In 2004 I began to learn about the struggle for arts funding and access to high quality arts programming for low income, refugee and foster youth in Portland, Oregon.
In response together with Alex Ney I founded My Story, a multimedia arts organization that operated out of the community rooms of accessible housing complexes in Portland.
Around formica tables with mismatched chairs we start every workshop by asking the students to take plastic Holga cameras from the 1980s and make photographs of what is most important in their lives.
Students photograph themselves*, their foster grandmothers in bed ill with stomach cancer, their brand new curly wired telephones in the hands of their mother, their sleeping fathers.
They hand their camera to a little brother to snap a self portrait in prayer, young girls in floral scarves measured the focal distance with sleeved arms and photographed mothers who had fled death threats to raise babies in the safety of the Portland rain. Young boys stage manage images of their dreams of the NBA. Sisters dress alike in a doppelganger vision of twin princesses.
The children had flown, many for the first time, to the United States in the span between birthdays. Nine in Dadaab Camp, Kenya, Ten in Portland, Oregon, America. Leaving grandparents and school friends behind in refugee camps and small villages they stepped into the tight new shoes of an American kid. Some students born and raised in Oregon, had been forcibly pulled from the arms of their mothers and placed in foster care. They come together under the common experience of learning a new way to tell their story.
In the model of Wendy Ewald's Literacy Through Photography students write about their lives and photograph with intention. Student work is shared with their community and the city in gallery shows and through partnerships with Portland City Hall and grants from the Regional Arts and Culture Council
* All images created by students