In the past year I taught photography at a local shelter through the Back-to-Work vocational program. Class size was limited to five. The group of students varied each class. Some men participated because they were truly interested in photography. Others were just looking for a distraction. They all had a story to tell and more than anything I wanted for them to express that through photography. And if they acquired some helpful skills in finding their path that would be a bonus.
Since I never knew exactly who would participate beforehand I would bring with me a mixed bag of stuff: cameras (lent to me by a local community college), newspapers, books on a variety of topics and a flexible lesson plan from which I could pick a specific one depending on the students who would show up that day.
I soon learned that after teaching the basics of a camera and photography each student had different needs. One student had a Masters of Fine Art in journalism from Columbia University and we therefore focussed on taking photos that would illustrate his written words. Another student took photos to help him express his innermost thoughts. He always just took three or four photos and then during class discussion left everybody awestruck when he explained what he meant with them. Yet another student whose fine motor skills caused severe limitations and therefor couldn't handhold the camera without shaking nevertheless was able to explore his creativity by taking abstract photos with a little plastic bag over the camera lens scribbled with different colors sharpies. There was also a student who used to be a photographer and took the opportunity to refresh his skills. He always surprised me with the way he came prepared to class. He helped me cover a few events through the shelter. And finally there was a student whose sole purpose was to take photos that could express the turmoil and misery he felt. He would spend lab time at the computer writing long letters for each photo.
We were limited to the premises around the shelter and furthermore limited by the fact that only objects, not subjects (except for classmates) could be photographed. There wasn't much in terms of beautiful scenery. But something worth photographing could always be found. And there never was a dull moment! One time I wanted to explain about capturing motion and we spent the entire time photographing twirling umbrellas and scarves.
After about an hour of photographing we'd go back to the lab to upload the photos on the computer. This was the highlight of the class. It was gratifying for the students to see their work. And it was gratifying for me to hear their narratives. What especially struck me was how supportive and encouraging the students were to each other.
During all this I got to know a lot of men at the shelter. So when I was asked to create a series of dignified portraits needed for a fundraiser I had no trouble finding men willing to be photographed and agreeing to sign a photo release. In the following weeks I spent a lot of time at the shelter. Some students from my class assisted me with the lighting and paperwork. When the project was done I gave each men a large print of their photo. The entire series can be found here: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/DignifiedPortraits/44944617_c6c33L
Sometimes a resident of the shelter would ask me to come take a headshot for a resume or a photo for a christmas card (below) for family and friends abroad.
Another project for the local Coalition of the Homeless actually involved house visits. The assignment was to portray formerly homeless people in their new homes holding up a sign of what home meant to them. I cannot begin to tell you how much that project meant to me: it embodied happiness, excitement, laughter, positiveness and many joyful tears. These photos can be found here: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/Meaning-of-HOME-to-Previously/46814354_wBjpFh
An especially emotional moment during this assignment was when this beautiful women (below) gave me her last copy of a book of poems that she had written while she was still homeless and alternately living on the streets or in a shelter.
Back to photography classes. Here's the first group of students I taught and following that is some of their work. The photo credit only mentions first names. They were MUCH more than names to me - I bonded with these men in a very special way.
More dignified portraits of homeless residents: http://marleenvandenneste.smugmug.com/Portraits/DignifiedPortraits/44944617_c6c33L