The youngsters of St. Pete would like to open our eyes to their world

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –The exhibit “Through Our Eyes: Midtown and Beyond” opened at Studio@620 last week and showcased the photography and video of students at Melrose Elementary, John Hopkins Middle and Lakewood High schools.

 It is all a culmination of the Journeys in Journalism program at these schools, where student journalists document the people, places and stories of their neighborhoods. This was the program’s tenth anniversary and featured a celebratory atmosphere as the John Hopkins World Drummers entertained the crowd with their catchy rhythms and beats.

“Every year for 10 years we’ve had the 100 best photos our students have taken on the walls of the gallery,” said Cynda Mort, the journalism coordinator at Melrose Elementary. “We’re so thankful to the studio because they donate their space.”

Mort added that though these are school assignments, the young photojournalists have a say in how they get to express themselves.

“They have a voice in it,” she said. “We suggest assignments and they pick assignments. They take photos at school, which is much more ‘free reign’ but they also go on field trips within the community and take photos and do stories for the school newspaper.”

Atoyia Deans, a journalism teacher at Melrose, added that there is participation from kindergarten all the way through fifth grade.

“At the kindergarten level they’re learning the basics of what a camera is, how to ask questions and it evolves all the way to how to generate content,” she explained.

When they’re building a foundation, Deans said, there’s usually some trepidation on the part of the students about the process of getting quality photos and well-written stories, but as they come into their own they become more and more excited to contribute to the school paper.

“It’s nice to see the evolution from our students being so hesitant and apprehensive about even writing an article,” Deans said, “to wanting to take the lead and write more stories and take more photographs!”

Gripping and engaging, many photos speak to the human experience with a plethora of subjects. Some show the city’s residents gleefully grasping life, such as fourth grader Brianna Leary’s “Fun on the Job,” which features a mechanic literally kicking up his heels as he replaces a car engine, and fifth grader Thomas Thach’s “Splash!,” which portrays a young girl happily absorbing a stream of cool water in the face.

The photo “Hard Work,” also by Leary, features auto mechanic Dempsey Haney on a break and speaks volumes about his life in a single frozen moment. From his weary eyes to his begrimed, road map-wrinkled face, it is clear he has logged several miles of hard toil in his time.

Others featured a combination of colorful images and deft composition, like “Sunshine Wheels” by 10th grader Jimmy Faulks and “Winding Down” by ninth grader Jade Smith, which offers a bird’s-eye view of a yellow staircase winding down toward a bright green plant at the heart of the photograph.

A section of the exhibit titled “Dear Mayor” featured direct pleas from elementary school children to Mayor Rick Kriseman. These short notes, some scribbled on index cards, asked the mayor to act on issues that are important to the kids. While some messages requested simple pleasures like more city pools and parks, others starkly reminded us that even young children are not blind to the strife of some of St. Pete’s neighborhoods.

Fourth grader Aliss Knox implored the mayor to “get the drug dealers out of the park” and “fix the buildings that have bullet holes in the windows,” while 5th grader D’nysha Brightful, after asking the mayor in her note to “take away weapons and only let the police use them,” stated simply: “Just make St. Petersburg a better place.”

Kriseman was on hand for the opening, and took in several of the photos with an interested eye.

Bob Devin Jones, cofounder of the Studio@620, explained the gallery’s attitude toward welcoming all artists: “When we say that the answer is always ‘yes,’ it means opportunity. If you’re going to find the next Dorothea Lange or the next Gordon Parks, you’ll have to give opportunity. That’s why we do it.”

Jones explained that this is the ninth year that the gallery has held these exhibitions, and was thankful to the sponsors, including Duke Energy, for their generous grants to help make it all possible.

Time will tell if this program could prove to be the springboard for future photojournalists, but if nothing else the children gain the satisfaction of seeing their work on display.

“We think this is a really awesome experience for the kids,” Mort said. “This really gives them an opportunity to have their voices heard and their work seen as art in the community.”

“Through Our Eyes: Midtown and Beyond” runs through Oct. 2 at Studio@620, 620 First Ave. S.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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