Positive from Negatives

Project Focus puts cameras in the hands of disadvantaged kids, giving them--and us--a fresh perspective on their lives.

Thirteen-year-old Dansen Miller believes that exhibiting his own photographs in an art show improved the community’s view of Kuhio Park Terrace (KPT), the public housing complex in Kalihi, where he lives. "I feel better now, because some people think KPT is a really bad place," says Miller, who one day hopes to own a company that helps students of all ages learn to read. "They think we’re wild kids. But if we did this, they’ll think different about KPT."

Georgette Liutolo-Lopes, 13, has set a high goal: She wants to be Hawai’i’s top lawyer. photo: Lisa Uesugi

Miai Tofilau, also 13, agrees. She says people falsely believe that life in KPT centers around gangs. "And I want people to feel welcome when they come here."

This is happening thanks to Project Focus, a community service venture meant to enrich the lives of children through the use of traditional black and white photography. Created last year by professional photographers Laurie Breeden Callies and Lisa Uesugi, the initial goal was to take photos of kids who rarely received such artistic attention.

"So many families out there can’t afford what we do," says Callies, who owns Baby Face Productions and transforms her own black and white photos into fine art with intricate hand painting. She and Uesugi brainstormed the idea and identified a nonprofit partner. Last year they teamed with Parents and Children Together (PACT), which operates KPT and its Teen Center. There they found 14 students eager to participate in the 12-week program.

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Cheryl Johnson, the director of KPT’s Teen Center for 16 years, says Callies and Uesugi immediately connected with the youngsters, ages 10 through 16, when they insisted on shooting photos within the public housing grounds. Students were instructed to avoid makeup, special hairdos or clothes they didn’t normally wear. The black and whites that emerged reveal a raw and honest beauty, as well as a sense of cultural pride.

"[Breeden and Uesugi] wanted to get to know the kids, and I think the kids felt that," says Johnson. "They came in and they opened themselves up. They saw the value in these kids."

So rewarding was Callies’s experience behind the camera that it stimulated an even bigger idea: Why not let the teens become photographers? She created a budget of $8,500 and raised the money and contributions within 36 hours. Soon the students had their own cameras—which will be re-used with each group annually—to take photos of someone important to them.

First, however, former teachers Callies and Uesugi asked them to write essays about their photo subjects. They also had to challenge themselves with personal statements beginning with the phrases: "I am …" "I can …" and "I will …."

After some instruction, they became storytellers and photographers—without the easy fix of digital altering at their fingertips. "This is not just about handing them a camera," says Callies. "It’s about lighting. It’s about looking into someone’s eyes and understanding their essence. It’s about taking your time, thinking through the process. It’s about inspiring excellence."

It allows them to say, "This is how I see my world, and this is how I want you to see my world," according to Uesugi. "A lot of times kids can’t put that into words. This gives them a voice."

Participants got a photo assignment based on a theme and a timeline. This year’s theme was "Doorways." photo: Steven Nohara

Those voices grew a bit stronger when Callies and Uesugi arranged for an exhibition of the students’ work—themed "Doorways"—for one month at Dole Cannery. It then expanded to the Arts at Marks Garage and Honolulu Hale, where Mayor Mufi Hannemann made a special appearance.

"It was so awesome that day we went to City Hall," recalls Tofilau, grinning at the memory. "It makes us feel special that there’s people who care about us and don’t look down on us."

Salote Lopes, 10, agrees: "That was like being famous!"

At the exhibits’ completion, participants received portraits of themselves and their subjects, a hardbound coffee table book of their work and a DVD presentation.

What the youngsters accomplished impacted the photographers just as deeply. "It validates to me that kids can do amazing things," says Uesugi, who taught for 10 years in Wahiawa public schools before starting Utopia Photography. "They are humble and grateful and so honest in their feeling."

With a budget of $11,553 and a new nonprofit partner, this year’s project will begin this month, with a gallery opening scheduled for August. Some of last year’s participants will mentor newcomers associated with Women in Need (WIN), a nonprofit organization that provides services for clients with dependent children who are homeless, in transition or victims of domestic violence. WIN also helps clients develop workplace and life skills to foster stability and independence. Teens participating in Project Focus this year have been in foster care or are homeless. Following the theme "My Voice," Callies and Uesugi will spotlight children reuniting with parents who have been away for drug rehabilitation or incarceration.

"It’s a unique and wonderful way to teach children that the sky’s the limit," says WIN executive director Mary Scott-Lau. "It’s so enabling. It allows them to use their own judgment and creativity, because there’s no right or wrong way to do it."

And if they’re anything like Tofilau, they’ll come away with the confidence that "kids from here are going places."

Making a Difference is presented in partnership with Hawai’i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai’i’s people.
For information: www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.