“Your imagination is your truest paintbrush,” declared eighth-grader Owen G. as he reflected on the fall session of Tri-Town Council’s PhotoVoice program. Of all the themes that emerged for the group of six middle school boys, “imagination” was most prominent, and most energizing.
After school on Wednesdays, imagination transformed the halls and spaces of Masconomet into lands alive with mysteries, clues, forces, creatures and missions. With their cameras in hand, their senses alert, and their heavy backpacks on – for “training” purposes, of course – the PhotoVoice team explored topics that linked photography with voice—and everything in-between.
They experimented with photo technology, considered different perspectives, played with focus and background, and expressed their curiosity—both in creating photos, and truly looking at photos. They staged dramatic scenes—pivoting among the roles of actors and photographers; and they tapped into the emotions evoked by certain images: the suspense of a long, empty hallway, the tension of a shadowed figure, and the awe of a paper snowflake drifting down the sunlit high school stairwell.
“Don’t just see the photo; BE the photo,” said seventh-grader Owen D. with a smile, as he reflected about what they had learned and where they might go next. More than just a clever quotation, he captured the group’s spirit of blending photo with voice, imagery with expression, and embodying playfulness in the creative process.
“The intent behind PhotoVoice is multi-layered,” said Bonnie Thornborough of Tri-Town Council (TTC). “At its core, we aim for it to be youth-directed. Instead of adults directing their creative process, we try to allow the space and openness for the kids to be themselves, be playful, and connect with each other and their creative expression as freely as possible.”
In one meeting, the team did receive some instructions. They were delivered an envelope labeled “mission” from PhotoVoice Headquarters instructing them to create “voice portraits” by combining photos with drawing and effects. Inspired by the assignment and potential, the member known as “Professor Austin” quickly began learning and teaching the others about how to use a free digital photo-editing platform. Before long, imaginative and dramatic scenes took shape.
Dawn Seymour of TTC said "Allowing this program to unfold has demonstrated how valuable it is to make space for kids to unwind, be playful, and create. It reveals how deeply they care and how much they notice about the world around them."
"Allowing this program to unfold has demonstrated how valuable it is to make space for kids to unwind, be playful, and create. It reveals how deeply they care and how much they notice about the world around them." —Dawn Seymour
Traditionally, PhotoVoice is a youth effort motivated by needs for community improvement. Across the country, examples of various PhotoVoice projects demonstrate how youth have used photos to research and call attention to issues that matter to them. The intent is to use photos to give visual form to their (often-overlooked) voice and perspective, and ultimately create positive change.
But the project looks different in every community, and with every unique group of young people. Examples of the work from previous TTC PhotoVoice artists can be seen on display in Masco’s middle school, and have hung in libraries and other venues throughout the Tri-Town.
This year, TTC is running the program in two key phases. In the first phase, the Fall session, they focused more on individual creative process and voice. The second phase, the Winter session, will have a more collaborative focus.
Thornborough said, “We wanted to allow some time for the stages we feel are important. It can be powerful to allow creativity to develop organically, and to begin with self-awareness and relationships: who we are, what matters to us, how we like to be creative, and how we relate to others.” She added “Our hope is that this self-awareness, and the relationships they are building, will help the members as they do more creative collaboration in the Winter session.”
It remains to be seen what this year’s imaginative TTC group will create together. They care about a range of issues, and they have much potential with which to work.
Thornborough adds, “That’s the joy of allowing it to be youth-directed. It certainly has its challenges; but it also makes it more fun. They are a wonderful group, with fantastic imaginations and creative spirit.”
Like any creative journey, the path may wander unpredictably, and be quite messy at times. But for both Thornborough and Seymour, navigating that—and supporting the kids in developing those skills—is ultimately the treasure they seek. They know that somehow the end-product will develop, and yet the process is the most important part.
“I won’t be surprised if this group’s cause ends up being ‘how to work together to survive a battle against the Kraken’,” said Thornborough, smiling. “I'm sure many would find that to be an unexpected issue … and yet I also suspect every community could use some tips on that.”
Photos by PhotoVoice members