Shotgun Review

Emancipated Hearts and First Exposures

By Shotgun Reviews May 5, 2010

Photography’s immediate currency paired with its possibility for long-term impact make it a perfect artistic match with young adults, especially those whose life stories might be more easily shown than told. Two Bay Area organizations highlight the artistic and social potential that arises when adolescents find opportunities to share their own stories through photography.

Emancipated Hearts is a writing and photography program run by journalist R. Todd Kerr through the Alameda County Independent Living Skills Program (ILSP) for teens in the foster care system. The program deals mostly with practical information and skills. Kerr’s curriculum, though, is more philosophical. He asks teens to find their “unique strengths” as individuals. Then, after they have come to understand what it is they want to photograph, they are granted a digital camera to begin shooting.

SF Camerawork runs a similar, but more structured, program called First Exposures. In this program, at-risk or low-income students as young as eleven are each paired with a photography mentor. Students and mentors commit to meet every Saturday during the school year; the mentoring relationship may continue until the student graduates. The college matriculation rate of First Exposures graduates is impressive: 100 percent.  

LeAndralynn Dunson. Artist standing with From the Rooftop, 2010; photo collage; installation view, Joyce Gordon Gallery, Oakland. Photo: R. Todd Kerr.

I had the opportunity to view work from both these programs recently, at Joyce Gordon Gallery in Oakland and SF Camerawork, respectively. It was clear these students were able to use the camera to see, not to simply look. Almost all the photos held their own as works of art. But the images from each show manifested a distinct tone and visual sensibility.

The students of the Emancipated Hearts program produced work that was pointedly personal, often conceptual in format, and frank in its attempt at autobiography and narrative. For example, LeAndralynn Dunson presented “From the Rooftop," an oblique photographic collage picturing her from her building’s stark roof, highlighted and drawn together by the yellows of her shirt and the cap of a fan pipe. Euniqua Wade used a photograph of an overpass where she had stayed when she was briefly homeless to create large-scale patterns and actual cloth. In almost every work in this show, I felt what was at stake for these artists very viscerally and immediately.

The photographs from the First Exposures program felt very engaged in the history of the medium itself. I discerned more clearly the kids’ skills as photographers within an established framework, although I remained at a distance from the stories that had brought them here in the first place. Bryan Duran’s photo of a tree’s branches conjured a beautiful, organic minimalist image while Micka Tiglao captured the tension between a couple on a bus with an intentional yet distanced eye.

I highlight these images as microcosms of two distinct and equally valid emotional points of contact that, to me, define the medium of photography at its best. The students of First Exposures exhibition demonstrated to me photography’s potential to transcend a moment in time; the teenagers at Emancipated Hearts reminded me of photography’s ability to cut right through to the heart of it.


Jasmine Moorhead is the owner and director of Krowswork gallery in Oakland.

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