"I just keep asking them to tell me who they are," photographer and artist-in-residence at Eagle Rock High School Gail Brown explains with a sly smile. "I just keep rephrasing the question and this," she points to the dozens and dozens of student-made photo books on display in the school's photography classroom, "is what they create."
A few of Brown's students have come in on a hot and hazy summer day to display the work they created in an after-school program Brown founded. Called "From Where I'm Standing," she has kept the program going with the assistance of the California Arts Council and has taken it to several L.A. area junior and senior high schools. Brown, who has a master of fine arts from State University of New York, often photographs the students as they work. And this year, an exhibition of those shots will be on display at the Watts Towers Arts Center, along with the students' work. "My images of the many children balances the kids' work," Brown says.
In the after-school program, students are charged with looking into themselves, family, friends and environs. To do so, they get the loan of a camera, are taught the rudiments of photography and are asked to "talk" about their lives in pen and ink and black-and-white photos.
Some students, like 12-year-old Tiffanie Tran, are blunt about their reasons for participating: "I get bored over the summer." Her book opens up with a photo of her multigenerational family, sunlight angling in at the close-knit group, a house in the background.
While Tiffanie's photos capture her bedroom, herself and her sister, others' work is more expansive in its prose. Melanie Gonzalez, 16, writes:
I am a leopard
who won't change its spots.
Life's a jungle.
Sometimes the real battle is in our minds ...
Tracy Morgan, 17, is more enamored with the possibilities of photography and yet he turns an interesting line: "There is no water in an atom of oxygen."
Some of the narratives begin downbeat, or go off into silly, mischievous tangents. Some are the students' intimate observations of the world around them.
Monica Cervantes, 14, captures friends and family, as well as random architectural details from her neighborhood. Monica writes about a little brother, friends, home, death and heaven, but her most poignant line is
My dad ...
He can do anything.
While family and friends are repeated themes, Jamie Chan, 14, was clearly moved by the field trip the group made to the Watts Towers.
Do you believe in love at first sight?
I don't know, ... but I believe Simon Rodea
the man who built the Watts Towers was in love
it's because of the heart
The students end their six-week session by learning to bind their works into clean-lined, professional-looking books that are, in fact, mini-documentaries of their lives. Most are beaming with a sense of accomplishment.
"These kids learn so much about self-expression in these sessions, but this could be the last session for a while," says Brown. "There are no more California Arts Council grants. But the Eagle Rock Alumni Assn. is committed to raising funds so it can continue, at least at this school."
'From Where I'm Standing'
Where: Watts Towers Arts Center, 1727 E. 107th St., L.A.
When: Opening reception, Sunday, 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays, noon-4 p.m. through Sept. 14
Cost: $2; $1.50, seniors; $1 for students 12 and older; free for those 11 and younger
Info: (213) 847-4646