A small but important exhibit at SF Camerawork features works by photographers who are neither famous nor proficient, but whose earnestness and unique vision tell a bigger story.
"First Exposures: Developing History," a retrospective exhibit of SF Camerawork’s 10-year mentoring program for at-risk youth, features works by students 11 to 18 years old.
Each school year, 15 students are chosen for the program and paired with a one-on-one mentor to learn the basics of photography. Volunteer mentors, usually graduate students, professional or commercial photographers, spend Saturday afternoons teaching the kids image composition and darkroom secrets.
"Photography is a unique medium for them because it can be a chance for them to honestly explore their surroundings," says Erik Auerbach, education coordinator of SF Camerawork.
At a time when funding for much of art education in public schools is being cut, mentoring programs such as First Exposures are an important after-school alternative. The one-on-one mentoring, free photo equipment and the free lunches make the program sound like an exclusive private studio lesson. Yet here the attention and the care go to local students with especially tough lives.
Children and teens come to SF Camerawork through various social services around the Bay, including homeless shelters and immigrant organizations. What they choose to photograph often reflects the world that surrounds them.
The exhibit, which is based on a recently published book, "First Exposures," features photographs made by this year’s students, archival images and several billboards designed by students in 2004.
The most recent photographs are often paired with text written by the students. In his black-and-white image, "The Barbershop," Dijorn Cole, 16, explains, "Barbershops show great unity in urban neighborhoods. Bonding between old and young — great conversations and words of wisdom fill the whole place, like all life’s lessons in one place."
In her series of photographs, Naomi Castro, 15, explores the relationship between people and places. Here, teens from her East Bay school show hand signs of the neighborhoods they come from. In her text, Castro talks about this attachment to place (that, incidentally, causes many "turf" fights in her school), "They have so much pride and this seems so important to them, but they couldn’t say why."
One of the most common themes in the exhibit is family. There are pictures of weddings, parents, siblings and a particularly melancholy pair of black-and-white photos by Jontonnette Clark, 16, reminiscing about her grandmother.
Auerbach believes that photography becomes a tool for these students to better see their world. "When kids pull out their traditional cameras, it gives them a chance to think a little bit more about the world," he says. "They get to look at what they do and selectively edit and choose how to communicate their stories."
Next, the students will create an exhibit on identity for the Jewish Contemporary Museum.
"I am always impressed by what these students are able to create," Auerbach says. "They are as capable in creating art as any adult."
First Exposures: Developing History
Where: SF Camerawork, 657 Mission St., San Francisco
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; closes Feb. 24
Tickets: $5 general; $2 for students and seniors
Contact: (415) 512-2020 or www.sfcamerawork.org