Youth Photo Programs: Q&A with Shirley Nannini and Denise Orlin of FreshLens Chicago

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What better motivation can one give a fledgling photo student than a gift of their very own camera at the end of an introductory workshop? It’s this very gesture that sets FreshLens Chicago apart from the pack. Founded in 2017 by Shirley Nannini as Executive Director, with Denise Orlin as Assistant Director, FreshLens is a youth photography not-for-profit dedicated to serving under-resourced Chicago youth through a mix of intensive photographic instruction, confidence building self-assessments, and inspiring role models who demonstrate what success looks like.

In this third story in our series, Nannini and Orlin elaborate on the FreshLens motto of “Failure is not an Option” in building a multi-faceted program that engages creativity while holding kids accountable for their attendance and progress. Read on to discover how FreshLens has evolved from a basic summer workshop for high school kids to year-round programming that now spans advanced-level study to middle school grades, with plans for further expansion ahead.

Above photograph © Issabella Ortiz

 Program Name: FreshLens Chicago
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Website: https://freshlenschicago.org
Year Founded: 2017
Non-Profit Status: 501c3 not-for-profit organization
Length of Program: year-round 8-week workshops and internships
Ages Served: Male and female students 11-18, including middle school

Jill Waterman: How did you arrive at the name FreshLens, and what does it mean to you?

Shirley Nannini: I made a bet with Nick Sinnott, the owner of Chicago Photography Classes (CPC), that I would come up with a name before he did. I put it out on Facebook and had a lot of good ideas, but FreshLens won (and I beat Nick in the bet). It just seemed appropriate, because you want kids to approach the program with fresh eyes and a fresh lens.

Tell us more about CPC. Has it been involved with FreshLens since the beginning?

SN: Our home base is Richard Stromberg’s Chicago Photography Classes. In January 2017, I sat down with the owner, Nick, and said ‘Wouldn't it be great to offer classes to kids who couldn't afford the equipment or instruction?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, go for it.’ So, in about six weeks I earned enough money to buy 12 cameras from B&H Photo’s Used Equipment Department. By that summer we had scraped together 12 kids and started classes at CPC.

Chicago Theater MarqueeDonna Ramierez

Shirley and Denise, please give us some background on your career and education.

SN: I have a Masters in education, and for 33 years, I worked as a teacher, coach, and athletic director at Evanston Township High School, one of the largest schools in Illinois. When I retired, I was excited for a new challenge and I committed to doing something different, so I decided to take some photography classes. As Denise will tell you, when I get into something, I do it with both feet. I took quite a few classes at CPC, and never intended to start a business, but it didn’t turn out that way. I started a long-term collaboration with a friend, the artist Candace Wark, and photographing wind for Wind Flow Photography. But I think kids are my destiny, so I guess it isn’t a surprise that I ultimately ended up back with kids.

Denise Orlin: I've always loved photography. I worked in film and television, and then as studio manager for two commercial photographers. After starting a family, I wanted to get back to photography, so I took classes at CPC, and started teaching there. About five years later, I met Shirley when she started FreshLens. That first summer, I told Nick that I’d be happy to help if Shirley needed it. As she says, I love the kids, so it’s been a labor of love. It's such a rewarding program, not only for me, but for the kids, too. I think they get so much out of it.

Tell us more about how FreshLens started. In what part of the city are you based, and how did you first recruit students?

SN: My initial idea was that FreshLens would be a summer program. CPC is located on the north side of Chicago, so we reached out to the neighborhood school and started with that group of students, in grades 9 through 12. I wasn't that interested in creating a not-for-profit, because I had spent 33 years maneuvering boards and school systems. I was so excited to be my own boss—the master of my universe. But, as I got going, I realized that if we were going to continue, and get funding, we’d need to officially become a 501c3. After our first summer session, the Chicago law firm Jenner & Block helped us establish not-for-profit status pro bono, which was great. We had 36 kids apply for our second summer program. I think the program was a transformative experience for the kids in our first class, and the word spread. I'm not in the business of turning kids down, so we decided that we needed to offer more, and we now offer year-round programming.

NarcissusIssabella Ortiz

Were there any existing organizational models you looked to for inspiration or advice when first starting FreshLens?

DO: After starting the program, we looked around to see what other people were doing, and NYC Salt popped up on our radar.

SN: Yes, they’re definitely the gold standard, and we've had our eye on them from the beginning. We approach things in a slightly different way, but we’ve definitely learned a lot from what they are doing.

DO: We also partnered with the Chicago area program Ignition Community Glass, and they were very helpful with advice. It’s a very impressive youth program, and we have a hotline to Ignition’s director. We like to see what other people are doing, and how they're serving kids, so we reference other arts programming, too. There are some really good programs, such as Marwen.

What’s the length of FreshLens programs?

SN: It's an intensive eight-week program, held seven hours a week. The kids meet for four hours on Saturday and three hours on a weeknight for lab. Every Saturday, we have a classroom component, a social-emotional component, and then we go out and shoot. The kids who successfully complete the program get a gently used camera to keep.

What's the social-emotional component?

SN: As a coach and athletic director I’ve always felt the primary purpose of athletics was as a vehicle to help kids grow and build skills. Not only in their sport, although that’s important, but for their life out of sports. We really push the FreshLens kids to work hard and be responsible, because that makes a difference in everything you do. For instance, there are 16 sessions, and if they have more than two absences, they don't get their camera. It’s turned out to be a good motivator and, I think, an important lesson. We get kids to look at what successful people do in some creative ways, and we have them do a lot of self-assessment. We help kids understand how to develop teamwork skills, assess strengths and weakness, and develop strategies to improve in the things that matter. Even if kids don’t pick up a camera again, we ask ourselves if we’ve helped them to navigate this challenging world more effectively.

Advanced Class group shotJeffrey Silva

What's the general age range, number of participants, and timing for program sessions?

DO: In terms of the high school program, we offer three eight-week sessions a year; however, the plan is to expand. We were heading for four times a year until COVID hit. Typically, we'll have 12 kids in each session, but with the pandemic we had to scale that down to six. We also started an advanced class this year, for students who have completed our introductory session, and it was a huge success. We have some interesting ideas about developing an event photography class too, and soon we hope to have a mentoring program.

SN: Initially, FreshLens was just supposed to be a high school program, but in 2019 a wonderful community center named A Knock at Midnight (AKAM) approached us about doing a program for their middle school kids. We hadn't anticipated working with this age group, and we hadn't thought we’d take our show on the road, but both of those things happened. Interestingly enough, the son of AKAM’s executive director is a commercial photographer of some renown. AKAM got us thinking about the power of exposing kids at a younger age. AKAM is in Englewood, one of Chicago’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We were getting ready to start a middle school program on the West Side, and we're very close to starting another on the South Side, but that's all been temporarily derailed by COVID.

How many schools do you reach? And do kids know each other when starting the program or are they meeting for the first time?

DO: We started off with one high school, but we've expanded from there, and now we reach at least five high schools. Much of our reach is through word of mouth among the kids, but we've also tried to develop relationships with the art teachers. Oftentimes, the kids don’t know each other, even within the same high school, but it’s nice when the group really comes together. I’d say that in every session the kids really develop a strong bond.

PracticeDenise Orlin

DO: The middle school class is held one hour a week for 10 weeks, with three field trips—two to shoot downtown, and one to visit CPC to print their work for a show, with our high school kids helping them to download, edit, and print their work. This was our first summer for the advanced class, so we were just trying to figure it out. We held the advanced class all on one day, Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Half the class was lecture, and the other part was out shooting, and learning whatever techniques we taught that week. Then we went into the lab to print and we taught more advanced editing techniques. Going forward, we might consider something different, but that's what we did this year.

Do you have requirements for the number of photographs students need to produce?

SN: We give assignments every week. We give each student two memory cards, one is for shooting their homework, and the other is for shooting as much as they can on their own. Like any skill, the more you do it, the more you're going to learn, so we really encourage them to be prolific. When they come to lab, they'll download their 32 homework images. And then as the class goes on, they’ll download their personal work.

DO: For the end-of-session exhibition, students can pick images from their homework or from their personal work, but primarily they pick their personal work.

What’s covered in the assignments you give?

DO: In the beginning class, we teach camera fundamentals: Depth of field, showing and stopping motion, and perspectives. Then we build on those skills. The advanced class works to build a portfolio, and each student created a body of work through weekly printing and critique. If we teach techniques like HDR or depth of field, they have to incorporate that in their homework.

Depth of Field exerciseSharlene Chapman

How many instructors work with the various student groups?

SN: Our student to teacher ratio is pretty incredible. For the 12 kids in a class, we have two or three instructors. Our staff consists of four paid instructors who are part time, and we had a fifth lined up before COVID hit. Both Denise and I volunteer, which is probably not a sustainable model, because I'm working full time, and Denise works pretty close to full time. I'm not going to live forever, and I'm not sure somebody else would volunteer full time. But we’re just not at a point where we can afford to pay directors. However, we just got board approval to bring in a paid, part-time grant writer.

Is all of your primary instruction digital, or do you also teach analog methods?

DO: At this point, we just teach digital methods, although somebody did offer to teach a film class. That may happen someday, but we don't offer it now. We do give our college photography majors who take analog classes a film-based camera.

Earlier, you mentioned not wanting to turn kids down. Does everyone who applies get accepted?

SN: No, they don’t. But if a kid is determined and they really stick with it, they’ll probably get in eventually.

Perspectives practiceSharlene Chapman

One consideration for acceptance in your programs is financial need. Has this been an aspect of FreshLens from the beginning?

DO: When we started, we didn't have our system in place to check, but it turns out that virtually all the kids did qualify financially. We now have a system for identifying under-resourced kids.

How do you qualify applicants for financial need? Do you balance this with a student's motivational level or artistic talents?

SN: The simplest measure is the status of free and reduced student lunch in their school, that’s what we used at first. But, after giving this some thought, we decided there was still a quantum leap between qualifying for the lunch program, and the ability to afford equipment and instruction. We loosened the criteria, and now we qualify kids using several different measures. But we try to make the application process a bit cumbersome, so if a kid isn't really interested, they won't follow through. First, they have to fill out the application. Then, we require two recommendations, so we hear from their teachers, and finally we do an in-person interview. Initially, we are not concerned with artistic talent, but we consider that for the advanced class.

Untitled 3Marcos Sandoval

Tell us about the cameras you give students at the end of the workshop. How do you fund that, and what brand/model gear do they get?

SN: When I started this program, one of my non-negotiables was that kids would receive a camera to keep as their own. It made absolutely no sense to me to give kids some skills, and get them turned on to something, and then say, ‘Okay, it's over.’ That would make the photographic experience much less meaningful.

They're not new cameras, they are used DSLRs. Our website indicates that we accept in-kind donation of equipment. We receive donations from all over the country, and if we don't have two donations in a week, it's extremely unusual. Of course, we can’t use everything. We give the kids the gear we can use, or we use it for the program, or loan it to kids for special projects, and we started an eBay business to sell the equipment we can’t use. In the first couple of months, we've done very well. We've had a couple of Hasselblads and Rolleiflex cameras donated, so we think this could end up being a pretty good source of fundraising for us. It is time consuming, and we are incredibly fortunate to have a volunteer take on the eBay sales project.

DO: Most of the cameras we give the kids are Nikon and Canon, but we've also had Sony cameras, FUJIFILM cameras, and Olympus cameras donated. And we buy used cameras, often from B&H, because we trust that we're getting something solid.

Do you ever get donations from camera manufacturers?

SN: We haven’t been very successful with corporate donations, but Sony recently gave us some cameras, and we’re thrilled. It's not enough to outfit a whole class, but we're hoping we can establish a strong relationship with them. We feel like we're doing some important work, and there have to be companies out there who want to support efforts to help kids, so we're trying to crack the code.

SmileSharlene Chapman

Do you maintain contact with students once they complete your programs?

SN: Yes, and eventually, we envision bringing some of our kids back as instructors. It wasn’t our initial plan to make the students into professional photographers, but we have four kids majoring in photography in college this year, and three students have a full ride to college. So, we're really excited about that. We always tell them, once they're in with us, they're in so we definitely want to maintain contact. The kids who are now in college all had decent DSLRs, but we took those cameras back and traded for much higher-quality cameras, so they'd have a camera that could really take them into the future. Thinking ahead, we’re also interested in starting a mentorship program to begin in high school and continue into college. We’ve brought kids back and paid them for large projects, although kids are very good about wanting to give back to the program.

What methods do you use for connecting with former students and keeping up with their work?

DO: The kids who are interested stay with us through internships, and they can come in to edit and print. We try to keep them informed about opportunities to show their work. The head of the Illinois Audubon Society recently asked if we wanted to do a shoot, so we sent a call out to the kids and three of them signed up. And, if kids get gigs, we help them prepare, and we loan them equipment. We're committed to being full service for kids, and we also talk to them about giving back to the program. Over the years, we’ve gotten computers for kids, or bigger hard drives. We try to provide them with post-processing programs, but we can’t do that as often as we’d like due to the cost. We did give some kids Luminar, since it doesn’t have a monthly fee. Ideally, it would be great to give serious kids Adobe Lightroom. At one point we gave them Lightroom for a year, but at the end of the year they were stuck. We just can’t afford everything we’d like to do—yet.

Class of Summer 2019Denise Orlin

You also organize exhibitions of student work. When did this start and where have the exhibits been held?

SN: The kids print their photos from the very first week of the program, and they have to talk about their work, and learn how to present themselves. By the end of the program, they have confidence, and are able to talk to people about their work. The first summer, participating in the show was optional, but it was such a great experience for the kids, now it’s a part of the program. Recently, we didn’t have a place for a show, so I put it out on Facebook, and within an hour I had offers from two gallerists to host it. The Chicago gallery community has really stepped up to the plate and been very generous.

We've also done exhibits through an organization called Over the Rainbow (OTR), which builds accessible, affordable housing for people with disabilities. OTR offered us their gallery space, and more than a hundred people attended the opening. They sold close to 50 prints that night. When the kids sell their work, they get to keep 50% of the proceeds, which offers them a great sense of pride. Last year, we sold $16,000 in work, which means $8,000 was divided among the kids who sold pictures. And, in addition to the gallery exhibits, OTR has purchased student prints for two of their housing facilities and paid the students to frame the work.

And what about the print sales page on your website? How long have you had this and has it been successful?

DO: We added the Print Sales page in summer 2019, and it’s been very successful. Also, the Showcase section of our site features pictures of the kids with short audio statements when clicked. We’re trying to make things as interactive as possible, especially during the pandemic.

Alley Gallery Show 2019Denise Orlin

What kind of transformation have you seen in students over the course of the FreshLens program?

DO: We've seen a lot of extremely introverted kids who are not confident grow into very confident leaders, who can now talk to an adult about their work. During all our in-person shows, Shirley and I are inundated with adults coming up to us saying how fabulous the kids are. They are our secret weapons when it comes to building relationships with donors.

Unfortunately, because of COVID, our last two shows had to be virtual, but the kids still have the satisfaction of showing and selling their work. In our advanced class the kids recently selected their best photos for a book, which we launched just in time for those holiday needs, and sales are going extremely well. The book is also for sale on our website.

You also offer paid internships. How does this work and how many interns do you hire?

DO: Students who finish our program are eligible to apply to be an intern in the next session. That means they are now a student leader, and they assist us in the classroom each week. They participate with the other students and just help us out in any way possible, from the mundane to the very exciting. But they seem to enjoy it. They’re really hard working, and very proactive. In the past, we’ve hired two to three students per session. We’re currently limited in the number of people we can have in a classroom because of COVID, so that part of our program is on hold for now.

Do any of your program activities involve guest speakers or studio visits to introduce students to professional photographers?

SN: Yes, we’ve always had a career pathway-based component. Prior to the pandemic, we organized a career pathways panel, which we present to the kids to emphasize a range of possibilities that photographers can pursue. For those who aren’t interested in pursuing photography full time, we suggest they might get involved in photography part time. But, most important for all students, we explain that they need to start thinking about what successful people do. We present them with successful people, so even if they never pick up a camera again, we urge them to consider what these people say that can help them grow and be successful as an adult. Additionally, we recently established a talented advisory team of leading industry professionals. We see them as a fantastic resource, and they’ve indicated a willingness to be speakers and mentors, as well.

Team Work, Winter 2019Sharlene Chapman

What’s been the most effective aspect of your programming in terms of engaging the participants and keeping them engaged?

DO: Well, it’s as simple as seeing that sense of pride a kid has in their work when they successfully take their first picture, see it on the computer, and print it.

SN: As I said earlier, I don't think easy helps kids. In this world, it’s anything but easy. So, we really push the kids from the beginning. Our mantra is work hard / have fun, and we do have fun with the kids. All the photographers who are teachers are good friends, and travel together, and we have this banter back and forth that puts the kids at ease. We do an activity in the first week where we give them a pile of disparate stuff, and they have to build art from found objects, and come up with its meaning and use. We don’t water down the instruction of fundamentals. It’s our goal to build a strong foundation that will serve students who choose to continue pursuing photography, either as a hobby or more seriously.

While the program has only been active for a few years, are there any noteworthy discovery or success stories to share?

SN: When you're working with kids, growth comes in both small and significant ways.

DO: There was a student who didn't get into the program the first time he applied because we didn't have enough space, but he applied again and then got in. The first couple of weeks, he was late, he wasn't participating fully, and simultaneously he's learning how to use the camera. Then, all of a sudden, there was this light bulb that went off and he kicked into high gear. He completed the first program and was an outstanding intern for the program. He did the advanced program, and now he's at Columbia College, studying photography, and he received a full ride. We just loved seeing him grow from a kid who was just sort of lukewarm about things to somebody who is so passionate and talented.

Skateboarder’s LifeAndree Lima

In your opinion, what are the most important considerations for working with kids, particularly in the challenging conditions that we’re currently experiencing?

SN: If you don't love kids, you should not work with them, it's that simple. First of all, you're a joy stealer, and who needs that? While the pandemic has been devastating for the whole world, we are just heart-broken for the kids. Last year, the seniors were absolutely despondent about missing the great stuff about being a senior: Prom, ditching school, sports. We encouraged one of our donors to earmark money for a scholarship for senior students. It was just our way of saying, ‘You’ve worked hard to get to your senior year, and you’re getting a raw deal.’ We were able to give four students a small scholarship. Teaching is always about imparting knowledge, but if you're not thinking about the bigger picture, I really think you're missing an important part of the point of working with kids.

FreshLens Chicago offers an annual Lens of Hope award to individuals or businesses that have made an extraordinary contribution to further the program's mission. When is the award presented, and how are the awardees selected?

SN: The people who have received this award have been so instrumental in supporting the program. Denise and I make recommendations to our Board, the Board makes the selection, and a presentation is made during a benefit fundraiser. The first year, the award went to my lifelong friend Michele Kellner and her husband Mark as the cornerstone of our program. They helped us buy new cameras that kids would check out during the program. The second year, we awarded Jenner and Block for their pro bono legal work. Our third award went to Nick Sinnott, the owner of CPC. Without Nick’s extraordinary generosity and support we would not be the FreshLens we are today. Nick has provided us a free place to live and use of his equipment. Our final recipients to date were Arnie and Carol Kanter, who have helped us raise funds and develop important contacts. We are incredibly indebted to all of these individuals.

Is the benefit an annual event, and has it always been a part of your programming?

DO: Our first benefit was in January 2019. Because it's so cold in Chicago during January, we decided to move the event to May. And obviously, we couldn't host a benefit this year. So, our hope is that we can pick it up again next May. Preceding our first benefit, we invited all students who had completed FreshLens to submit work to be considered for an exhibit. People purchased tickets, and the students had a firsthand experience talking about their work. We also had a silent auction and professional artists’ donated work. The Chicago community of artists, from all mediums, has been extremely kind and generous. People want to help kids, and there are a lot of good people out there.

Over the Rainbow Gallery Show, Winter 2019FreshLens Chicago

Does FreshLens have sponsorships or partnerships with other organizations or entities, and what type of relationships are they?

SN: We’ve just started reaching out to businesses for sponsorship. We’ve had businesses underwrite our summer show—Alliance Bernstein was the sponsor—and our advanced class book—Weinberg Newton Gallery underwrote that project. Hahnemühle USA has also been extremely generous with us from the beginning. Hopefully that’s just the beginning of partnerships and sponsors.

What percentage of program support comes from grants, and is there a mix of different types of grants you receive?

SN: We're working on that. Up to this point we’ve only received two grants. Most of our funding has come from individual donors, but this year we did receive a $50,000 matching grant. It's a tough year to meet that goal, but as we say at FreshLens, “Failure is not an option.” We’re excited to announce that we just reached our goal last week, three months prior to the deadline. People have been very generous, but we have to expand our reach if we want to serve more students.

In terms of the individual donors, do you reach out to people directly? Do you have any other types of fundraising initiatives besides the benefit and silent auction?

DO: We send a mailing once a year. It’s basically an ask that we send out every October. We also send announcements throughout the year for initiatives like the matching grant, and we received some donations then. When we held the benefit, we got a big flood of donations, as well. We reach out to people for the shows and book. And Nick, from CPC, has been very generous putting announcements in his newsletter. It’s just a lot of grassroots efforts to get our name on people's radar.

Beautiful DreamNichole Rivas

You recently got approval to hire a grant writer. How much of your time up until now has gone into fundraising and grant writing?

SN: Not as much as we should have, but there are only so many hours in a day, and it’s really not in our wheelhouse. Denise and I have a lot of balls in the air. We feel that our new grant writer, Amy Cornell, is going to be a big help.

You have both a board of directors and an advisory team. What functions do those two entities serve, and do either have an active role in general program operations?

SN: The Board of Directors has mostly a fiduciary and policy function, which is pretty traditional. We just assembled the advisory team a couple of months ago, and we are thrilled and humbled by the quality of our team members. We want these people to be role models for the kids. We have a lot of black and brown kids, so we want to make sure that we have minority representation on our advisory team and board. Sometimes our kids don't have the kinds of enrichment opportunities that should be available to them, and we're currently figuring out how to work on this. This type of counsel from our advisory team will be invaluable as we expand, and when we begin a mentorship program. The advisory team indicated a real willingness to help, and hopefully they can extend our reach and introduce us to other people willing to get involved. Some of that has already started in significant ways. Our kids may lack resources, but they do not lack talent or determination.

Kingpins of ChicagoIsaiah Santiago

How does one apply for FreshLens and what kind of a commitment is expected of FreshLens students? Are there specific blocks of times when the program is open for applications?

DO: The application is available through our website. It opens and closes on certain dates. At that point, we'll have an informational meeting, and we'll set up interviews with the kids. As Shirley mentioned earlier, we try to cull the applicants for whom it's not going to work. Some kids get very excited, but they don't think about things like basketball practice four times a week, which would interfere with our meetings. In that case we’ll tell them to wait until the next session to apply, when it's not basketball season.

SN: We're really clear with the kids about what they're signing up for. We don’t sugarcoat what we expect of them. I think we've dissuaded, but hopefully not discouraged, some kids from applying, just because they weren't interested in making the FreshLens program the priority that we expect them to make it. We're also very clear about attendance and tardiness. If students miss more than two days they don’t get a camera to keep. That has rarely happened.

DO: When distributing the cameras, we also rank each student’s attendance and tardiness. The kids who have zero absences get to pick a camera first, and not all the cameras are equal. We also consider class participation and problematic behaviors in camera selection. We want to hold them to a high bar, and it gives them a great sense of accomplishment.

Hard Life PhotographCiCi Dominguez

Do you warn students about behavior or performance issues as sessions go along?

SN: Oh, yes. Initially, we didn't do a satisfactory job communicating our concern about student progress, which can head off problems and give kids the opportunity to grow. We try to continually improve what we are doing and own up to weaknesses.

What methods do you use to measure program success?

DO: We do an exit survey with all of our students, which has been really helpful for us in gauging whether the kids are learning photography. We ask them: Are they enjoying it? How are they growing as individuals? Was the instruction clear? They self-assess, but we check in with them throughout the session, and try to help them along the way.

SN: We make the survey completely anonymous, because we really want honest feedback. We tell them we want this to be the absolute best program we can make it, so we need to have an honest opinion of what they enjoy, what they haven't enjoyed, what they learned and did not learn, and what's important to them. And, interestingly enough, kids tell us that the support of the instructors, and the other students is something that really sets the program apart. As staff, we are constantly assessing the program, activities, and lessons.

Lab timeDenise Orlin

What do you look for in the industry professionals who serve as instructors, board members, or advisory team members?

DO: Well, as Shirley said, people who like kids, right? People who can relate to kids and have a passion for helping kids.

SN: And people who have a strong content background and a strong interest in teaching. Teaching and doing aren’t exactly the same. For anyone who works with our young people, we want them to have what we call “the kid gene.”

You say that FreshLens has grown in ways that you couldn’t have anticipated at the beginning. Please elaborate on this.

SN: We thought we were just going to be a summer program for high school kids, and now it's year-round. We didn't think we’d leave this facility, but we have, and we’ve also expanded by taking our middle school program on the road. We now offer an advanced program, which we never intended. There's also another class we’ve proposed to our Board and hope to implement as soon as it makes sense. The basic concept is to do an event and storytelling photography class for kids as a way of building new skills, while also allowing them to earn some money. Sessions would involve learning about lighting, and how to tell a story about an organization through images, as well as improving their basic skills.

The Essence of ChicagoElla Sharba

To summarize, how has FreshLens affected your approach to working with kids, and what are your thoughts about future program growth?

SN: I feel most comfortable in overdrive, so I like to move forward quickly. If I see a way in which we can serve kids, I want to go with it, but we have to maintain quality. Sometimes Denise has to tell me I’m trying to push forward too quickly. I need to hear that sometimes, even though I’m not always gracious about it. This program is such a great vehicle to give kids a voice. It's a visual generation, so they're very interested. It really hasn't been hard to engage kids. I think a next step for us is to get professional photographers, mentors, to work with our kids who are serious, to develop portfolios. Right now, two of our five College freshmen have decided they want to major in photography. For some kids, our program will be a one and done enrichment opportunity and, honestly, that’s fine. There are others who catch the bug and want to make photography their life’s work, or a serious personal pursuit, and we want to do right by them, as well. It has been such a great honor and a privilege to work with our kids. For me it’s been exciting enough to leave retirement behind, and that’s saying something.

Is there a Youth Photography Program you’d like to see featured in a future article? If so, tell us about them in the Comments section, below.

And, to view more of our profiles with Youth Photography Program directors on Explora, click here.

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Special thanks to Jill Waterman. After the article came out a reader in Vermont made a large donation and purchased a framed print and advanced class book.  We are most grateful for your help in getting the word out about FreshLens Chicago.  

Congratulations on the recent donation to your programs FreshLens Chicago. Keep up the good work in teaching under resourced Chicago-area youth about the magic and power of photography!

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