More than 20 hot and hungry children filed into the J.W. “Blind” Boone Community Center, jam-packed with child-sized tables and chairs. Artwork plastered the walls. They ate pizza. They talked about school and television and what the moon was made of, all the while eyeing the framed photos stacked neatly on a center table.
These students gathered Wednesday to celebrate the accomplishments of eight young residents of the First Ward, storytellers who spent more than eight weeks learning photography and audio skills to capture their community through art.
The work produced by the children, who ranged in age from 9 to 15 years old, reflects the raw simplicities of life. Their depictions of faith, family, play and promise bring a unique and emotive contrast to the regularly reported image of the First Ward.
“First Ward children have different takes on life and are privy to things that the general public doesn’t get to see,” said Robbin Williams, co-director of New Media Network.
Williams and co-director Holly Hobbs founded the network last fall out of a shared desire to bring resources and new voices to the First Ward. The pilot program for children is one of the organization’s first efforts.
“We want New Media Network to serve as a creative arts organization at a time when both arts and music education are being cut,” Hobbs said. “We also wish to bring young people in central Columbia forward in order to communicate, instill pride and create an identity for themselves.”
The students learn basic photographic, audio and recording practices. Using equipment purchased with funds donated by the Downtown Optimist club, they also learn how to shoot creative, technical and journalistic photography. All of their audio recording was done using iPod recorders on loan from the MU Arts & Science Specialists in Educational Technologies Office.
“Our mission was to impart skills but also bring their story to the Columbia area,” Hobbs said.
To be chosen for the pilot program, the children had to be residents of the First Ward and demonstrate a “desire to benefit the community,” according to the organization’s Web site. After a week of training, the students were out photographing their community under the supervision of the co-directors.
Although Hobbs and Williams originally intended to tie together the children’s photos and recordings to create a video package, they decided early on to be more innovative.
Williams thought digital storytelling would be an effective way of engaging other children who are about the same age as the students and who aren’t likely to watch the news or read newspapers to get information.
“We were very impressed with the work,” Hobbs said. “They’ve become fanatical about photography, and many now want to be photographers.”
Nine-year-old Trashawn Hayes said he thought of his time spent photographing as a way to break up his routine at the center.
“Without art and pictures life would be boring, and then you would have to come here and do homework,” Hayes said.
After compiling a body of work that documented daily life within their community, each of the eight children was allowed to select three of their own photographs to be matted, framed and exhibited at the Ragtag Cinemacafé. Plans call for one of each child’s photographs to be permanently displayed at the Blind Boone Center.
“The kids were very excited to see their work on display,” Hobbs said. “They were doing something special and important and worth noting.”
Thirteen-year-old Jyquintha Lambert was quick to take her other framed photographs home to show her grandmother.
“She said I should stay in the program and that she liked my work,” Lambert said.
The common theme throughout the photographs is the First Ward community. From families to trees to street signs, the photographs reflect the students’ interests. Many students chose to present a community united and there for one another.
“My favorite picture was ‘573,’” said Davontay Hayes, a 12-year-old in the program. “I like it because it stands for Columbia — the area code.”
Lambert said, “I like the way Columbia’s made and how everyone works together cleaning, cooking and working. It’s a great town .”
Although the co-directors said they think the news about the area often reflects negatively on the community, they said the talent of the children provides another point of view.
“People know what’s going on down here,” Williams said. “Here’s their take on it.”