Ask a roomful of teenagers to talk about their sense of place in Missoula and chances are the responses will be apathetic shrugs or silence. But hand them a disposable camera and ask them to frame their replies in the form of photographs, and the answers are much more telling.
“I think I speak for 95 percent of girls when I say the hardest thing for me to see is my own reflection,” reads the caption of one of 17-year-old Stephanie Clark’s images, a young girl staring in the mirror.
Britnee Bell, 15, took two pictures inside her house. She spends three to four hours a day playing video games on her X-Box and loves to listen to music. “I just don’t want to be a part of it,” she says about Missoula in an interview. “It’s small. I wish I lived in a city. There’s nothing to do here, so I spend my time chilling at home.” In one of Bell’s photographs, the television seems to dwarf the other objects in the room.
Nate Swanson, 17, is an outdoorsman and enjoys riding his dirt bike. His three photographs are landscapes: mountains reflected off water, two vast open fields. In one, however, the foreground is littered with junk food wrappers and soda cans. “I get upset when I look at this picture…” begins his caption.
The Willard Photovoice project is not a study in the technical aspects of photography, such as light, depth and framing. Instead, this thoughtful glimpse into the lives of a handful of Missoula teenagers is about conveying the most fundamental aspect of art: the expression of revealing, personal convictions that may not otherwise find an outlet. The 27 images on display were chosen because the students felt they best described their community, their roles within it and their lives.
“The people who make the big decisions in Missoula in 10 years will be my generation,” says Clark, who was recently accepted to the University of Montana. “Their most important thing—our most important thing—will be to know who we are and what we stand for. I’m not sure we all think about those things very much.”
For Clark, the project allowed her to explore some difficult personal history. One of her photos is of a young woman draped in a veil, stretching across a bed for a glass of water that is, as the saying goes, either half full or half empty. She admits the image is “completely literal,” but adds in an interview, “It was helpful to visualize. It’s not like I’m the only one feeling that way.” The caption of the photo reads, “When I think of life, I think of struggle.”
Ty Lemcke, 17, took pictures of average things. He’s an avid skateboarder and appreciates the outdoors, so he composed shots incorporating both aspects of his life; one traces the undulating line of a curb separating asphalt and grass. “I don’t think I’ve ever been asked [about how I view my sense of place],” Lemcke says. “With this, I’ve learned that so many people see the same community in different ways. I wanted to have my own voice.”
Bethany Swanson, a University of Montana graduate student, organized Photovoice with the assistance of Willard’s Flagship Program coordinator Whitney Warren and Willard art teacher Gwen Hoppe. The idea is based on participatory action research, empowering those with relatively little access to decision-making to tell their stories through imagery. Swanson spent three weeks with the Willard students developing a context for the assignment, then invited a photography professor from UM to address the class and help them practice with digital cameras. From there, the students were assigned to use all 27 exposures on their Kodak disposables in any way they desired.
“We asked the students to shoot their community, and I was surprised that we didn’t get a lot of the landscape, the mountains—and I think there is only one shot of downtown,” says Swanson. “We got their rooms, the things they hang on their walls, and their family. It makes you wonder about how connected some of the students are to the community. But I think that’s honest of them.”
Swanson found that once the students were expressing themselves through photography, the discussion in class expanded. The exhibit is supplemented by anonymous quotes collected throughout the project. “I think I see myself and my sense of place as kind of in the back, not really seen,” reads one. “I guess we’re classified as menaces to society because of some of the rituals of our daily routines,” reads another.
“I worked hard to keep my preconceived notions about teenagers out of the project,” says Swanson. “They created a commentary on their own.”
Willard Alternative School was established in 1999 to provide educational services for students not succeeding in the traditional programs offered at the district’s four other high schools. Since then, it has expanded to accommodate approximately 140 students with activities that emphasize student choice and personalized education.
At the exhibit’s opening during the First Friday gallery walk, many of the student photographers gathered with family in the lobby of the Missoula Public Library to view the display. Sarah Holden, a 19-year-old who participated in Photovoice, stood holding her one-year-old nephew, the “little man” who’s the subject of two of her images.
“It’s frustrating because teenagers are definitely misinterpreted,” Holden said later, reflecting on the breadth of her classmates’ work. “I think we’re an important part of the community, but I’m not sure how. It’s hard to explain. It’s nice to have [the pictures] talk for us.”
The 27 images of Willard Photovoice will be on display at the Missoula Public Library throughout the month of May.