News

Local children embrace photography through SU organization

Luke Rafferty | Asst. Photo Editor

The Iconic Syracuse billboard on West Fayette and West streets features three local children who are active participants in SU’s Photography and Literacy Project. The goal of the project is to teach inner city students to express themselves through digital media.

The Warehouse Gallery isn’t just a showcase for up-and-coming artists. It’s also a safe haven and place of creative expression for many students in the Syracuse City School District.

Based out of The Warehouse, the Photography and Literacy Project serves as a way for inner-city students to share their stories through digital media and ultimately build self-esteem, said Stephen Mahan, director of the PAL project.

“In Syracuse city school systems there are over 77 languages spoken,” Mahan said. “So a lot of kids have trouble with English. We provide them with an opportunity to express themselves otherwise, and build self-esteem through that.”

The program provides children with state-of-the-art computers and cameras, and teaches them how to use Photoshop, Mahan said. Student mentors from Syracuse University travel to The Warehouse or visit the kids in city classrooms, where they help them maneuver the equipment and become familiar with the programs.

The work of these Syracuse city students has been displayed on Connective Corridor buses, in city hall and shown at Syracuse Stage during performances, Mahan said. Project coordinators hopes to have a series of students’ photographs featured in the Iconic Syracuse series, a community art project, sometime in the future, he said.

Lori Covington, human service coordinator at People’s Equal Action and Community Effort, Inc., which works to help community members realize their potential to become self-sufficient, introduced some of the children she mentors to the PAL project. Three of them became especially engrossed in the program.

“When the work of these children is displayed community-wide, it’s a powerful moment for them,” Covington said. “Actually, it’s more than powerful, it’s empowering.”

When George Mawicke, a senior industrial design major at SU, was looking for local children for inspiration for a submission for an Iconic Syracuse billboard, Mahan, his former professor, directed him to Covington and her three photography-enthusiastic mentees from PEACE.

Mawicke photographed the children under the West Street railroad bridge, then painted a portrait off of the photograph. He submitted the painting to Iconic Syracuse, The Post-Standard reported Jan. 21.

The photo of the children is now displayed on a billboard above West Fayette Street in downtown Syracuse.

“The photo has created such a sense of pride for the kids,” Covington said. “When you look at the billboard, you can tell that the whole city is being seen in such a positive light.”

Mahan started the PAL project in Buffalo during the early 1990s, when he received a grant to teach photography to inner-city children. In 2005, he moved to Syracuse and kick-started the project independently with his wife.

“While working in Buffalo, I noticed that all of these great stories were coming out of the inner city, so I started writing them down,” Mahan said. “I realized how important it was for these neighborhoods to have a voice.”

The PAL project works as a “scaffold,” Mahan said. The students of the program learn certain techniques in one semester, and then build on that foundation the next semester, he said.

The project provides a glimpse into what college is like for many children whose family members have never been to college, Mahan said. The students can also see the physical differences in the way a college environment is different than everyday schooling, he said.

“The amazing thing about photography is that you can teach critical thinking skills and creativity without them even knowing it,” Mahan said. “The project gives them a chance to address who they are in a way other than what they’re used to.”

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