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Lessons in New Ways to See

In a room full of teenage girls, Lastarr Freeman hardly speaks, and when she does, her voice rarely rises above a whisper. Yet when it was time to pose for a portrait last month, she decided to dress up as a boxer, with trunks draped around her legs and surgical gauze crisscrossing her slender hands. All that was needed to complete the picture, and the transformation, were the gloves.

"I've always been a fighter," she explained.

Anyone who has passed much time in the Louis H. Pink project in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Ms. Freeman has spent most of her life, knows that she probably has her reasons for fighting. But by last year it had led her, at 16, to the back of a police car and the inside of a booking cell, exchanging one tough place for another even tougher. "Everything about where I live is bad," she said, an expression more of plain fact than of complaint.

Until recently she had little desire to express herself, much less the power to step outside her circumstances and see in herself the fighter that she both needs and fears.

But over the last 15 weeks, mostly in the basement editing rooms of the International Center of Photography in Midtown Manhattan, she and more than a dozen other girls who all have also been in trouble with the law have been trying to gain a measure of control over their difficult lives by looking at them through the relative calm of a camera lens. Or more accurately, as seen on a camera video screen, lighted up along the back of an eight-megapixel digital camera.

The program providing the cameras was created last year in collaboration with the Friends of Island Academy, an organization that supports the high school on Rikers Island and tries to help lower the recidivism rate for its alumni.

Art therapy has been used for years to try to give troubled youth a different perspective on their lives, and photography has long aided that process by lowering the barriers to entry: no need to know how to draw or paint, just a willingness to pick up a camera and try. But digital photography is now offering the added power of immediacy, instantaneous images that are proving especially effective for groups of girls like those in the program, mostly black and Hispanic, who struggle as much as or perhaps more than teenage boys with how they are viewed by society.

The cameras, which the girls learned to use both on the streets and in a studio, allow them not only the rare chance to channel their energy into a creative project but also to control images of themselves, a kind of twist on Susan Sontag's views about the medium and control in her book "On Photography." ("To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed," Ms. Sontag wrote. "It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and, therefore, like power.")

Beth Navon, the executive director of the Friends group, said the idea for the photography program grew out of an overall philosophy that art should be an essential part of helping teenagers from poor urban neighborhoods find a way out of trouble.

"It's not sort of an extra like, 'If you do the other stuff, you get to take the art classes,' " she said. "It's integral to what they're learning. Seeing it as integral is key."

Lacy Austin, the director of community programs at the International Center of Photography, said that when the program began last year, she was unsure how many girls would embrace the idea as more than a novelty, a kind of recess period with high-tech electronics.

When the classes began, though, a large core group of girls became deeply involved and came faithfully, even when their chaotic lives made it hard for them to keep appointments, other than those with parole or probation officers.

"Once the door is opened, they don't want to leave," Ms. Austin said, adding, "I think because photography is so fluid and so immediate it's reflecting back to them a sense of possibility in their lives they haven't seen before."

To sit in on the most recent class over the course of several weeks was to watch a gathering that was part high-school photo club, part self-help group, part fashion show, part summer camp and running confessional.

Several of the girls had lost one or both parents at an early age. Some had bounced through foster homes or overtaxed relatives' homes, dropping out of school as they shuttled from New York to the deep South or Puerto Rico. Two of the girls already had children of their own, and a third who began the program nine months pregnant brought her infant daughter to the last class.

As much as the cameras, computers and photos were therapeutic tools for the girls, simply seeing the doors of a sleek Midtown art palace regularly opened to them and their problems often seemed to do as much for their spirits.

"A lot of these girls never get out of their neighborhoods," said Denole Taylor, director of the young-adult department for the Friends organization. "They come here and point and say, 'Wow, is that the Empire State Building?' And they've lived here all their lives."

The hundreds of photographs the girls took of themselves and of one another became a weekly window on their lives. One girl, assigned to focus on her body, took a blurry, postmodern-looking picture of her unshaved armpit. "It's my street revolution," she explained. "I don't shave."

Jessica Bennett, 18, whose mother died of cancer when she was 7, and whose father died of cancer when she was 14 she has no stable home at present, she said took a picture of herself balancing a huge basket of apples on her head, striving to look like what she called a "strong African princess" but also realizing that she was symbolizing something else.

"The way my life is," Ms. Bennett said, "I guess I'm just carrying a load on my head."

Liza Jessie Peterson, an actor and writer who works as an outreach coordinator for the Friends of Island Academy, looked over Ms. Bennett's shoulder one day in April as she reviewed her pictures in a digital-editing studio. "I like these," Ms. Peterson told her, "because you look larger than life."

Ms. Bennett laughed, in a way she usually does not about her size. "That's because I am larger than life," she said.

But Ms. Peterson shook her head. "I don't mean like that, girl I mean like the Statue of Liberty," she said, pointing at one of the pictures and wagging a finger. "That's a woman that's coming to save the 'hood."

During the classes and photo sessions it was easy to forget how the girls came to be at Island Academy and made their way into the photo program. Some had actually spent time in Rikers; others ended up at the school after run-ins with the law that landed them on probation or in juvenile centers.

Most were remarkably open about their mistakes and the consequences. "I'm tired of probation," one girl, Mary-Lynne Louisa, 18, who came back to participate in the class for a second year, wrote in an end-of-project personal essay last week. "I'm tired of belonging to the state. I'm tired of being just a number."

Ms. Freeman, who first came to the school after being arrested on assault charges, was still wearing her boxing trunks and knuckle tape after the project's final portraits were taken last month. She said she has stayed out of trouble for almost a year now and has no intentions of becoming just a number again. But at 17, she's too old to harbor any illusions even those fostered by the power of art that she will not have to continue fighting for survival.

"I'm not trying to live in a bad life anymore, but it's hard," she said. "I'm trying to make my family and myself happy. I think I can do it. I hope I can."
Source: The New York Times:
Date: July 5 2006