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Urban Visionaries

A project of photography and writing brings youths new insights. The Huntington is displaying their work.


Peering through the lens of a $13 camera, Gloria Soto looked for beauty in her Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Her teacher had taught her there was aesthetic value in everything: the rundown Nightingale Bridge, the clashing, bright colors of graffiti on walls, and the simplicity of a friend's smile. It was refreshing to see beyond the harshness of the inner city to hear this stranger describe those streets in an uplifting, artistic way.

But the 13-year-old Lincoln High School freshman was surprised by what she saw when she focused the lens on herself. Years of believing she was nobody special, that she'd never amount to anything, disappeared in a flash.

Gloria's teacher is Gail Brown, a documentary photographer--or a "philosopher-photographer," Brown says--who leads a 5-year-old program at the Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club in Lincoln Heights in which children, ages 9 to 17, document their lives through black-and-white pictures paired with personal writings. The students receive cameras, learn to load film, take pictures and develop them, and then express their feelings about the images with words. At the end of the project, "From Where I'm Standing," the students create books of their work.

For the first time, the finished books will be on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino. The exhibit, which opened Saturday and closes Aug. 10, is the first display of children's work featured at the Huntington and is a way for young artists to connect with the rest of Los Angeles and be exposed to people and areas they don't usually encounter, Brown said.

"Any time we can give kids an artistic outlet, it's a positive [change] and a feeling of control in some ways," said June Aiello, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club. "It gives them a sense that their environment isn't just happening to them, that they're capturing it and making a statement about it. What people usually don't understand about these kids is that they're very insightful. They have to take a look inside because what they see outside is so bad."

As the students explored their external worlds, looking for ways to express themselves, what changed most remarkably was their perception of themselves. These child artists stand taller.

"When I was little, my family treated me great," says Gloria, sitting in a classroom at the Boys & Girls Club. "But when I went to school, I started hanging out with the wrong people and I started to think I just wasn't that bright. I used to have a really low self-esteem. But my teacher inspired me and told me I can do it, and now I realize that I'm not as dumb as I always thought I was."

The photographs and writings poignantly capture the contradictions and turmoil the children face in their lives. Brown, who has been working with children in Los Angeles since 1992, said she chose to document East Los Angeles when she realized that being aware of the issues facing her students was not enough. She needed to "get inside their heads" to truly understand them and nurture them.

"You walk down the streets here and it's packed with billboards and things that keep telling you that you won't amount to anything, that this is broken, that is broken," said Brown, 43. "It's nothing like the Huntington where everything is green and manicured and perfect. These kids may all have similar pressures, but it affects each one differently and you can see it in the work they produce."

For Carmen Morales, 12, a simple photograph of the Nightingale Bridge she frequently crosses assumes a somber reality in the line she penned about it: "Each day that goes by is like walking across a bridge. With one mistake you fall into the waters of deception."

One of Maria Gamez's photographs sparks her young imagination; the 9-year-old fourth-grader at Arroyo Seco Museum of Science Magnet School looks at the butterflies floating around a tree and wonders what it would be like for people to fly.

In her paragraph about another picture, where she catches boys playing cops and robbers, she's not as fanciful: "Imagine him in the picture fighting in my school, everybody screaming and trying to find the bad guy and going to kill him for good."

"The idea is for the kids to show us how they view the outside and see their surroundings in the pictures, but to show us how they feel inside in the writings," Brown said.

As part of the program, the students took four field trips to the Huntington, where they toured art galleries, visited the photography archives in the library, took a garden workshop, and photographed the gardens, said Kitty Connolly, a botanical education specialist at the Huntington.

The gardens, especially the waterfalls, inspired Maria's sister, Lluvia Gamez, 13, to write: "Nature tells all. It has no make-up and can't tell no lies. Nature cannot pose."

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