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Answering Adversity one Image at a time

Worldstudio consulted on the mission, strategy and messaging for the Young Photographer’s Alliance, a new non-profit organization which supports emerging photographers. For the Alliance’s inaugural mentoring initiative, Answering Adversity, Worldstudio developed the concept and structure of the program along with the theme and supporting materials, such as outreach collateral and mentoring guides. Worldstudio then worked with the Alliance over the life of the project to ensure success. What follows is a story about the program and the impact it has had on the participants.

The team from San Francisco gathers to review images

“At the beginning of this project, I found myself living under a bridge with the homeless for a couple weeks,” says Chris Mumma a photography student from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio.

For a photography assignment Chris was searching for people who were looking to overcome their current predicament and were working hard to get off the streets. Chris, along with 38 college photography students from 12 cities in the US, UK and Canada, were participating in Answering Adversity – a mentoring program run by the Young Photographer’s Alliance under the guidance of Worldstudio.

“It was slow going. It soon became clear to me that I couldn’t just wait for a success story to fall into my lap,” says Chris. So, he turned his camera on those living at St. Vincent Haven, a homeless shelter in Newark, Ohio. The shelter offers services that are geared towards motivating its twenty-four residents toward long-term independent living. During four weeks photographing at the shelter, he came to understand the challenges faced by the mostly unemployed residents.

It is required that every resident apply for at least five jobs a week. During Chris’ time at the shelter a third of the residents had found employment. With the jobless rate in the US over 9%, finding a job is especially difficult, underscoring their perseverance. Chris’ beautiful black and white images captured intimate moments as the residents went about their daily lives at St. Vincent Haven. The photographs are contemplative and thoughtful, not only exposing the quiet dignity of the residents, but also illuminating some of their darker struggles.

Chris Mumma spent weeks photographing the residents of St. Vincent Haven, a homeless shelter in Newark, Ohio.

The world is facing economic hardship not seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment, home foreclosures, loss of savings and retirement are leaving communities, businesses, families and individuals faced with tough choices. Reminiscent of the WPA and FSA photographs commissioned by the US government during the Great Depression to record the lives of everyday Americans, Answering Adversity sent teams of college level student photographers and their mentors into the field to photograph stories of innovation, determination and courage during hard times.

Young Photographers Alliance, the non-profit organization that produced Answering Adversity, provides encouragement and assistance to young photographers entering the field, through a project that explores the power of photography to communicate, document and inspire. Talented college students and recent graduates are partnered with leading photographers who act as mentors to collaborate on a photo essay around a compelling social theme.

The students participating in Answering Adversity, were mentored by 12 professional photographers over the summer of 2010. Olmo Reverter Fernandez, a student at the University of Westminster, created a series of diptychs that contrast aspects of everyday life in London as seen from the perspective of the most and least advantaged. In his work Olmo aims to humorously highlight divisions in wealth in the growing social divide.

Olmo Reverter Fernandez created a series of diptychs that contrast aspects of everyday life seen from the perspective of the most and least advantaged in the UK.

Michael Conti, a student from Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester NY, shot a portrait of Mike Bailey who was living on the picket line in front of the Mott’s canning factory where he was laid off. Michael’s photojournalistic approach covered Mike’s 5:00 am shift on the picket line, along with sleepless nights in his tattered tent in front of the Mott’s factory.

To Bonnie Rae Mills, a student from Academy of Art University in San Francisco, her mentor in life and hero has always been her mother. As a reflection of this, Bonnie created a series of startling black and white portraits of Debi La Bell and her family who are struggling to make ends meet. The piercing images, shot against a black background, communicate strength, stress and perseverance, all for the sake of love.

Bonnie Rae Mills shot portraits of a mother and her family, "An ordinary person, dealing with extraordinary challenges – and sticking it out."

Yasmin Alichav, a former chef now studying photography at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, speaking about her experience says, “It was amazing to be able to concept and execute a creative project about a subject that is really close to my heart and bring attention to a great group.” Yasmin worked with Food Not Bombs, an organization that shares vegetarian meals with the hungry in over 1,000 cities around the world. In California alone, there are over 61 groups that use the movement to protest war, poverty and the destruction of the environment. “In addition to taking photographs, I was able to dedicate time to volunteering for my favorite organization. I didn’t want to just shoot, I wanted to participate,” she said.

“I believe that passion always shows in a photographers work, and clearly it did with hers,” says Edie Tobias, Yasmin’s mentor, a professional photographer who is currently the Vice President of Media Products at Corbis, one of the largest stock photo agencies in the world. “It was intimidating to Yasmin at first to approach complete strangers – homeless strangers no less – to ask if she could photograph them. Once she crossed that hurdle and became comfortable, she really soared,” says Edie. “She has a great eye and visual aesthetic. Her love for the craft, and passion for the cause, are clearly depicted in her very strong work.”

Yasmin’s rich color images capture the hustle and bustle of the volunteers and recipients in action. Detail shots – such as one of magenta saturated beets – communicate the honesty and integrity of the food and the efforts around preparation and serving.

Yasmin Alishav photographed the volunteers of Food Not Bombs who cook meals for the hungry and homeless.

A goal of the program is to stimulate social awareness and to give emerging photographers the ability to work with successful professionals to fine tune their craft, create images for their portfolios, develop business and skills, and explore markets for their work.

“I feel I gained a lifelong friendship with Edie, a successful, intelligent and resplendent example of a kind and caring mentor,” says Yasmin. “She gave us so much encouragement and help and continues to meet with us and believe in our abilities as photographers.”

The photography community is facing tough challenges. The glut of talent, the decline in the market value of photography in real dollar terms, along with the very limited prospects of actually making a successful, financially viable career, make photography a difficult profession to succeed in. “The odds aren’t quite as bad as getting a first string slot in the NBA but they are close,” says Dan Lamont, a participating mentor and Seattle-based photojournalist, who is a regular contributor to international media outlets such as Newsweek, The New York Times, Stern and LeMonde, among many others.

He goes on to say, “The young people in this program are self selecting. They applied and made the extra effort. It is that kind of effort that will make them more competitive in such tough conditions.” Lamont believes that by participating in programs like this, a student’s work will have more exposure than their less ambitious peers, among the people who might help their career development.

To the uninitiated, photography is often seen as a singular pursuit. As Nicole Franco, a student in San Francisco says, “This program places validity, in that, this truly is a collaborative industry. Photography is a collaborative process. Images are created and shared through relations built and maintained.”

There are young people who are passionate about expressing their vision of the world through photography – but every year, it becomes harder and harder for them to do so.  “This program is dedicated to rallying the resources of the creative community and general public in support of young talent,” says Deborah Free, who along with Jerry Tavin is one of the co-founders of the Young Photographers Alliance. “ We believe that great talent is not just born, it’s developed. We want to focus on meaningful connections between emerging and established photographers to ultimately energize and advance the profession as a whole.”

In addition to the experience the students gained over the course of working on the project Young Photographers Alliance is planning an exhibit which will run from January 14-28, at the Calumet Gallery in New York City which they hope will turn into a traveling show. Editorial coverage of the program will give the students added exposure. In addition to adding some great pieces to their portfolios, a number of the students have won awards for their images and essays.

In speaking with the students about the value of the program, words like “inspiration,” “encouragement” and “confidence” come up again and again. “The experience really came full circle for me because, what the volunteers at Food Not Bombs were doing, is the somewhat the same as what the Young Photographers Alliance was doing for us,” says Yasmin. “I feel very fortunate to have met my mentor, and we’ve developed a relationship that I plan to keep for a very long time.”

Yasmin Alishav photographed the volunteers of Food Not Bombs who cook meals for the hungry and homeless.