S.W.A.G. Program Connects Amateur Photographers with Local Experts

July 25, 2017
by Bob Downing 

Taking a photograph of a tree or the Towpath Trail is not an easy task, says 13-year-old Ruth Webb.

“It’s a challenge and it makes you think before you take the picture,” she said of the photo assignments. “You have to decide, in your view, what the best shot will be.”

She is one of 10 Akron teens from 12- to 18-years-old who are participating in the new Leaven Lens Project (LLP) sponsored by Students With a Goal(SWAG).

The non-profit group got a $20,000 grant from the Akron Civic Commons to fund the twice-a-week photo apprenticeship program.

Participants (all Akron residents) get to use SWAG-owned $240 digital cameras and at the conclusion of the 10-week pilot program, they will all earn $500 stipends.

Some of the students’ best photos will illustrate an upcoming community calendar and their photos will become a key part of the Akron Civic Commons story.

The young photographers are impressed by what the program is teaching them at Summit Lake. “What I have learned in this program is how to make my pictures more than just a picture,” said 13-year-old Paris Motley. “I learned how to make people the focus of my pictures. I learned about different ways of taking my pictures. I learned about how to make a picture or object or sense into something very impressive. I have learned so much in this program,” Paris said.

Photo by Tim Fitzwater

Aliyan Webb, 15, said she joined the program because she thought it would be fun and because she has an interest in photography. She said she might want to become a photographer and mentioned that she wants to learn more photographic skills. Aliyan said she has learned about basic settings on the camera, shutter speed and the best time to take pictures (early morning or early evening).

Said Aaliyah Lockett, 17, “This class is fun, adventurous and helpful to those wanting to learn new experiences with cameras. This class is also very useful.”

Photo student, Mayloni, says, “The reason why I joined the Leaven Lens Project is because I have always been interested in capturing moments and events but also things that people might miss or skip over. Nature shots are my favorite because it captures the beautiful mountains and the sky Mother Nature is made of.”

Jovan Travis, 18, said photographers don’t need expensive, sophisticated gear to take good pictures.

Yvonne Chappell, 18, says she attended LLP sessions although she is not officially in the program. “I love photography and capturing things that only I can see and being able to show other people the things I see every day,” she said.

Program staffer Dezerae Terrell, 24, commented, “I enjoy learning new and helpful techniques to capture beauty and tell a story through lens. It is amazing how a simple picture can connect with our senses and emotions. The students are very creative with their cameras. The LLP program gives the students space and opportunity to expand and personalize their creativity and art.”

“I enjoy learning new and helpful techniques to capture beauty and tell a story through lens." - Dezerae Terrell

The LLP program was put together to expose teens to “a craft that usually is not accessible to this demographic,” said Christian Bates, program director for SWAG. “Photography is a trade that is associated with a lot of cost. Being in an impoverished area, the idea of taking pictures as an art, hobby or a career, never comes to mind,” he said. “Another reason to start this program was to be able to pay some students who are not eligible for summer youth employment to learn a trade, as well as doing a job.”

Eric Nelson, SWAG executive director, said the apprenticeship is teaching the youngsters to identify and recognize beauty in the world around them. “Their zeal is just amazing,” he said. “What has happened so far has exceeded all of our expectations.”

According to Nelson, participants will each have professional quality photo portfolios at the end of the program. He said he would like to see three or four of the youngsters pursue photography as a career or at least a serious hobby. Nelson is already looking forward to expanding the photography program in the coming years, depending on available outside funding. He would like to get adults involved and perhaps expand the program to cover all of Summit County.

The photography program was first proposed by Stephanie (Leo) Leonardi, Akron project manager at the Pump House at Summit Lake. She and Nelson worked together on outlining the program and applying for the Akron Civic Commons grant money. They interviewed 40 applicants to pick the 10 participants.

The name “Leaven Lenses” came from the Bible and refers to bread that relies on yeast or other raising agents that transform the bread into something better from the inside, Nelson said. In the same way that a food’s final product relies on support from its different baking agents, the success of our communities relies on the teamwork of all acting participants. Young, old, in front of a camera, or behind it, inspiration and progress can be captured in more ways than imagined.