Photo Project Gives Youth New Vision

Posted May 12, 2009 at 4:27pm

An area nonprofit is hoping to turn Washington, D.C., students into documentarians: younger versions of Michael Moore or Al Gore, but whose medium is still photography and whose defining issues are found in the world around them.

Critical Exposure opened up shop in 2004 by encouraging students in Maryland to document problems in their school facilities. Those photographs helped convince the Maryland General Assembly to appropriate $100 million for school improvements in 2005, according to Adam Levner, co-founder and co-director of the group.

Since then the group has built on its early success in other states. Because it’s based in Washington, D.C., students in the District have received special attention.

Through Friday, the group is hosting its fourth annual exhibit of local students’ photographs. While previous years’ shows have not had a unifying theme, this year’s photographs all focus on the high rate of dropouts in the District.

“Of the class of students who entered 9th grade in 2001, only 9 percent graduated from high school within five years, enrolled in college within 18 months, and earned a four-year degree within five years,— according to a report from Double the Numbers, a coalition that hopes to find ways for more District students to earn a college degree. “That performance is far lower than the national average (23 percent) and not nearly good enough to ensure that young adults in DC have opportunities to succeed in the 21st century.—

The exhibit, held not far from the White House at ARTiculate Gallery as part of S.T.E.P. (Success Through Educational Programs) Up DC, which is run by a partnership between Critical Exposure and the Alliance of Youth Advocates, features photos taken by students from late elementary school to high school. Some feature their classmates or people they know, while others depict scenes at school or in their lives. Each photographer wrote a detailed caption telling why he or she took this picture and what it illustrates about dropping out of school.

Byron Coleman, a senior at Spingarn STAY Senior High School, contributed a photograph of his older brother in a burgundy cap and gown, propped against a backdrop of piano keys.

“I made a promise to him that I was going to graduate so I enrolled in the same program as him in 2006. But, later on that year, while I was in school, he got killed. So I dropped out of school, I lost my focus, I couldn’t really concentrate,— Coleman wrote in his caption. “I’m just getting back in here because I know he wanted me to finish school, and I made him a promise that I would finish school and walk across that same stage that he walked across.—

The exhibit picked up momentum with a reception and fundraiser on May 6. More than 125 people came to see the students’ photographs, Levner said, and the group raised about $2,500.

On Thursday afternoon, a second event will tie in with the exhibit. A panel of three students will present the results of a survey of nearly 1,000 local students in the Youth Shout-Out, and they will discuss three ways to lower the dropout rate: retention of students who are still in school, recovery of students who have dropped out, and preparation for higher education and a career for those who graduate.

Critical Exposure has three goals: youth empowerment, public engagement and policy change.

“Our focus is on empowering youth through photography and teaching them how to use their photographs to engage the public,— Levner explained. Ultimately, the group hopes the student photographers will use their photographs in an effort to improve their situations.