Photography is notable among the arts for its ability to make change in the world. This can take many forms, from documentation of hardship to inspire social change to the exploration of invisible realms, leading to scientific discovery. Equally relevant is the use of photography as a teaching tool, dedicated to building confidence and affecting change in the lives and ambitions of underserved youth.
For the first in a series that reveals the dedication and effort at work behind the scenes within notable youth photography nonprofits, we spoke with Alicia Hansen, founder and executive director of NYC Salt. For the past 12 years, Hansen and a small group of teachers, mentors, and other advisors have engaged, inspired, and empowered New York City students in their journey through high school, into college and beyond, helping them to reach their full potential through photography, video, and an understanding of the visual industry.
Our interview below is illustrated with student photographs from NYC Salt’s recent book project To Each Their Own, a visual representation of how each student is coping with the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. To view more student images and read their project statements, follow the drop-down menus under the Our Students tab on the NYC Salt Website.
Above photograph © Frances Sy
Jill Waterman: What is the significance of the name NYC Salt?
Alicia Hansen: Salt is something we can't live without; it flavors or preserves. And the problem we're trying to solve with the program is to provide a very high-quality art education for kids in areas of the city that don't have access to that kind of experience. So, the name reflects our mission in the sense of flavoring and preserving communities and using creative pathways as a pipeline towards higher education and career paths.
So, give me a little background about your education and career. Are you a photographer or did you study photography? What's your connection to the field?
I received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia, and then went to work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution as a staff photographer/photojournalist. I did a lot of work with newspapers early in my career. And then I got a scholarship to Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and got my master's degree there. After that, I went to work for Joe McNally and was his first assistant for two years. That was a launching pad for me in terms of learning the freelance world in New York, and how to navigate not working on staff, and operating my own photography business. Along the way I started a small class for a bunch of kids in Washington Heights. Eventually, this became a business plan, and a nonprofit, and now it’s my full-time job.
So, when did you first start teaching the kids in Washington Heights? What's the origin story from the beginning to when NYC Salt got its name?
I started the class in January 2005, with eight middle school boys. It started out with boys and girls, but at that age having them together in a class just did not work. It turns out the boys were much more serious about wanting to learn digital photography. I taught the program by myself for several years, but during my second year somebody challenged me to write a business plan, so I did. I had no idea—I'd never written a business plan in my life. But I entered it into a contest, and it was a finalist. This made me realize that maybe there was something more to it than I thought.
About a year later, I ran into a lawyer at a networking group, who offered to do the paperwork to incorporate the program, so I did. In a lot of ways, the program was built on a random series of events. But I knew I needed to incorporate to be able to fund the things we were doing, especially since we didn't have any equipment. We hosted these shows of student work to try and raise enough money for each kid to have a camera, so we could do classes. And then somebody donated a Mac tower, so we had one computer that all the kids could use. By about 2008, we were able to raise enough money to buy cameras for each student, which I checked out to them for the full year.
What kind of cameras did they use, and what was the caliber of their pictures?
I think they were Nikon D3500s or an equivalent consumer-level DSLR. It was a great system for them to learn on, and they made great images. They learned how to see, which is kind of what it was all about. It was just learning how to see light, and how to see composition, and shapes, and shadows.
Were there any existing models for an organization that you looked to for inspiration or advice when you were first starting?
I really love the 826NYC program model that was started by Dave Eggers. He gets professional writers and authors to teach kids creative writing, especially kids from lower income neighborhoods, and they create books and stories. One aspect of the program involves a storefront. The one in Brooklyn is called the Superhero Supply Company, and there’s one in San Francisco’s Mission district that’s a pirate store, where you can buy all kinds of things related to pirates. It's a fun idea, and whatever the store makes goes into the program.
What's the general age range and number of students in your program, and what does the NY Salt program entail?
The age range is from about 14 to 24, and the number of students really just depends on the year, and how much funding I have to pay teachers, and provide equipment, and space, and things like that.
We have anywhere between three and seven school-year programs for high school kids, which usually span September to June. Class sizes run about 16 students so, depending on the year, we probably work with between 75 to 200 kids. We’ve also done summer programs, generally one-week and two-week summer camps. We did a five-week summer camp once, but it was kind of a lot.
And for students going into their senior year, we have a college prep and application boot camp during the last week of August. So, we're pretty busy year-round.
Does the program have a set time frame? Are students involved year-round, and do you keep in touch or do follow-up work with past students?
Our program model is sequential, and multi-year. Students are involved throughout the year, but we follow the school schedule, so we break for Thanksgiving and end-of-year holidays. So, whenever school is technically out, we will not host the program.
Ideally, if a kid starts with us as a high school freshman, they would typically stay with us all four years, and each year would build upon the past. I find that it usually takes a minimum of two to three years for a student to build a really outstanding portfolio, if they work at it. The sequential multi-year model is really important for their development, as well as for getting into a really good college or art school and having the work to back up their application.
We currently have 80 alumni, and we still do a lot of mentoring with them. I just started an alumni program with a class of 10 past students that will meet online every week until August. We're piloting a professional and creative development type of fellowship or residency program.
How are the classes structured and how often do they meet?
Our first-year program, which we call a workshop, is once a week for two and a half hours. We call the second- and third-year program a residency, and classes meet twice a week for three hours. The first year is a bit more of a foundation class that can host a lot more kids. This helps us identify kids who have the interest and talent to take it further. We might run multiple first-year classes, but there's only one second- and third-year class.
In all the programs, we do a lot of field trips for career exposure opportunities, but during the second and third year, we bring in a lot of college prep. The college preparation consists of each student working individually with a guidance counselor and an ACT prep instructor. This involves a much bigger cost, so we want to invest that cost into students who are really serious in pursuing careers in the arts. And during the spring and summer of the junior year, leading into senior year, there's a portfolio development component that gets a bit more rigorous.
Is there one particular location where meetings are held?
Our main location is a photo studio on 29th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan. Some of the first-year programs have been hosted in the New York City Parks Department, as well as in public schools. However, we find that our programs are more successful when they're in a studio environment, just because it's more interesting for the kids. And since they've been at school all day, they’re ready to get out of that kind of setting. Some of the schools are not the nicest of environments.
What's the retention rate of the first-year workshop students?
It’s pretty good. The first-year program that meets in our studio has a retention rate of almost a hundred percent. And, I'd say we get 25% of the kids to advance into the studio program from the outlying programs in the schools and parks.
How many teachers and facilitators are involved in teaching?
There's usually one lead facilitator/teacher for each class, and we've had a teaching assistant for each class, to help out and assist with the students. In the second- and third-year programs, we match each student with a mentor in the industry, to help them on a bi-weekly basis. They check in with them and look at their work, help them edit, go out to shoot, or maybe go to a gallery or an exhibit. Having a mentor to help keep track of each kid, and see what they're doing, and to assist them in a more individualized way helps the lead teacher a lot. The mentors aren’t paid; it's a volunteer position. But our teachers are paid.
As you mentioned, your program has a significant academic prep component. Has this always been an aspect of the programming, and how many mentors or instructors are involved in that?
It hasn't always been a part of the program. We learned pretty quickly with the first graduating class that our students weren't getting the kind of help they really needed in their schools. I think we were just naïve, and surprised, that all of our seniors were taking the SAT for the first time in December of their senior year. So, the next year we decided to do something about that. Because we spent so much time with the kids, and developed really strong relationships, we were already asking those natural questions that a lot of college-educated parents would ask their children; things such as how are you doing in school? What's going on? Are you thinking about college? So, the college prep became a natural part of addressing a need, and providing that assistance.
We looked at models of partnering with a college prep program, but we found that our students would never go. It was just too hard to keep track. And a lot of those programs have a large volume of kids. So, even though it was a smaller student-to-teacher ratio, they were still getting lost, just like in the school system, and it was easy for them to skip out on it. So, we decided to keep the college prep component in our program. We pay a college guidance counselor and an ACT prep teacher, and we track attendance. To keep the success rate strong, I don't see there being another option besides doing it ourselves.
When was the first year you initiated College Prep?
I think it was around 2011, which was also when we held our first show and had our first graduation. We started doing ACT and SAT prep first, and it built up from there. The person who helps the kids prepare for these tests is an actress, and her side gig is private ACT and SAT prep. She went to an Ivy League school, and she's really smart. She works with us one to two times a week during the spring.
It took us some time to find somebody to really settle in with as a college guidance counselor. We had started doing these college trips over spring break, and then four or five years ago, we met a woman during one of our tours who happened to be an independent college counselor in New York. She volunteered to help, and after a year I saw it was really working and we needed more of her time, so we offered her a contract.
Is there any relationship between the photographic instruction portion and the academic prep, or do they exist totally independently?
To some extent they're independent. I mean, the ACT prep is pretty black and white. It doesn't really have much to do with the creative aspect of our teaching. There's a little bit of overlap with the college prep, just in the college list building, because our guidance counselor's background is not in the arts. She's learned a lot from us about many of the good arts and communication schools. The portfolio component of the application process is done 100% through our mentors and teachers, so she doesn't handle that part at all.
Your website mentions a number of guest speakers. Is that a regular part of your programming, and when are the lectures held?
Yes, we bring in guest speakers as much as needed during regular classes. Right now, our classes are held on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights. There aren't a set number of speakers, and the selection process is generally based on the kids’ interests.
We are now meeting virtually, which gives us a better opportunity to pull in speakers from all over the place, so we’ve had many guest speakers in our emerging artist class that just started in April. For example, Ian Spanier talked about the business of photography; Miguel Leano, one of my board members who works for LinkedIn, talked about building a LinkedIn profile; Darius Himes from Christie's spoke about developing a fine art portfolio and understanding the fine art business; Michele Conte spoke about financial planning; and we currently have eight weeks of classes with artist reps from Bernstein and Andriulli, who are speaking about the business of photography.
What’s the most effective aspect of your programming in terms of engaging students and keeping them engaged?
I think it's the community that we build. We put a lot of time and effort into that with the residency classes. At the beginning of the school year, we do a trip to Frost Valley YMCA camp for a weekend of team building. We spend two nights in a big lodge, which helps the kids bond and really get to know each other well. I think that's what sets up the rest of the year for good attendance, and friendships between students, teachers, and the mentors who are able to come.
Your website includes a print sale page, where photos from your various projects are made available for sale. When was this page first added to your website?
We've always had a print sale on our website. This came out of the very first show we did, trying to raise money for cameras. We sold the kids' work and used the money to purchase as many cameras as we could.
Has this been an effective way of fundraising for your programs?
It has. It depends on how it's curated to some degree, but a sale that we launched in May to help keep our doors open amid the pandemic was very effective for us. Those prints were donated by 286 professional photographers, with some work by students and alumni mixed in. I think people are more apt to give when they get something back. This sale has helped, and right now I don't think we’d have been as successful with fundraising if there wasn't a print attached to it.
We had another print sale last December, where we chose 11 well-known photographers and did signed editions of 11. That did really well, too; we pretty much sold out of all the prints. But that sale was not online. We partnered with a small Italian lighting store, and hung the work in their storefront in Chelsea, across the street from our building. We're planning another big sale, probably in October, to launch and help pay for the school-year programming.
Do you have other types of fundraising initiatives, and is there a specific form of fundraising that you’ve found most effective?
We've been really effective with crowdfunding, probably more so than anything else. In the past, we've raised between $75,000 and $100,000 through a year-end crowdfunding campaign. We have people who regularly donate every year at that time. And then we have our board members, and people involved in the program. I'll set up a page and they pledge to raise a certain amount of money. This has worked really well, because it's not just the organization reaching out and asking for money, it's people asking for money from their networks. It's a lot of little donations but, as we've seen in recent political campaigns, a lot of little donations really do add up.
We also have an annual show in June, where we ask people to purchase tickets to attend, priced between $50 and $100. We sell the kids’ prints at the show, so it's part of our program, but it also helps fund our program. It’s a great way for people to understand who we are and what we do, as well as meet the kids and see their work.
You recently did a project called Prism, involving a traveling photo exhibit combining images from select Salt students with those by photographers from the advertising world. Please give us some back story on that.
Eli Rotholtz from AlchemyX came to us with an idea of doing a gallery show and selling photographers’ work, and it snowballed into this big show that would travel to four different New York ad agencies, with an opening night at each agency. The purpose of the show was to get our alumni exposure, to help them get their foot in the door, and considered for freelance work with agencies. Duggal was our sponsor, and they created the exhibit.
We had a massive turnout for the first show, which opened at Grey Advertising agency on March 5, 2020. Following the opening, the seven participating alumni had meetings with the producers who hire photographers.
We promote the opening parties by offering a free ticket, and we reached the attendance limit in every single venue. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the other venues due to COVID-19. It might be something that we revive a year from now, since I can't imagine we'd be able to host a big party in an ad agency with 300 attendees any time this year. But it was a great idea, and it started some really great conversations with people in the ad industry.
What other types of community outreach have you done?
We’ve had containers at Photoville for two different years, and in 2019 we were part of Duggal’s container. Partnering with Duggal is actually a much easier lift for us, because we just have to show up.
And we've recently been talking with the folks who put on PHOTOPLUS+ Expo. They want to see how they could incorporate us into the Expo in October, if they have one.
What types of sponsorships and partnerships do you employ, and what’s the difference between those two types of involvement?
A sponsorship basically means a single time commitment, whereas a partnership means an ongoing relationship. Ideally, we like all of our sponsors to be partners. We've built the organization with the foundation of community, and while we wouldn’t turn down somebody writing us a check, it's much, much better when we can come to an agreement that lasts a couple of years, and we can build on things. A lot of times with these types of relationships, we just don't know each other at first, and you don't know what's possible, but after you start working together, different things come up that you didn't think of initially.
Most recently, we announced an expanded partnership with Nikon. They came to us in early July wanting to get more involved in our work. This partnership will include a $10,000 Emerging Talent Scholarship to be awarded annually, increased access to the latest Nikon cameras and lenses for NYC Salt students, and a mentorship program with Nikon’s prestigious Ambassadors, which will supplement the NYC Salt curriculum for 2020 and beyond.
What percentage of program support comes from grants, and what’s the mix of different types of grants there are, between local, state, national, art-based, or grants based on other demographics?
Every year is different, but I would say about 60% of our funding comes from grants, a mix of private, state, and local government grants. We're supported by the New York State Council on the Arts, the Department of Cultural Affairs in New York City, the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, the Heackscher Foundation for Children, the Altman Foundation, the Gelman Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the Beacon Group, the Solon Summerfield Foundation, the Pinkerton Foundation, and several other foundations that have supported us through the years. Sometimes you find that people's funding focus changes, and you have to replace that funding. That's always challenging. Other funders might have a cycle, like three years on and two years off, and you have to figure out how to replace that funding too. So, in some ways, I feel like we're always in a state of replacing funding as opposed to growing.
As a small organization, it's hard, because we're only as big as the funding we can get, and we constantly have to replace funding that cycles off. It kind of puts you in a place where you're always at the same place. Who knows what's going to happen with this pandemic, and how people are going to look at funding, but we were recently approached by two new foundations that just found us through our marketing efforts with the print sale, so that is fantastic. Both have funded us for our new fiscal year. We’ll also keep looking for additional seed money. Even though we’re 12 years old, we’ve only had staff for four years, so we're still very, very small, and very grassroots, and we’re doing a lot with a little.
Generally speaking, how much of your time as director goes into fundraising and grant writing?
Probably about 65%—more than I'd like. But, over the past eight years, I’ve hired grant writers who have helped me develop a lot of the language. At this point, we can reuse and adjust copy as necessary, so it's not a super hard process. We’ve tried to hire a development director, but it's a really hard position to fill. When we get a little bit bigger, I'll be looking for somebody to take on more of a development role. But for right now, we need to stay as lean as possible so that we survive this pandemic.
Regarding paid staff, what are their positions and how long have they been in place?
We have six employees; four are part time and two of us are full time, Devin and me, who was our first student. He graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2015, and he's been working for us as program and studio manager for the past two years. He really does a little bit of everything to keep the organization going. He helps coordinate with all the teachers and students and handles most of the program administration. The four part-time employees are our guidance counselor and three teachers. And then we also have our ACT prep teacher.
You also have a board of directors and advisory board. What functions do these two boards serve, and does either have an active role in the general program operations?
Neither has an active role in program operations. The advisory board is a group of advisors we tap into for a specific expertise, and they also help us fundraise. The board of directors oversees the organization’s different governance and fiduciary responsibilities. So, they approve our budget, our tax documents, and audit. They help us fundraise and introduce us to networks. And if there's a project that we need more assistance with at any given time, people will step up. One of our board members put together the print sale we launched in June and reached out to all the photographers. Another board member does a lot with mentoring and helping us recruit mentors. We're looking for somebody in finance because our treasurer is moving on. But just having people with different expertise who can help build the organization and help guide our strategic direction is generally what the executive board does.
So, what do you look for in the industry professionals who serve as teachers, mentors, guest speakers, or board members?
We look for different things within each of those categories. With mentors, which is probably our biggest recruitment, we're looking for people who are working professionally all the time. We're not looking for hobbyists for the mentoring part of our program. It’s important to find people who will commit to a student for a couple of years and help them build their portfolio, develop a creative vision, and guide them through the college application process.
We understand that photographers have crazy schedules and they never know from day to day if something's going to come up, so we are flexible with when mentors and mentees meet, but in general we need people who don't have committed travel schedules that keep them away most of the time. That doesn’t look like it will be a problem this year. We ask for a commitment of twice a month, however that fits into their schedule. And, if they can come to the class, that's great. In the past we've had a lot of the mentors come to class, which is fantastic, because then we see them, too.
With teachers, we're looking for people with teaching experience. Just because you're a photographer doesn't mean you can teach photography. I think there's a big learning curve with how to facilitate, and hold a space, and take yourself out of the equation. A lot of teachers talk way too much, and they should let their students do the talking. And we look for people who can be flexible and adaptable, because we are a small startup and things don't always run as smoothly as they do in a big institutional setting.
Most important, we look for people who want to be a part of our community, rather than somebody who just wants to come in for an hour and then leave. We're looking for people who will have a drink with us, or go out to dinner, and who will care about the students, even if they're not getting paid to spend every single second with them.
In terms of board members, we're looking for people in the industry with very influential networks, and people who have a level of success in their careers. We want people who can speak to how the program and teaching should develop. Ideally, they can introduce us to other guest speakers, or be a speaker themselves, or mentor a student, or connect us to a corporation, or a foundation, or other influential people within the industry.
What methods do you use to measure program success?
We measure success by high school graduation, college acceptance, the level of freelance work and full-time jobs that our students receive because of our program, and their general career advancement. We also look at things that are a little harder to evaluate, such as confidence, communication skills, problem solving, some of the social, emotional learning skills, which involve a bit more observation on the staff's part in seeing how a student develops.
We do a lot of follow-up with students, and during the pandemic we've been interviewing them to understand more deeply what they're getting out of the program, what they need, and what they'd like to see, moving forward.
What kind of a commitment is expected of NY Salt workshop students and residents, and how does one apply for future programs?
In terms of our overarching expectations, students are expected to show up on time and participate, and that's pretty much it. We usually have an application available every spring for the following year, but this year we held off on spring recruitment. On August 1, we launched an application for new students to begin in all 2020. We will meet virtually, with smaller class sizes. We’ll also take this opportunity to build out more programming for our college-level and emerging artists. In January 2021, depending on the state of the pandemic, we’ll consider adding more high school classes if conditions indicate that in-person meetings are able to resume. We just partnered with The Met Cloisters, in Washington Heights, and we plan on launching a class there when the museum is able to open again.
What changes were made to the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic? Was it a smooth transition from in-class sessions to virtual meetings, and did all the students have the needed technology to get online?
This spring, we went virtual the week that schools closed. We've been teaching virtually ever since, and it has gone really well. We only had one student who had some significant Internet issues because her household didn't have Wi-Fi, but we were able to help her figure out a solution. We also provided computers for two of the students who didn’t have one. They are using the computers not only for their photography, but also for school.
I think the hard part has been all the emotions the kids are feeling, what that has brought into the classroom, and how to manage their needs. It's been challenging, but they're all showing up, and providing a great support network for each other. Our teachers have all been doing one-on-one zoom calls to check in with each student. These individual meetings have helped us understand and address specific questions and needs, and also coach students through tough spots. Our classes have definitely been a lifeline for our students, and they are doing great work.
Does NYC Salt have any other current initiatives, and are there any ways that readers can help?
Our annual gallery show was canceled, so we pivoted to a book project about how our students are coping with the pandemic. In reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the swell of protests all over the world, they are also speaking loudly about race in this country.
The book was designed by our teachers Scott Thode, Adam Chinitz, and Lauren Welles, and we held our first virtual book launch in July. Along with their photographs, the students recorded videos and wrote copy about their projects, which can be viewed under the Our Students section of our website. In their own unique visual voices, students incorporated many things: still images, video, poetry, words, drawing, and whatever else they needed to communicate their ideas.
Is there a Youth Photography Nonprofit you’d like to see featured in a future article? If so, tell us about it in the Comments section, below. And, to view more of our profiles with Youth Photography Program directors on Explora, click here.