Members of the homeless community are often the focus of photojournalists’ cameras as they sometimes can be found sleeping on cardboard boxes or creating shanties under city scaffolding.
The lens gets turned around as the new CameraCares Photography Mentorship program, hosted in conjunction with the New York Press Photographers Association and the Bowery Mission, equips some of these same people with cameras of their own. Professional photographer mentors will help these disadvantaged individuals learn a skill that might allow them to earn a living and express themselves as they never had before.
These skills will culminate in an exhibit by those who are served at the Bowery Mission entitled, “the Bowery Collection,” on Saturday, May 6 at the Mission headquarters at 227 Bowery in Manhattan. The exhibit is open to the public.
Richard Liebowitz, founder and director of the program, started doing volunteer work at the Bowery soup kitchen one year ago and discovered many disadvantaged people just needed direction and mentorship.
Liebowitz, an avid photographer, said that while volunteering, he discovered that many poor people in the shelter programs “just needed to get back on their feet and improve their lives.”
“I found that while feeding people, many were just looking for support and guidance in their lives – many don’t have families and are living day to day,” Liebowitz said. “At the mission, people are getting three hot meals a day, but we can give them more and a light bulb went off – wouldn’t it be great if we could help Bowery Mission clients, interested in photography – help them learn composition, lighting, visual storytelling. They are on the streets all day and they see life and may be they have an eye for it.”
Liebowitz joined the mission with the New York Press Photographers Association and four working photographers became mentors. Canon USA loaned out cameras to the participants and Liebowitz provided backpacks and Amazon Kindles loaded with the editing application “Photoshop,” so that mentees could upload and manage images.
Bruce Cotler, president of the NYPPA and a professional photographer for 40 years, has served as a mentor to Bowery client Heriberto Juarez, a Mexican immigrant with limited English, has already visited Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and plans to accompany Juarez to Chinatown.
“We are usually photographing everyone so it’s nice to be helping people to get on their feet and give them something they may become passionate about and even make a career from,” Cotler said. “They are now out there trying to make beautiful art and meet people – this will help them get their lives back on track.”
Currently, sessions for participants run weekly for 10 weeks. Each mentoring session can run two hours and up to an entire day. In addition to helping clients learn photography, they also create “mentorship bonds,” that expand discussions to life experiences.
“They are not just talking about cameras, but what is going on in their life and how a mentor can help – even just to lend a friendly ear,” Liebowitz said. “The mentee relates about difficult times, leaping hurdles of life – they often have heart-to-heart talks about life’s obstacles. At the same time, they learn a skill of setting up portraits, understanding depth of field or just knowing when to take a photo – reading emotions. They can go on to become freelancers, pro photographers just by learning personal skills and how to interact with people.”
Liebowitz said the exhibit on May 6 will allow the public to purchase pictures or even license them for publication with the profits going to the mentee photographer.
Debra Rothenberg, a pro photographer known for entertainment, concerts and most notably Bruce Springsteen pictures, said she finds mentoring, “rewarding that someone I’m mentoring not only is learning but enjoying taking photos.”
“I like giving back to people — I believe in paying it forward,” said Rothenberg, who is also vice president of the NYPPA.
Rothenberg mentored Chanel Caple, a resident of the Women’s Center of the Bowery Mission.
“It reminds me of the first time I was in a darkroom making black & white prints and you say OMG when the print comes out,” Rothenberg said. “It’s now the same thing in the digital world, when you look at the print on the computer – it takes me back. And I can’t wait to see the excitement when they see the pictures on the wall of the exhibit.
As for her relationship with Chanel, “pretty freak’n awesome.”
“Chanel has the drive, energy, passion and I know Chanel will do well whatever They put their mind to,” Rothenberg said. “I haven’t seen that much drive in anyone in a long time. And our friendship will not end – when our schedules are open, we will still get together to take pictures – that’s a real success.”
Caple, 31, born and raised in Brooklyn, felt the same way about her mentor.
“From the moment we spoke on Zoom, it seems our relationship was effortless, almost like I knew her long before I met her,” said Caple, who currently lives at the Bowery Women’s Mission in Harlem for the past year, having lost her job and home after a “mental crisis.”
“She was so kind and giving of her knowledge – we’d meet up and I’d give her an idea of what I’d want to create and she was more than willing to be supportive and share ideas and vision of the things I wanted to work on and assist me in being able to capture what I saw in my mind.”
“This has been a great opportunity to get back on my feet in a place where I can be stable again.”
Caple believes her photography will help her move towards getting a job and becoming independent again.
“I am grateful to have met Debbie and build upon our relationship — I have so much to learn, can’t wait for the opportunity to learn and at the same time, I’m job searching trying to get back into customer service with fitness as my passion. I’m trying to become stable again with financial needs and my further knowledge in photography, it’s all like a breath of fresh air.”
Greg Vadala Vocational Specialist at the Bowery Mission that serves the homeless and hungry since the 1870s, said the mentor program is a boon to his clients.
“Anytime you can offer a new skill and possibly turn it into a full-time or at least part-time income, may be sell some pictures — if they are passionate about it, it can be an income stream or even a hobby that gives a sense of well being to live,” said Vadala who deals with 45 men at the Bowery Mission in Manhattan.
“Boosting self esteem, while building skills while developing an enrichment to life is beautiful. People who’ve done it, enjoyed the process of what they got to learn, and we look forward to others who want to do it.”
Anyone interested in mentoring, sponsoring or purchasing any of the pictures from the Bowery Mission at the exhibit on May 6, may contact [email protected]