Through Their Eyes
Kirsten Elstner was sent to Afghanistan and Bangladesh on assignment
for National Geographic, she had a vision. She believed that the
only way to get to the heart of what life is all about, without
the slant of outside perspectives, is to put the camera into the
hands of the people being portrayed.
years of traveling the world, her seed thought blossomed into
VisionWorkshops, a program that uses the art of photojournalism
as a vehicle not only to understand the community through the
eyes of our kids but also to motivate low-income youth in a society
where they are sometimes left behind.
"VisionWorkshops is an after-school program created to provide
a positive learning experience for low-income youth in Anne Arundel
County through the medium of photojournalism," says Elstner. "It's
a mentor program that stimulates self-confidence and pride within
youth through their ability to learn a new skill, express themselves
articulately and deal with some of life's obstacles through the
power of photography and art."
Local schools and organizations are actively involved in recruiting
students who can benefit most from this outreach that is free
of charge to its participants. "We focus on kids who cannot pay
for extracurricular programs and do not have as many resources
in this community of great prosperity," she explains. "We target
recent immigrants who may not have a clear understanding of the
culture, those who are detached from or uncomfortable with school
programs for personal reasons---and kids who have less activity
to occupy their time after school and are faced with temptations
that could get them into trouble."
passion for education is evident. "I chose to work with middle-school-age
kids so we can reach them before they get to high school where
the drop-out rate is astounding," she says. "Kids drop out of
school for a variety of reasons. I just want to expose them to
the benefits of education and show them that learning can actually
be fun." The high school drop-out rate for Anne Arundel County
is a high 4.48 percent compared to the statewide rate of 3.9 percent.
Workshops are held weekly at Maryland Hall where Elstner is an
artist-in-residence. "A typical hour-and-a-half session includes
a discussion about elements of photography as well as a journalism
segment," says Elstner. "And then the part that students love---time
in the darkroom developing their pictures. This is where they
get to see the magic of the picture."
In keeping with the vision on which the program was founded, workshop
participants work on projects that document their lives. "One
of the assignments is 'Self-Portrait,'" says Elstner. "We are
all interested in the way we present ourselves to the world. This
is their moment to say 'this is how I want to be seen in a photograph,
and these are the words I choose to describe myself and my world.'"
Another assignment is "Three Questions," which requires students
to ruminate such themes as fear, hope and change.
Encarnacion, international student registrar for Anne Arundel
County Public Schools, is an advocate of VisionWorkshops. "This
is a program that teaches students new skills in a non- threatening
environment and brings out the best in them," she says. "To watch
immigrant students go from tentatively speaking a few words of
English to writing a page of prose about their family as seen
through a photograph is truly amazing."
Emotional growth and skill development are qualities that VisionWorkshops
instills. These elements are illuminated in an essay written by
Zakia Ferdaus, a participant from Bangladesh who writes, "I came
to live in America on my birthday last year. When I got here,
I didn't understand English and school, and I had to work hard
to understand. Now I dream in English."
Annual exhibits offer the public a rare opportunity to view the
world through borrowed eyes. Deonte Ward, a VisionWorkshops participant
says, "I love being in this program 'cause it gives me a chance
to show others what living in Newtowne 20's all about---it's not
all bad." Ward's photo gives us a glimpse of life through the
window of his apartment.
Newtowne resident, Benny Price, took a photo of the metal fence
that surrounds the complex and raised the question, "Are they
keeping other people out or caging us in?"
A self-portrait of Shenika Simms is accompanied by an essay in
poetic prose that is a profound expression of themes of morality
and parenthood. It ends with a heartwarming plea, not for sympathy,
but for guidance and "A Prayer 2 Be Answered."
As synergy would have it, some workshop assignments take an unexpected
turn. "One of our students, Ashley Stocks, was extended an invitation
to assist Paul Hosefros [a renowned senior photographer for the
Washington Bureau of the New York Times] for a day in Washington
D.C.," recalls Elstner. "She had never been to Washington and
was thrilled for that alone-but what was to follow she could never
have imagined. While she was working with Hosefros, he received
a call to go to the White House and photograph the president.
She actually spent the day in the White House photographing President
Bush. I will never forget the look on her face when she recounted
This past summer Elstner ventured full circle when she took VisionWorkshops
to the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Her program
utilized Geographic photographers as mentors for inner city children.
"Students were given the opportunity to learn from some of the
most accomplished photojournalists in the field and produce a
project inspired by National Geographic's 'Zip USA' series," says
Elstner. "They learned about the mechanics of putting together
a story for National Geographic, as well as the intricacies, challenges,
and complex personal motivations that go into achieving a successful
photograph. But most importantly, they were asked to go out and
explore the world, then bring back what they saw-to actually make
an adventure out of the discovery process-that is photojournalism
at its best." Elstner's great success with this summer program
prompted Geographic to offer her the opportunity to take this
Unfortunately, funding the local program presents a challenge
in the upcoming year for VisionWorkshops. "As a result of the
fiscal emergency [cuts in county budgets], County Executive Janet
Owens had to make some painful cutbacks, and we were one of them,"
says Elstner. "Our grant was cut by nearly 100 percent. We thought
we were going to have to close our doors, but we're determined
to stay alive because we believe so strongly in what we do." Elstner's
passion and determination is apparent when she says with conviction,
"We are actively trying to build support through fundraisers and
corporate contributions. I know that we can-we just have to get
the word out."
On a personal note, Kirsten Elstner says, "I chose photojournalism
as a career, initially, because I saw the camera as a tool that
I could use to understand other people. I'm a very curious person,
and photojournalism was a natural choice for me. As it turns out,
there are so many ways to use the tools of photography and journalism
to understand the world and the people in it-from a broader, global
perspective to a program like VisionWorkshops where our aim is
to understand the lives of kids in our own backyard."
But she is quick to say that the goal of VisionWorkshops is not
to mold kids to become photojournalists. "It's just my way of
mentoring and sharing a fun vocation," says Elstner. "The feeling
that I get when I work with these kids cannot be equaled in any
other facet of being a photographer." Her words are highlighted
with a sort of flash from her soul.
A photographer looks at the world through a lens and captures
the essence of a moment with light-the photograph eternalizes
the memory. Perhaps the following word photograph does just that
and brings to light this program with all the dynamism that Eugene
Smith so poignantly describes. For more information about VisionWorkshops,
visit their website at www.VisionWorkshops.org.
Edwards enjoys the adventures of life and writing about
it. She is an avid reader, traveler and yoga practitioner
who resides in Annapolis with her husband and her dog.