A lot of community arts programs give urban youth the opportunity to make art, but not many give young people the chance to be co-leaders in the art-making process.
Baltimore United Viewfinders, a program of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s community arts department, is different.
Viewfinders was founded in 2011, not long after MICA Place, a multi-purpose academic-residential space, opened on N. Collington Ave., says Viewfinders co-founder Anne Kotleba, a digital artist and Viewfinders’ lead facilitator.
Kids in Viewfinders are ages 13-17 and live in Middle East, a neighborhood north of Butcher’s Hill and Washington Hill, near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
From its inception, Viewfinders’ goal was to help kids in East Baltimore tell the story of their neighborhood with photography.
“At the same time, the kids were shaping the Viewfinders program. They made it what they needed it to be,” says Maggie McAllister, Viewfinders co-facilitator.
One of the Viewfinders first projects was naming their group and designing a logo and identity, says Kotleba.
Viewfinders has four goals: teaching youth technical skills (art, photography, digital); promoting engagement in their community; sharing their art to promote change; and encouraging entrepreneurialism.
Viewfinders students meet every Wednesday afternoon during the school year and every other Saturday all day.
“They like that Viewfinders is not like school, where someone is always telling them what to do. They have a say in what they do here, and they appreciate that,” says Kotleba,
“I like that we can help decide the direction of the program—we are not limited in what we can explore,” says Viewfinder Danisha Harris, who is 17 and attends Western High School.
Kotleba says that the kids use art to tell the true stories of their neighborhoods, not just the stereotypes.
“It is important to the Viewfinders to respond to negative associations about their community—like trash and drug dealers. They want Baltimore to know that there are good people live in their neighborhood too, people working for change,” says Kotleba.
Some recent Viewfinder photos depict families in Middle East walking together and sitting on their steps, enjoying urban family life.
“A lot of people think this part of East Baltimore is a bad place to raise a family. The Viewfinders want people to know that families do live here and they are doing OK,” says Maggie McAllister, Viewfinders co-facilitator.
After being in the Viewfinders program for more than a year, Viewfinders have developed a range of skills and are choosing careers they might not have considered a few years ago.
“Skill-wise, I’m most proud of the photography skills that I learned: rule of thirds, point of view, depth of field, video editing,” says Harris, who has taken courses at MICA and is hoping to attend MICA full-time after graduation.
Harris is not sure what direction she wants to take, but is considering majoring in film.
“Film with a concentration in animation. Maybe I’ll work for Pixar,” she says.
It is Viewfinders that Harris credits with helping her overcome her anxiety about taking pictures of people on the street.
“In the beginning it was nerve-wracking asking people to pose for pictures. But I learned from Miss Anne and other Viewfinders who are less shy,” Harris says.
Harris got a chance to show off her new skills during an exhibit last spring.
“Some of my favorite photos are from the exhibition we did at Johns Hopkins Hospital in April. While I consider myself more of a landscape photographer, I really pushed myself to try new things, to take more pictures of people,” says Harris.
“It was new for me, but I had a lot of portraits up there. You have to know how to come at people. You have to be social if you’re going to be a photographer, after all.”
You can learn more about Viewfinders and view their photos and multi-media projects on Facebook. They’ll also be selling their work on occasional Sundays at the Baltimore Farmers Market under the JFX. Check their Facebook page, facebook.com/BaltimoreViewfinders, for dates.
by Danielle Sweeney