It started as a potential hobby. And it became an exhibition.
Robert Rogers, the community relations manager for the Boys & Girls Club of Manatee County, first introduced photography to some of the young people he works with as a way to express themselves.
And then he noticed what their eyes were telling them. Rogers, so proud of his students’ work, made an offer to the Ringling Museum, and it turned out to be an offer they couldn’t refuse. This is how the work of these students, so raw and so evocative, was the subject of an exhibition at Ringling’s Community Gallery.
“It’s all them. That’s their vision,” Rogers says of the exhibit. “It was something they were interested in, and there was really nothing in place. So I was like, ‘Do you all want to give me a minute? And we’re going to make that happen. I’ I have a background in visual arts, so I was like, ‘You don’t have to ask me twice if you want me to develop art programming. I’m on it.'”
The students, aged 13 to 17, were new to photography.
In fact, Rogers said, nine of the 10 young adults had never even touched a camera before.
Everything they had filmed before was out of their phone camera, so there was a bit of a learning curve.
Alan Cresto, a photographer who worked with the students, said he started by explaining the basics of photography to them. He felt like he was about to lose their attention, so he ditched the tutorials and went straight to shooting.
And when he saw what they saw through their viewfinder, he was transported to his own beginnings. Cresto said he started working with cameras when he was just 8 years old, and in his mind, nothing beats the untrained eye of an amateur.
“I remember being a young photographer and taking pictures,” he says. “I showed them once to a magazine editor, and she was like, ‘You’ll never see those pictures again. They’re great. It’s you right now, and now you’re going to start to feel the parameters of what you have to do for the job.’ I would compare it to that.
“It’s their raw thing now, not being watered down at all, not having to do it to please anyone. The concept of a museum exhibit, I don’t think they liked it. They just wanted to take pictures You get that soul.
Cresto and Rogers were talking recently while setting up the photography exhibit; the photos were still unframed and their position on the wall was still being worked out.
The exhibit won’t officially open until May 19, and Rogers hopes his photographers and their parents will be there to see the unveiling. The work will last until August 2.
Rogers said the young people were excited to see their work on a museum wall and share their visions with the community.
“I think what they were looking for — other than having fun and learning about photography — was another way to present themselves,” he says. “A lot of these kids don’t feel recognized or seen. They are not always comfortable articulating. Through art, through the discovery of photography, they were able to present themselves in such an honest way.
If you ask Cresto, it happened in the most organic way possible.
He told them they didn’t have to worry about composition or clarity; in some cases, he told them, it was perfectly acceptable to take a blurry photo in the hopes that it would convey a natural emotion.
Cresto was there to provide technical assistance, but more often than not he found himself whispering easy asides.
What’s going on there? What happens if you shoot the sun?
Basically, he says, he hoped to build a safe space where they could experiment.
The end results are stark, and Rogers and Cresto have made an executive decision.
They decided that the photograph would look better in black and white than in color. So now you have the timeless artistry of photography mixed with the urgency and raw expressive nature of photographers finding their voice one photo at a time.
“It really is visual poetry. It’s so truthful,” Rogers says. “In my humble opinion, it’s easier to just focus on the picture when it’s in black and white. That was the point: to give viewers the ability to keep space with these amazing young adults. “
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