Art Works Blog

Art Works Spotlight on Critical Exposure

"From K-12th grade, we're a wasted cause. We 'learn,' we do poorly on tests, we get expelled from school for fighting. Truth is, though, despite this stereotype displayed in the media, we care. We recognize that the failures and anger of city students is a product of our poor funding. Because of this, some of us channel our anger into our protests, and rather than fighting other students, we fight the real criminal: those that have the money, see the problem, but make every excuse to not solve the problem. We'll keep trying...our Baltimore-bred spirits are not so easily broken." --- Unique, 12th Grade

In 2004, frustrated with the lack of careful consideration of community issues such as the physical disrepair of local schools and lack of opportunity for students in poorer school districts, Adam Levner and Heather Rieman turned to the arts as a platform for making people pay attention. What’s unique about Critical Exposure, the Washington, DC-based not-for-profit the two co-founded, is its focus on putting the tools for art as social catalyst directly into the hands of those affected most by the issues---the students. With a core staff of six, augmented by a volunteer corps of local photographers, last year Critical Exposure presented programs at approximately 12 schools and after-school programs. The group has also presented programs across the U.S., including Albuquerque, New Mexico, New Orleans, Louisiana, and across the state of Pennsylvania. We spoke with Levner, now the organization’s executive director, about this unique project that helps “students find the intersection between art and advocacy.”


Self Portrait, Anthony, 11th Grade

On the “a ha” moment that turned into Critical Exposure…

[Heather and I] were both amateur photographers, and we were actually having a completely unrelated conversation about photography and things we’d like to photograph. We happened upon the idea of schools, and that was the “a ha” moment….Wouldn’t it be powerful to put photos of under-funded schools next to photos of well-funded schools?

We [recognized] that there were tremendous disparities in public education but that people---from community members to policy makers---didn’t actually have a real understanding of what those disparities meant, much less that they looked like….We realized that photography might be a really powerful vehicle for doing that, and that it could be done through the eyes of the students since they’re the ones who are impacted by it most.

A picture’s worth a thousand words---especially when it comes to public policy.

We were able to get a grant of $12,500 from the NEKC Foundation to do a pilot project in Baltimore….We found a summer program where the staff was open to having us work with the students and try this. We used the grant money to buy some cameras and went and worked with the students over the course of the summer. They took photos of the conditions in their schools, specifically the facilities, and then we had an exhibit of their photos at an art gallery in downtown Baltimore.

The exhibit was incredibly well received. The superintendent of schools came, [and] it got big coverage in the Baltimore Sun and the Baltimore City Paper and really developed a lot of awareness about the issue. [Next] we took the students and their photos to Annapolis because we knew that they were working on a bill to consider putting more money into school facilities in Maryland, particularly into aging facilities and districts that needed the funding most. We took the students and their photos and they walked the halls of the State House and gave and showed the photos to every state legislator they could find….[The] head of a state senate committee that was actually talking about that bill…asked if he could borrow the photos. [He] made copies of them and then passed them out to every member of his committee….In the end the General Assembly put $100 million dollars more into school facilities in Maryland.


"This photo was taken in my school library in March 2011. I wanted to show how disorganized the library is. You don't even know where to start, it's not categorized or anything. The books are not appreciated. I used to read a lot in middle school. We used to read books to get rewards, and we also had to read a certain number of books for a grade overall at the school. But now I'm in High School and it's not really stressed on us to read books. It's not as much of a necessity as it was before. Without a library, I am not currently reading books. Librarians can help you find other books you are interested in, but we don't have one. Now looking back at my previous years of reading books, I frown at the way books are treated nowadays in Washington Metropolitan. I feel like in high schools period people don't read as much anymore." --- Javonte Anderson, 11th Grade

On why photography works…

That fact that the students are the ones that are taking the photographs immediately makes people much more interested in seeing them. Everybody knows where most of the adults in this country stand on these issues: they know where the unions stand, and they know where public officials stand, but the students are generally left out of the discussion….[P]eople’s eyes tend to glaze over when you cite statistics and give them information on per-people funding formulas. Photographs are a really accessible engaging medium that gets people’s attention, and then [there’s an] opportunity to have that conversation about what’s happening in the schools. And that’s where student writing and audio captions really come into play because then [the students] are able to tell the stories and give the context for these issues. Many times the photographs stand alone; they don’t need any additional story. But hearing the students’ words in addition to the photograph is really powerful and presents the issue in a non-political, very blunt way that talks exactly about how this affects the students, which in the end is all that really matters.

“They have a lot of creativity and so we just try and give them a few basic tools.”

We start when we work with a group of students just by giving them an introduction to documentary photography. We show them examples of images and in particular focus on images that have been part of catalyzing social change, [such as] photographs from the Children’s Labor Movement or from the Civil Rights zmovement. [We] help students to understand that photographs have historically been a very important piece of creating social change.

We also do some general reading of photographs, teaching them how to look at a photograph and determine what the subject is, what the mood is, what the message is, so that they really develop some of those visual literacy skills that are really important when they start taking their own photographs. Then we give them some basic skills: we work on composition and perspective and angle and lighting…..[T]hey have a lot of creativity, and so we just try and give them a few basic tools.

Then we start talking about what are the things in their schools or communities that they would like to see change. [We] have some discussions about that and find an issue that really unites that particular group of students and …then work with them to figure out how they can tell that story through images. [We] help them create shot lists that identify specific photographs that they really want to get that will help tell that story, and then work with them through several rounds of taking photographs, giving them feedback, having their peers give them feedback, and talking about who they feel really needs to see these photos…..Who are the people who are in positions to actually affect the issues that they are talking about? Who’s in a position of power that can make some changes around [a particular] issue, and [how do we] get the photos in front of them?


"1:00 pm in U.S. History class. Most of the students are sleeping and missing vital information. After this picture was taken the student in the gray drifted off too!" --- Demetrius, 12th Grade

“Watching the students’ reactions as they see that people really care about what they have to say is just really amazing.”

We’ve seen a number of benefits for the students. One is just overall increases in their confidence because they see over the course of this that they have talents in photography, that they have stories that people actually care about and want to hear. The best night of the year… is the opening reception for our annual exhibit that is always at a really nice art gallery. The students walk in and see a couple hundred people standing there looking at their photographs and reading what they have to say. Watching the students’ reactions as they see that people really care about what they have to say is just really amazing. Often these are students who struggle in all of the traditional subjects; we work with a lot of students who dropped out of school or are in some sort of alternative program. These are students who aren’t necessarily used to being applauded for their talents.

On benefits to the community at large…

There’s an intangible benefit to the community in having a new generation of student leaders, engaged citizens who can be active leaders and part of making the community stronger, as opposed to many of the roads that young people end up going down when they are not exposed to these kinds of opportunities. And [the community] also gains insight into what the issues are that young people are facing so they have a better understanding of what’s really happening and not just hearing it filtered through the news.

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