Delonte Williams was just a student with a camera until the day he took pictures of his neighborhood and saw the familiar in a whole new way. The Critical Exposure program taught him more than just composition and exposure — he learned that he could use the camera to tell a story.
“I didn’t really know how to analyze photos at first, but after a while, I got a photographers’ view on things — and from then on, it was all about photography,” Delonte said.
Delonte went from student to teacher, joining Critical Exposure’s staff in 2014. He’s the first student from the fellowship program hired by the 10-year-old nonprofit, which uses photography and advocacy as a way to empower DC youth, many from low-income and minority neighborhoods. The program, which partners with high schools and after school programs, not only teaches the kids photography, it gives them leadership training and first-hand advocacy experience. In turn, the organization often witnesses “significant changes in the students who learn to recognize the power of their images and their own voices to become effective agents of social change.”
That’s one reason their current Kickstarter campaign (see the video above) is so important, says Jackie Horstmann, the group’s director of development and communications. Critical Exposure teamed up with MakeDC to design a giant “lightbox” and now they’re trying to raise $7,500 to get it built. The portable gallery will measure 6-feet by 6-feet by 6-feet and project images created by the students onto four sides of the box.
“Our students shoot thousands of photos each year, but they can’t always attend the exhibits we set up to showcase their work,” the organization writes in its Kickstarter description. “In addition, many schools can’t accommodate a standard photo exhibit, and many of the neighborhoods our students live in, especially in Wards 7 and 8, do not have art galleries. Lightbox’s mobility would allow us to return the photos to our students’ schools and communities — simply by popping up the gallery in front of schools, on street corners, you name it.”
The group has eight days left to reach its fundraising goal. As of this morning, they were nearly halfway there.
Delonte, 21, says he’s not sure what his future holds. He’d like to do some type of grassroots organizing. And while he loves photography, he’s unsure if it will ever be anything more than a hobby.
For Delonte and a lot of the students who go through the Critical Exposure program, it’s about more than taking pictures. His most meaningful memory from his fellowship was the time they marched from the U.S. Capitol to the White House in support of restorative justice programs.
“That was the first experience I had where I felt like I had some power in changing the things that affected me,” Delonte said. “I felt like people heard me and what I was fighting for.”
To contribute to the Critical Exposure Kickstarter campaign, click here.
Below are images taken by students in the Critical Exposure program. They are used here with permission.
“The Jail that Surrounds Us” by Mike, 12th Grade, H.D Woodson
“This is a picture of the black long gate that surrounds my school, with only three ways to enter and I know that this is a tactic that jails use to keep “criminals” in or out. And for H.D Woodson to be in ward 7 statistics from the Justice Policy Institute show that the greatest increases in arrests have been in ward 5 and (27 and 34 percent, respectively). These two wards have some of the highest percentages of people of color in the District and the highest unemployment rates. This is bad because instead of trying to decrease the incarceration rate they are building things in ward 7 that are similar to prisons.”
“THE BOX” by Samera, 12th grade, Cardozo Senior High School
“Every morning, for the past three months, after walking through the metal detectors, 17 year-old Skinny has to explain to the security guards before being wanded why the machine went off. Skinny has an ankle monitor, or ‘the box.’ With a curfew of 8pm every night, he feels trapped and isolated from the world.
“Skinny is on probation and was told he would get the monitor off a month ago. When that did not occur he became disappointed. At times he refused to go to school due to his frustrations. DC Public Schools allow up to three unexcused absences until truancy reports are sent out. I am very concerned about his education and the consequences from the days he has missed.”