From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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youth in focus

Photos: Kate Porter, Youth in Focus program director

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.


Chris Powell Aevum

Aevum, Chris Powell
“Through this image, I wanted to evoke a sense of vastness and infinitude. When taking the photo, I consciously placed the beginning of the bridge outside of the frame, allowing the viewer to wonder where it begins. The lines of the bridge converge at the center of the frame, seemingly continuing in perpetuity. This photograph’s title is Aevum, a Latin word meaning ‘eternity’.”

Chains JJ

Chains, JJ
JJ has been in Youth in Focus since 2010 and has taken every class he can except for last quarter; he got kicked out of school for fighting and had to drop out of Intermediate Black and White. He lives a good distance from Youth in Focus and takes a few buses and a train to get there but is dedicated to being part of the community. He feels that Youth in Focus makes him happy and helps him have an outlet to escape the stress in his life, while getting him out of the house.

Jules Tomei Christine

Christine, Jules (Julianna) Tomei
“My inspiration for the image came from a photo by Francesca Woodman that resonated with me. The photo is a homage to that photographer and how her work has inspired all of my work. This photo also represents identity and how we are all reflections of things we’ve admired.”


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.