For five days in October, 16 high school students converged on Express Newark, a downtown arts hub that hums with possibility. They came from five different schools and like typical teenagers, they magnetized to familiar faces and eyed everyone else with skepticism. Truth be told, on the first day many were more excited about missing school than learning whatever it was we were going to teach.
They had shown up for the National Geographic Photo Camp, a program that has been held in more than 50 locations around the world and engaged more than 1200 young people. Geared towards youth whose voices are often marginalized, the camp is an immersive experience where students are given cameras, taught the essentials of photography by professionals, and encouraged to document their neighborhoods, friends and families, as they develop their own unique visions of the world around them. Their images are reviewed daily, and in a short period of time they grow exponentially as visual storytellers. More importantly, their senses are ignited, and their people skills are activated so they navigate familiar turf with unfamiliar acuity.
By the afternoon of the first day, that same group of teenagers who had fidgeted in their seats a few hours earlier, had fanned out to Military Park, Penn Station and the Ironbound, armed with cameras and an explorer’s curiosity. Over the next several days, they approached police officers and bikers, laid on their backs and kneeled in the street to find cool angles, entered tattoo parlors, hair salons and barber shops, and inserted themselves into the exotic corners that make the world endlessly fascinating. In a true test of boundaries, one student even photographed a Sunday church service from the base of the pulpit, at which point the instructor sent us a panicked text asking whether he should intervene. Our response: Let him discover his own limitations.
Over five days, these budding photographers shot over 21,000 images. In terms of the Big Picture, we watched them transform from self-contained nerve bundles to extroverts, using the camera to unleash conversations with strangers and unlock hidden passageways to their city. In the process, they became an organic family, forging new bonds and finding a level of personal expression that seemed remote just a few days earlier.