Art on a Mission: Photo project documents turnips, tradition and teens
Much of what Ritenour High School junior Sha’terryica Williams knows about her brother’s life when they lived in different foster homes is in the Polaroid shots that came back with him.
Now living with her brother and their mother, the honor student and accomplished violinist retains a special fondness for photography. When she heard about UMSL’s Public Policy Research Center’s (PPRC) Photography Project -- which helps local communities document themselves -- coming to her school last year, she gladly took part.
Though she still prefers Polaroids -- she’s saving to buy one -- Williams enjoyed the free after-school digital photography lessons offered as part of PPRC’s “Autobiography of a Teen” project that often took students out of the classroom.
“The majority of classes were walking around taking pictures,” Williams said. “Then we passed around the photos and said which ones we liked and why.”
Williams’ work was included in a now-concluded exhibit at the Rock Road branch of the County Public Library, and is part of one at the Social Sciences and Business Building on UMSL's North campus. One of her photos went to a national competition.
Now, her college plans have a new dimension.
“I’m going to minor in photography and major in performance music,” Williams said.
Ritenour art teacher Kristi Ponder is inspired by Williams and her peers.
Despite busy schedules and responsibilities at home -- one girl brought to class the young cousin she babysits -- the students honored the commitment the project required. Ponder is grateful the exhibition gives the public a way to also view teens in positive light.
“They’re not horrible people; they’re not destructive,” Ponder said. “They’re amazing, the stuff they’re capable of, and they have the biggest hearts.”
Giving North County teenagers a voice may seem an unlikely addition to a list that also includes uniting the Russian immigrant population and promoting the value of fresh food. But the PPRC arts program has recently addressed these three diverse topics -- and many more.
Existing in various forms since 1978, the PPRC Photo Project began its current teaching and exhibition schedule seven years ago, with funding from the Missouri Arts Council, Regional Arts Commission, the PPRC and other donors, including its exhibition sites.
Director Mel Watkin and others involved with the project select a community or cause to document, then hold once-a-week classes for aspiring photographers that culminate in an exhibit.
“It’s almost like a real college course; we spend a lot of time with them and teach them step-by-step how to take the photographs,” Watkin said. “We end up with hundreds and only about 30 end up in exhibitions.”
A 2010 exhibition continues to bring together St. Louis’ 17,000-strong but fractured Russian immigrant community. Grouped in small enclaves and rooted in different religions, ethnicities and cities of origin, many Russian immigrants exist in relative isolation, according to Dmitri Kabargin, 33, who came to St. Louis 10 years ago on a scholarship to UMSL.
Kabargin jumped at the chance to participate in the photography project, as did a variety of Russian immigrants from all parts of St. Louis.
“They were like, ‘Wow, it’s so exciting; we wanted to be involved,’” Kabargin said.
Through PPRC’s “Russian St. Louis” project, Kabargin and others pointed their cameras at Russian foods, places of worship, workplaces and other points of interest.
Every picture has a story. In one, an American who taught English to kids in the Russian city of Sochi, found out Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympic games. Back in the U.S., the teacher asked some of the Russian kids to send him shorts displaying the word “Sochi” written in Russian Cyrillic script as presents for his granddaughters.
The kids agreed on the condition that he send them photographs of his granddaughters wearing them in front of the Arch. One of the photos resulting from that agreement was among those in the series’ exhibition at Astoria restaurant, which features Russian and other European cuisine.
“We took pictures in different communities and showed how the people keep their culture,” Kabargin said. “People found out about the stores, the restaurants and businesses and other resources.”
The art of food
Community revitalization is one of four categories of the photography project, according to director Watkin. The others are social services, historic preservation and enrichment for youth or older people.
“We do a lot of multi-generational projects -- those are the most fun,” Watkin said.
A recent endeavor featured the work of Bobbie Sykes and her 14-year-old granddaughter Dia Harper. “City Greens” was designed to highlight Catholic Charities’ City Greens Market, offering fresh, locally grown foods at special member prices.
Sykes, who volunteers there, enjoyed the conversations that sprung up around dinner-table photos.
“The pictures have a story to tell about what happens around the kitchen table with food and conversation and building relationships,” Sykes said.
The experience also widened Sykes’ concept of “art” to include family photos.
“I didn’t think of them as art. When you think about art, you think about pictures by Leonardo Da Vinci, about it being a complicated thing,” Sykes said. “But it’s such a small thing, where stories are being told.”
Gloria Bratkowski used a camera to tell her own stories about her neighborhood in the inaugural 2004 PPRC photo project “Old North St. Louis.” She enjoyed the camaraderie and the training.
“It was good to be with the other other people taking pictures. We learned some things about photography, and it’s nice to have your pictures displayed and recognized,” Bratkowski said.
In the seven years since “Old North,” the PPRC project has explored dozens of topics including fatherhood, the local Bosnian community, the Herbert Hoover Boys and Girls Club.
What’s next? An upcoming PPRC Photography Project will feature everybody’s favorite treat: cookies. Teenagers in the Angel Baked Cookies bakery-training program will take pictures at its North Grand Neighborhood Services location. Angel Baked is not only a good cause -- it offers a sweet bonus.
“It gets the kids ready for employment,” Watkin said. “And the cookies are great.”