Cameras help homeless teens tell the world where they're at
Two strikingly dissimilar images by 21-year-old Geoff Davis will be among the photographs displayed as part of "The Identity Project," an unusual group show opening at the Firehouse Center this week.
One of Davis' pictures, taken in a downtown Burlington alleyway, "reminds me of a crime scene," he says. It shows a toppled "Private Parking" sign lying beside a junked armchair and other urban rubble. A cinder-block wall tagged with faded graffiti forms the ragged backdrop. "This photo reminds me of how my life has been -- broken and shattered," explains Davis, who moved to Vermont a year ago from Miami, where he'd "been getting into trouble," he says.
A second photo presents a postcard-worthy glimpse of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks shot through an opening in leafy trees. "It's me peeking out onto the world," Davis says of this grainy shot. "It shows a better space where I could go -- one I'm working toward."
Davis' photos will hang at the Fire- house alongside 45 others taken by 10 young adults who are served by Spectrum Youth and Family Services and the Pearl Street Clinic. These adjacent storefronts, just steps from the Church Street Market- place, are frequented daily by scores of rolling stones with no direction home. Some of the photographers, who range in age from 17 to 21, have been or currently are homeless. A few have turned to drugs and alcohol to subdue their psychological demons. Many, according to Pearl Street Clinic Director Paul Dragon, come from "atrocious family backgrounds," where they were victims of sexual abuse or other forms of violence.
"The Identity Project" was conceived as a way for youths in such circumstances to explore their past, present and perhaps future selves through photography. "Going out with a camera enables them to get pictures of themselves," Dragon says.
The effort is the brainchild of Mimi Parker, a 36-year-old University of Vermont student and photographer. Parker chose Spectrum as a site for a class assignment on teaching art at nontraditional venues. Using disposable cameras, she offered weekly instruction in composition, lighting, perspective and "how to communicate through photography."
But her work with a self-selected dozen of the kids who hang out at Spectrum's drop-in center soon became much more than a class assignment. "Many people in my own life helped me out when I was younger," says Parker, a single mother. "The reciprocity of working with teens is very important to me." She wants to leave a positive mark on the young photographers "so maybe they'll be available one day to help others, too," she says.
It can be frustrating when a Spectrum client drops out of the photo project without warning, Parker says, noting, "Their lives have constant ups and downs, often unexpected." Parker herself, however, never misses a session. "I show up here every week as a way of saying, 'I believe in you.'"
The project seems to be succeeding with Heather Notte, a 19-year-old homeless mother. She moved to Burlington from Rutland last summer, she says, because "I wasn't getting along with my mom." Notte's 15-month-old son remains in her mother's Rutland home.
"The photo project gives us a way to keep out of trouble," Notte says. "It's gotten me away from doing drugs and drinking." She's currently working 40 hours a week at a day-care center and as an intern at Ben & Jerry's.
Four faces of Heather will appear in the Firehouse show. A couple of them depict "the natural me," she says, while another "shows how people see me." The fourth, featuring a face-painted Notte mugging for her own camera, "is a picture of the fun-loving me."
She got involved in "The Identity Project," Notte explains, because "I enjoy capturing moments and memories and showing people what I see. I have millions of photo books. They remind me of my friends and show the changes from childhood to adulthood."
Geoff Davis has also recently gotten a job, working 40 hours on second shift as an orderly at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He'll begin an apprenticeship next month at Yankee Tattoo as well, he says. Davis is moving into his own apartment after spending months "couch-surfing" -- spending a night or two at a time in the living rooms of friends and acquaintances. That vagabond way of life "felt like crap," Davis admits. "I don't like asking for anything, having to borrow money. It's not how I was raised. It's not what I expected to be."
Danielle, a wispy 17-year-old who does not want her last name published, will be represented in the Firehouse show by a pair of photos taken from a vertical angle, with the camera pointed straight down at the landing of the basement steps in her parents' Champ- lain Islands home. One shot shows a six-pack of beer alongside full bottles of wine coolers and hard liquor. In the other, the bottles are empty or absent.
"A lot of people think that what I did in the past I still do," Danielle says. "These photos are meant to show that's not so."
Danielle, who now attends the Horizons alternative school in Burlington after a long period as a dropout, will also exhibit a bifurcated shot, the left side showing the doodled-over cover of a school notebook, and the right, a blank inside page "where the future will be written," Danielle explains. "What I really want to do is go to college and become a veterinarian."
The transition out of adolescence can be difficult even in wholesome surroundings, Mimi Parker notes. "We're all looking for our personal identity, and when you're homeless it becomes that much more difficult."
Many of the 500 or so kids who use the Spectrum drop-in center each year are short on self-esteem, says Brian Plisco, 22, who manages the Pearl Street space. They may also be inwardly seething over the sneers and insults spat at them by adult passers-by, offended by the sight of disheveled and pierced teens smoking cigarettes at the entrance to the Burlington Town Center.
"These are a marginalized group of kids not well understood, who are put by adults into categories where many don't actually belong," Plisco comments. "They're not being motivated to work or to stay in school. Many are shabby in their outward appearance."
Dragon adds that in a society which allocates scant resources to helping such kids, "The weakest ones have to struggle hard not to get lost or left behind. They're vulnerable to addictions. They're not able to compete like the rest of us."
For many of the young photographers, "The Identity Project" is a way to correct adult misconceptions about who they really are. "We're hoping that through 'The Identity Project,' the community will get to see another side of these kids -- their creative side," says Dragon.
Other young people not associated with Spectrum or the Pearl Street Clinic have also been powerfully affected by their work. Three St. Michael's College students have been accompanying photojournalism professor Jerry Swope every Friday afternoon to help Notte, Davis, Danielle and the other novice photogs learn to use digital cameras, donated by St. Mike's. "We're also here to share experiences of what photography can be as a story-telling medium," Swope says.
The college volunteers, drawn from Swope's class and from the school's photography club, also work with the Spectrum participants in a well-equipped darkroom in a closet on the second floor of the building. PhotoGarden on College Street has contributed processing materials.
Swope wanted to get involved with "The Identity Project," he says, because "I thought it would be a good opportunity for St. Michael's students to connect with others around their own age who aren't necessarily like themselves." St. Mike's senior Mary Lake signed up partly for that reason. "It can be easy for college students to forget that not all their peers have the same sort of backgrounds," she says.
Despite their different cultures, the St. Mike's trio and the Spectrum photographers have clicked as a group, Lake adds. But what impresses her more is the relationship among those who use the drop-in center, which includes a kitchen, comfortable chairs and a sound system. "The kids here have formed a very strong family group," Lake observes. "They're really close with one another."
The weekly visits to Spectrum have been eye-opening for Mike Morris, a St. Mike's junior from Sutton, Mass. He says there aren't any homeless youths in his middle-class hometown outside Worcester. "I've learned as much from the people here as they've learned from me -- probably more," Morris says.
Lake says a camera proved a valuable instrument for her in high school, "when I was trying to figure out who I was, who my friends were, how I fit into things." She has since carried out a photo project of sex workers in Senegal during a semester abroad, and taught photography last year at Burlington's Rock Point School. "Photography can definitely help people get to know themselves better," she says.
Some of the Spectrum youth taking part in the project have keyed completely into this method of searching for themselves, adds St. Mike's senior Sean Cooley. "You can see it when we go out with them around Burlington to take shots. They're just spilling their guts with their cameras."
Those involved in "The Identity Project" say they will continue to work together on photography once the Firehouse show concludes at the end of the month. Drop-in center manager Plisco envisions converting part of that space into a gallery that could become a stop on the monthly Art Walks sponsored by Burlington City Arts.
Spectrum Youth and Family Services, which operates on a $4 million annual budget from state, federal and private sources, has an 86-person staff that oversees two group homes in Bur-lington and one in Castleton, as well as the drop-in center and counseling services it provides. The Pearl Street building also houses a temporary shelter where a total of 138 youth spent at least one night during the past year, according to Spectrum Director Mark Redmond. The Pearl Street Clinic is one of two facilities sponsored by the Burlington Community Health Center that offers free medical care and therapy.
"We're not only giving kids shelter and meals and laundry and phones," Plisco adds, "but we also aim to provide them with skills -- transitional skills for self-sufficiency. That's what 'The Identity Project' is about. It's providing self-confidence and self-awareness as well as teaching some kids how to use a camera to express what they're feeling and thinking."