t drop it. And I have this terrible habit of sometimes dropping things.”
With the help of Sutton, the students quickly figured out the mechanics and got to work. But as they learned photography, their teacher says she was learning more and more about them. And these were things she didn’t anticipate. These kids were coping with much more than just school.
“Living with your grandparents because you parents are separated,” she observed. “Not having a stable home life or even a home maybe. You’re in foster care and you keep being moved around and everything. It’s just hard to keep track of homework, let alone what bed you’re going to be sleeping in at night.”
The ten-week collaboration would eventually lead to the showing at the Urb-Arts Gallery in north city, just down the block from the famed Crown Candy Kitchen. Every portrait hanging on the wall was the result of something one of these teens has learned along the way.
For Williams, it was the idea that it’s sometimes best to catch your model when she isn’t looking.
You don’t have to work so hard to get them to do things,” she said. “We was actually going over the pictures, and she was just sitting on the table, and it was the perfect opportunity so I took the picture and she picked it.”
Logan’s photo was the result of a day working with gels to adjust light. His lesson: sometimes your best picture is one you don’t even know you’ve taken.
“It wasn’t really clear to me. I didn’t really notice at first. But as other people looked at it they told me it’s really kind of close to mimicking natural sunlight. And I was like, hmm. And I’m kind of proud of it now even though I didn’t really notice it when it was done.”
Stepping back and looking at the show, one has to think of the overall accomplishment. Two years earlier, these kids likely wouldn’t have even had access to an art class, let alone photography instruction from a pro. Given the chance, they did far more than just show up. They excelled.
“Marvelous. Marvelous. Better than my high school work!” Sutton said with a laugh. “I’m so proud of them. This is like professional, college level work back here. They listened! And they found their voice! I’m eager to see more of their work.”
And they’re eager to produce more, and to reproduce a feeling born from this experience.
Williams said, simply, “I was proud of myself because I ain’t never had nothing like that happen to me.”