When I get older
If you get the chance, do it.
Sometimes I forget where I come from. Nine months ago I moved back to my old neighborhood. Wednesday of last week I went back to my old grade school. It felt funny to walk through the same cinder block halls, only a couple feet taller. It felt like coming home. I’ve grown a lot since grade six.
I walked into the office and the secretaries recognized me immediately. Considering how much time I spent in the office this is not really surprising. I got into a lot of fights, and did a lot of things that I am not proud of. I was a problem, we all were.
I got lucky. I was a white kid in a brown neighborhood, a false minority in a mixed community. I grew up in one of the most Canadian neighborhoods in Canada. How can I possibly make that claim? The Canada that our parents, grandparents, and many of my peers were born into does not exist anymore, at least it won’t for long. The future of Canada is mixed, a lot more mixed than it is today. We need to learn from places like Cambridge Street Public school what this means, and how to adapt.
Don’t believe me? Richard Florida’s “Ontario in the Creative Age” report says that we are in the middle of an full-scale economic transition, one that will place even greater importance on the contribution of new Canadians to our society. The dynamics of immigration are reshaping our cities, big and small. In their report “Immigrants and Their Communitites – Struggling to Keep Up”, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities describes the increasing challenge faced by cities to integrate newcomers. Schools like Cambridge prove that we are doing a good job. Still, we need to do better.
As a young white man, I am privileged. Nobody ever questions my attachment to Canada, my heritage, or my citizenship. I’m not an outsider. People don’t see me as a problem. Not everyone has this privileged opportunity. This is why I started volunteering. Inequity is why I am interested economics, sociology, and photography. What keeps me going back though is the kids. The kids are amazing.
Cambridge is an incredibly diverse school. In its hallways, children from every regional, cultural, and ethnic group share cubby holes. Letters home to parents are sent in multiple languages. It is a challenging place. Many of the students face barriers. Some are far behind because they are new to English, or have a difficult home life. I was one of those kids. If my grade two teacher had not sent me to remedial reading (which was available in the school), my life would be very different now. Early intervention in the lives of kids makes a huge difference.
Economists are starting to understand this. James Heckman, from the University of Chicago, has done pioneering studies of early education. Geoffrey Canada (great name) lives this idea with his Harlem Children’s zone. Both men believe we need to invest in children.
But what does this have to do with photography? Everything.
At it’s core, photography is the act of seeing. When you take a picture, you immortalize the action of seeing something, whether a person, a landscape, or kittens. Photography is based on the very basic relationship of saying “I see you”. This activity gives you and your subject power. Really seeing “the other” is an essential step in understanding. By legitimizing the unseen, photography and activism are fundamentally linked.
I love working with the kids. I do it because they are awesome people, and I care about them. I volunteer because I want to promote the idea that kids, these kids, are important. I believe in kids too. My passion about Cambridge informs my photography. This is why it is important.
If you’re going to do something, love it. I care about cross-cultural bridge building and understanding. I want to use my photography as a teaching tool, to show people “the other” and dissolve barriers.
Photography is a skill, not a job. The photographer’s role is much wider than simply clicking a shutter. Whether you are a documentary photographer or a commercial shooter, people are the most important part of photography. Understanding people, talking, and listening is the job. Photography is just the manufacturing process, we produce a translation of reality. I think we should use this power for good.
Do what you love, it will make your photography better, and make a better world.
Do yourself a favour, listen right to the end of K’naan in concert at SXSW ’09. This performance includes a special version of Wavin’ Flag, one that sent shivers up my spine.