Every day the youth that I have the honor of serving come through our doors with an emotional “backpack” filled with some situation they want to escape. I witness as the camera lens becomes the magical tool that enables them to find relief from whatever problem haunts them.
Youth in Focus’s mission is “to empower urban youth, through photography, to experience their world in new ways and make positive choices for their lives.” We teach at-risk youth how to turn negatives into positives through our youth development photography program. Our youth come from different situations: Bullied in school, now living under a freeway; a homecoming queen being abused at home, or a youth trying to grasp their sexual identity. Their stories begin to unfold through their images as they share pieces of themselves. And when I look at their pictures, I begin to understand and feel what they do.
Their smiles show that they feel safe and supported in our community, yet when I look closer at their work, I see the chains binding their trapped emotions, unable to be expressed, or their attempts to fit into an imperfect world. Or perhaps their work reveals the solitude of loneliness, as they hide behind a mirror, hoping no one sees what’s really going on inside them. Every once in a while, a photo appears in which I see a glimpse of the direction that they want their lives to go: Down a clear path, into the woods, where the birds sing and the things that hold them down blow softly away in the cool breeze. I see their hopes for tomorrow.