On May 20, 2015, PEPCO’s Edison Gallery was absolutely packed with people who had come to see Critical Exposure’s annual show. According to Adam Levner, founder and executive director, over 400 people attended NO FILTER, the annual exhibit of youth photography for social change.
An intense security check, designed to share students’ every day experience entering school, did not deter attendance. The students, trained by Critical Exposure in advocacy and activism, decided that they wanted others to know what it feels like to walk through a metal detector and have a security guard wave a wand over you. People were abuzz, talking about this experience.
“We’re trying to create the next generation of youth activists,” Adam Levner said. “We’re glad people were so engaged and impacted by what the students has to share.”
For nearly ten years, Critical Exposure has been teaching youth photography and advocacy skills, so that they can tell their stories – in new and creative ways – and create change.
Critical Exposure partners with Washington, DC, high schools. Their partners for the 2014-2015 school year included Coolidge Senior High School, Luke C. Moore Academy, Next Step Public Charter School, and the Washington Metropolitan High School.
Akil Kennedy, an instructor at the Luke C. Moore Academy, said that it’s easier for some high school kids to take a photo and talk about the photo than to tell an adult what’s on their minds. For some youth, photography is a catalyst for dialogue about issues in their world. It also becomes a tool for challenging – and changing – the dominant narrative on a variety of topics.
One student said, “I learned how to actually tell my story through photography. I can take a photo of something that’s bothering me.” Critical Exposure students talk – as a group – about things that affect them, and decide – as a group – what they will work on. They then look for allies who can help with the issue, and learn to advocate on their own behalf to authorities. The end result is some meaningful change in students’ lives.
This past year, topics included resource disparities and school facilities, school uniforms, and a range of other issues. At their own initiative, several current and former students attended rallies against police brutality, taking photographs to document the movement: Black Lives Matter. In the aftermath of the riots, one Critical Exposure fellow and two alums traveled to Baltimore to photograph and videotape events. The result was an amazing social media campaign and an extremely moving portion of NO FILTER.
“We’re excited about the quality of the student’s work and the depth of what they had to share,” Adam Levner said.
All photos by Christina Scheltema for East City Art.