Shifting the Narrative: How AjA Empowers Underserved Youth to Tell Their Stories Through Photography
By Sarah Beauchemin
Photographer Edward Steichen once said, “Photography is a major force in explaining man to man.” Photographs speak to our emotions and allow us to tell our story by showing others how we interpret the world.
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For this reason, photography is a powerful driver of social change and individual growth – two major components of The AjA Program’s mission in San Diego.
AjA uses photography as a tool for underserved young people to tell their story. AjA believes the power of storytelling through the arts is a crucial catalyst for self-agency and positive change – participants learn they are much more than passive observers in a story that’s already been told about them.
Participants in AjA’s Photographers 4 Change program take a break from photos and play a trustbuilding game with their peers. Photographers for Change works with young women from Karen refugee backgroundsin City Heights. Armed with a camera, participants document their environments and use their images as a platform for identifying opportunities to create positive community change.
As of 2015, AjA has provided long-term, community-based programming for over 2,500 marginalized individuals and shared their visual narratives with over 1 million viewers.
Christina Chomut, AjA’s Education Specialist, said their photography-based programs provide a safe environment for participants to think critically about their identities and cultural communities.
“We use certain prompts to get them to discuss their work, such as ‘How does this image represent you?’ or ‘What about this image speaks to your strongest quality?’ The participants are then able to talk about themselves through a safe access point – the images – and are not being directly asked to verbalize about themselves,” Chomut explained.
In partnership with youth in South‐East San Diego, AjA designed and installed a large‐scale photography mural. The mural, was the final piece of a 2 week project where student were asked to reflect on the past and envision the future of their community through photography.
AjA partners with schools and community organizations throughout San Diego to identify the demographics where its 5 basic programs – all of which operate on an “assets” model, meaning they believe participants already possess the talent and skills for success – are most needed. Here’s a bit about each program:
- Journey – An after-school, photography-based educational program specifically for resettled or refugee youth. Encourages students to reflect upon, process, and share their experiences of migration.
- Photo City – Teaches youth to turn the lens outward and critically examine issues that affect their lives and community. Students explore potential solutions and turn research into action.
- Youth Advisory Council (YAC) – One remarkable YAC program, Speak City Heights, is a partnership between AjA and KPBS. Teens from ethnically diverse backgrounds who live in City Heights have the opportunity to report on issues in their community alongside professional journalists.
- Full STEAM Ahead – Uses photography as a platform to explore and learn about the principles of science, technology, engineering, ARTS, and math (STEAM).
- Special Projects – Partnerships with organizations in the health, education, and arts sectors to build photography programs around their specific mission, deepening the impact of the organization’s work.
Melinda Chiment, AjA’s Executive Director, emphasizes how community grants — such as the one awarded by SDG&E — have been instrumental in helping all of these programs to flourish. “With the support of SDG&E, The AjA Project brings our Full STEAM Ahead Program to youth at Barrio Logan College Institute. Through this innovative partnership, AjA uses photography and other visual arts as an entryway to exploring principles of science, technology, engineering, arts and math,” Chiment said.
One of AjA’s notable special projects is Collective Voices, a partnership with United Women of East Africa designed to help young women from resettled or refugee backgrounds tell their powerful stories of migration and resettlement.
Miriam, a Collective Voices participant and student at University of San Diego, said, “Photography has helped express my own story in a sense that I am in control of what I would like my camera to capture and what I wish for others to visualize.”
Photo: A participant in AjA’s Collective Voices program, in partnership with United Women of East Africa takes her very own self portrait.
She added that the Collective Voices program has positively impacted her whole community because the visual narrative they’re creating gives them an opportunity to break the stereotypes of Muslims that are projected upon them. Since the Collective Voices’ completed work will soon be on exhibit in the San Diego Museum of Man, the stories of Miriam and her classmates will reach thousands of people – a momentous achievement.
In addition to museums, AjA participants’ visual narratives are displayed in public spaces like walkways, parks, and community walls in the form of murals. These large-scale exhibits give marginalized communities a voice and reclaim space, instilling them with a sense of pride and self-agency.