Karmen Stagl was on vacation shopping at Hollister when her mom called to ask if she wanted to take a photo class. At the time, Stagl agreed simply because she wanted to get off the phone and focus on the task at hand.
When she later realized what she’d signed up for, she wondered why it was necessary if she already knew how to snap a photo. But in the weeks that followed, she discovered what else there was to learn. She was especially drawn to the nuances of lighting and what it can mean for a picture. And she realized that photography might be something she’d like to continue doing — a “side thing” to focus on in the future.
“It was pretty fun,” she said.
Stagl, 14, was one of four teenagers from the Helena Housing Authority who were handed Nikon cameras and taught photography basics during a five-week course this fall. Under the guidance of Montana Office of Tourism photographer Donnie Sexton and former Montana Power photographer Bob Webster, the teens captured images from events and landmarks around town: the Last Chance Community Powwow, Farmers Market, Archie Bray Foundation, the Capitol and the fire station.
They learned about photo composition and editing during five-hour sessions on Saturdays, encouraged to snap pictures from different angles and viewpoints. Sexton was impressed by what they accomplished.
“They were really creative,” she said.
The participants showed off their work to the Housing Authority’s governing board Tuesday afternoon, a slideshow of images featuring everything from playgrounds and parks to buildings and children. David Handschuh, the director on the Focus on Mentoring program through which the educational sessions were organized, came to town for the event.
Handschuh is a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee who has worked in photojournalism for 30 years, much of that time at the New York Daily News. He’s been noted for his photos of the chaos in the midst of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — work that nearly cost him his life.
Handschuh began taking photos when he was 13 years old, a hobby and career that kept him out of trouble during his youth, he said. Along the way, he said, he received a lot of help from people in the field and felt compelled to do the same for other kids. The child of a public school teacher, he’d witnessed the effect an educator can have on people’s lives.
The Focus on Mentoring program started at the Tampa Housing Authority several years ago and made its way to the opposite end of the country through connections Handschuh has with Johnson Controls, a global technology and industrial company that conducted an energy audit at the Helena Housing Authority two years ago. The audit resulted in energy and water upgrades — such as furnace and toilet replacements — across the 366 residences in the public housing unit. The changes are expected to save about $200,000 by this spring, said Executive Director Josh LaFromboise. About $10,000 of those savings were used to pay for the cameras, instruction and photo prints needed for the local Focus on Mentoring program.
At the board meeting, David Koch, the director of Public and Affordable Housing Solutions for Michigan-based Johnson Controls, discussed the value of partnerships to make such opportunities possible. He and LaFromboise said they’d like to make similar programs available in the future.
Program participant Demitria Martin, 18, told the board she wishes she could have a chance to take the class again. She was excited from the moment she saw a flier advertising the course, already interested in the art of photography.
“This made me want to do it more, maybe even as a career,” she said.
That is enough to make Sexton feel like the program was a success — the fact that it had an impact on at least one life.
Webster learned something from the experience himself, watching the students take photos without the structured view he’d developed working as a professional photographer for 45 years.
“They were teaching me,” he said. “They were showing me what to see.”
The teenagers’ work received warm praise from the members of the Helena Housing Authority Board and will be on display for the community to view at the Holter Museum of Art starting in April.
“We’ll have to get you black berets to wear to the opening,” Handschuh said to Stagl and Martin.
Reporter Allison Maier:
447-4075 or email@example.com