Focus: HOPE Excel Photography Program: Students Train Their Eyes on Detroit

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Young African-American youth standing next to his artwork; young African-American girl in red hat.

DonRico Hawkins (left) and Kristian Varano, participants in the Focus: HOPE Excel Photography program in Detroit, Michigan. Photos courtesy of Annette Vanover, Focus: HOPE

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The definition of public art is being redefined in unique ways across the country. In this story, we explore one of those ways via longtime NEA grantee, Focus: HOPE, and their ambitious youth development initiative, Excel Photography. For years, the Excel Photography program has educated and empowered middle-school students through the art of documenting how they see Detroit. This free, semester-long program culminates with a proper gallery exhibition of their images and, in years past, by enlarging and mounting the students’ photography on abandoned buildings in blighted neighborhoods as public artworks.

This year, instead of posting youth-shot pictures on abandoned buildings, select images will be projected as temporary public art onto the Bell Building downtown during Focus: HOPE’s inaugural photography festival on September 15, 2018. For a day, the work of students will be presented alongside that of professional photographers.

In this audio piece, we talked with one of those students participating in the Bell Building exhibit, seventh-grader DonRico Hawkins, Jr., and Kristian Varano, a former graduate of the program (2006-2008) and now a mentor herself, about the Excel Photography program and its impact.

An accompanying video has Hawkins narrating his photos and other images celebrating the work of Excel Photography participants.