Senior Kelsa Bartley is teaching Liberty City youth to see the world through a different lens
By Paige Stein
Growing up, there was something a little bit different about Kelsa Bartley’s house. “We had photographs and cameras all over the place,” says the photography major. “My grandfather was a journalist so we always had people taking pictures of the family, and photos of us around the house. It was rare in Trinidad at that time; my friends commented on it.”
It wasn’t long before the young Kelsa, who had always liked to draw and paint, became the “official” family photographer.
“I was 14 or 15 when my mom brought me my first Polaroid; I got bored pretty fast so I started using my mom’s point and shoot. I took it with me everywhere I went; by 16 I knew photography would be important in my life.”
Fast forward more than a decade later and photography has indeed become a very important part of Bartley’s life. To her it’s a passion, a craft, a vehicle for self-expression and a tool for social change. And it’s this belief in photography’s power of transformation that first brought her to the Belafonte Tacolcy Center in Liberty City.
It’s a particularly muggy afternoon, even for Miami in August, but Bartley’s too busy handing out awards and accolades to her “Shutterbugs” to notice. The Shutterbugs are a group of 10 aspiring photographers ages 8 to 13 who have spent the last eight weeks learning not only the technical aspects of photography but also reveling in its powers of self-expression and social observation.
“Photography is all about seeing,” says Bartley. “Most people go around day to day and don’t really notice things. Or, they just see the same old thing and think, ‘This is my life and this is how it has to be.’ But when you see things [through the camera’s lens] you start to think maybe you can do something about it. Photography can be something that breaks the cycle.”
Bartley says she was inspired by the idea of photography as an agent for social change after she saw the film “Born into Brothels” in a class taught by Barry Associate Professor of Photography Scott Weber. The film, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005, followed the lives of several children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes.
In 1997, the New York-based photographer Zana Briski traveled to Calcutta to photograph prostitutes. While there, she gave some of the prostitutes’ children cameras and began teaching them photography so they could chronicle what they saw in their communities. And, perhaps, ultimately improve their lives.
“Kelsa’s an exceptional student,” Webber says. “She’s someone who wants to take her photography and make more than just pictures on a wall; she wants to find more important uses for it.”
Inspired by the photos and life stories of the children in “Born into Brothels,” and with ideas about topics for her upcoming senior honor’s thesis starting to form in her head, Bartley contacted an old friend, Alison Austin, the CEO of the Tacolcy Center. “It’s easier for me to write about things I’ve experienced personally, and when I saw ‘Born into Brothels,’ it was really touching to me,” Bartley says. “It made me think [about] how I could get involved in kids’ lives in that close of a way.”
Founded in 1967 by Frances Henderson, the Belafonte Tacolcy Center (“Belafonte” was added to the name after the iconic singer Harry Belafonte made a donation in support of the organization), began as a safe haven for Liberty City’s children and youth.
“It was also a place where they had a voice, where they could speak on things that were bothering them,” says Austin. “It was the height of the civil rights movement in this country; young men were being drafted into the Vietnam War, a lot of young people were angry. Young black males particularly felt they had no voice in their community. Frances Henderson had a gift for channeling positive energy, encouraging young black men to stay off the streets and out of prison.”
Today, the Center is one of the largest, private non-profit youth service institutions in the Greater Miami area. And, its mission, to break a cycle begun by centuries of the slave trade and institutionalized racism hasn’t changed. Forty-five years later, Austin says, “the cradle-to-prison pipeline for young black and Latino males is unfortunately stronger than ever.”
So when the young photographer – who Austin had met several years earlier when she bought one of her pictures on display at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center – contacted her about working with the Center’s youth, Austin saw a perfect fit and a golden opportunity.
“Kelsa is definitely one of Tacolcy’s better angels,” says Austin. “At a time when budgets are being cut and county funding is being slashed for everything deemed ‘not essential,’ [it’s difficult to get funding for arts programs]. Yet, one of the strongest deterrents to crime is building self-esteem in young people by encouraging their natural talent.”
In order to do that, the Tacolcy Center has partnered with the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) to become one of 137 Freedom School sites nationwide. The Freedom Schools program is designed to provide a summer and after-school “heritage and moral-based integrated reading curriculum.” It is organized around five essential components: high quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.
Flights of fancy
After meeting with Bartley, Austin asked her to draw up a proposal that would outline how the photography class would be organized and how it would support the Freedom School objectives: “I talked with Alison a lot about how it would work; she helped me decide on the right number of kids and the age range for the group. We didn’t want it to be too big of a group, so we settled on 10. And we didn’t want them to be too young or too old. I wanted to have some kind of control, so we ended up with 8- to 13-year-olds [although most were closer to 13].”
After reviewing the proposal, Austin felt the outlets for self-expression and cultural exposure it would provide met the Freedom Schools’ criteria. The biggest hurdle was how to finance it. There, too, Bartley was not easily deterred; she immediately began writing to local photo studios, camera companies and others to ask for funding to purchase the digital cameras both she and Austin felt would really help to motivate the kids.
“Asking for money or help for photography is nothing new to me,” says Bartley, who noted that although she didn’t have an easy road to get to Barry to study photography, she’d been met with generosity much more often than not.
“There weren’t a lot of options for studying photography back in Trinidad,” she says. In addition, working as a full-time flight attendant, she had little time to pursue formal studies. However, through the generosity of Colin Harris, an instructor at the University of the West Indies, who she still calls her mentor, she was able to finish the course work based on curriculum from a school in Canada: “Even though I couldn’t attend the class, I took my own private class on the patio of his house. It took me two years to finish the course work taught at the university, and at the end I had to do a whole exhibit, with 20 photos.”
In order to raise the money for picture frames and other supplies she needed, Bartley asked for support from her coworkers – pilots and fellow flight attendants: “I was surprised how many of them helped out; even helping me to bake stuff for the opening and getting flowers to decorate the space where the exhibit was held.”
So, perhaps, it wasn’t surprising to Bartley when another one of Tacolcy’s “angels,” photographer Leslie Sternlieb, volunteered to help fund the project. Sternlieb, who had been helped herself by scholarship money she won through a photography prize, had known Austin for years through their work in the Miami-Dade nonprofit community. Also inspired by the film “Born into Brothels,” Sternlieb says she had long had the idea in her mind of using photography to help inner-city, at-risk youth: “I’ve always wanted to put a camera in their hands and make a program like this work. When Alison told me about Kelsa she seemed like the perfect person to make this happen, and I was determined to see it through.”
Armed with 10 digital cameras, plus one additional which was to be given away as a prize at the end of the eight-week class, the students still weren’t quite ready to get behind the lens. Despite the eagerness to get out and start shooting pictures, Bartley spent the first two weeks of the course showing the kids slides, discussing different elements of composition, and teaching them basic camera functions and photo techniques.
“I was scared. I had never taught or even thought of teaching before. But I got advice from Scott [Weber] and I showed the kids pictures and asked them questions like, ‘Why do you think this picture is in National Geographic?’ We talked about what makes a good image; what makes an image effective,” Bartley says. “I also showed them different composition elements, shooting up or down. I tried to demonstrate that images could look completely different and have a completely different effect depending on how you shot them.”
But, when the kids actually got out and start shooting pictures, first in and around Tacolcy and later on a couple of field trips, Bartley, Austin and Sternlieb were “blown away” by their creativity.
“The kids went wild experimenting,” says Sternlieb. “They used the function on the camera that turns the image into a negative form. The abstractions really worked because of the negative function – the colors really came out. They took some really interesting portraits that way. They really thought outside the box.”
And despite Bartley’s fears about being a neophyte when it came to teaching, Austin says she was a natural: “She has a passion for kids and the arts that really shines through. The whole process really opened up their creative energy… Some of these kids are really struggling with self-esteem, and some of the children did self-portraits that helped them to see themselves in a different way.”
What’s more, Austin adds, just being around someone as accomplished and focused as Bartley can get the children thinking differently about their own potential. “Being exposed to people like Kelsa – a young woman of color, of Caribbean descent, who’s in school and working, with passion for art – it promotes intergenerational leadership and role modeling,” Austin says. “It makes them think, ‘This person is teaching me cool stuff. They’re going to college, I can go to college. It’s an option.”
At the end of the eight-week course, a panel of judges consisting of Sternlieb, Austin, her photographer husband Khary Bruyning and Horace Roberts, a social worker and Tacolcy’s unofficial in-house photographer, reviewed the children’s work to see who would be awarded the digital camera as a prize for exceptional work. Tyra, 13, was at the top of everybody’s list for her mature compositions and exceptional ability to use the camera’s lens to frame space. “Kelsa encouraged me to take photos at the next level, to look at things in different ways and not be scared of holding the camera in different ways,” says Tyra, whose particular passion is nature photography.
However, in the end the judges decided that Steffon, 14, should also be awarded a camera for his exceptional eye and striking images. Steffon, Austin says, faces challenges in his home life, making opportunities for self-expression and self-esteem building [such as this one] vital. “Imagine if he had a family setting that nurtured him,” she adds. “It makes you stop and think, because if he’s amazing surrounded by all that negativity, imagine how amazing he would be if someone [regularly] told him how amazing he is.”
The right tools
As Bartley calls each child’s name out to receive their certificate of completion in front of a wall lined with framed photos of their best shots, even she seems amazed at what she and the kids have accomplished together. “ [At some point during the course] I was able to see that they were really listening to me and beginning to get very focused on one aspect of their work. Tyra, for example, shot a lot of things from high up. But I can’t believe how good their work ended up being,” she says.
So good, in fact, that Bartley can’t wait to get started working with the next group of kids in the spring semester. She’s also excited to use what she learned this summer to help shape the form and direction of her honor’s thesis which she hopes to complete by April of 2010.
“When I do the research for my thesis I want to incorporate opportunities for the kids to give me a lot more feedback on how [this whole process] affected them; how photography made them feel and what impact it had on their lives and community,” Bartley says. “I want to inspire other people by being able to say, ‘This is what happened using photography as a tool for social change.’ ”