Syracuse University Magazine

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Stephen Mahan (right), director of SU’s Photography and Literacy Project, discusses a photo with a Fowler student. Mahan and SU student mentors work with the Fowler students to help them create images that often combine photographs with poetry.

Photo by John Dowling


Giving Voice to City School Students

On a fall day at Fowler High School on the city’s Near Westside, Stephen Mahan projects images onto a classroom screen. He discusses photographic techniques and composition: foreground, background, point of view, silhouetting. “Use the frame of the photograph to make a statement about what you want to say without saying it explicitly,” says Mahan, director of the Photography and Literacy Project, an SU-based community initiative that seeks to foster creativity and learning in Syracuse city school students. As he flashes images of local homes, the students guess at the streets and neighborhoods of the houses and point out details: a sagging porch, a bed sheet covering a window, a TV satellite dish. “It’s the details that make things interesting,” Mahan says. “Here’s what I want you to think about when you’re taking photographs—add several together and it sets up a story.” 

The students in Adam Lutwin’s 11th-grade English class are reading A Streetcar Named Desire and focusing on detailing their daily surroundings—in their photographs and writings. When Lutwin asks if anyone wants to share from their journal, Demetria Smith volunteers. She reads about noisy children and barking dogs in her neighborhood and looking forward to it quieting down with fall’s arrival. “No more feeling annoyed from unnecessary noises,” she says. 

Lutwin sees the opportunity to link classroom instruction with the students documenting observations and thoughts about their everyday lives as a way to help them grow as individuals. “The program draws kids into the true beauty of self-expression, the most important expression of them all,” he says. “You cannot attach a test score to a student who tries something new and finds a voice that previously remained silent.”

Helping students discover that voice through writing and imagery is Mahan’s mission. With digital cameras, journals, and a fierce sense of commitment to the students, he is poised to help them learn storytelling techniques and media skills that trigger critical thinking and self-expression, building self-esteem as they explore their outside worlds and inner selves. The front line of urban education is familiar territory for Mahan, who has been involved for the past five years with this University initiative. Launched in 2005 as the Literacy, Community, and Photography Program through the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) in collaboration with several other campus partners and the Syracuse City School District, the program places SU faculty and student mentors in city schools to guide students in photography and creative writing assignments. This summer, the program emerged as the Photography and Literacy (PAL) Project under the auspices of SU’s Coalition of Museum and Art Centers, with the goal of further extending its reach into the community. The project, now headquartered in the SU Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, has its own computer lab classroom, meeting room, and office, as well as a gallery to highlight project works. 

Throughout the summer, Mahan worked at the Warehouse with schoolchildren from the Westside Family Resource Center of P.E.A.C.E. Inc., a community-based organization. He introduced them to photography, had them write about their pictures, and familiarized them with computers. “Circle the photos you like best,” he tells them, passing out photo contact sheets of images they’ve taken of their families and neighborhoods. “Then we’re going to sit down at the computers and show you what you can do with the photos, and you’re going to write about what’s important to you.”   

This fall, Mahan continued working with the center’s children through a PAL afterschool program for elementary and middle school students, while maintaining ongoing programs at Fowler High and Ed Smith Elementary School. Complementary to the project, Mahan teaches the VPA course Literacy, Community, and Media, which gives SU students hands-on experience as PAL mentors. “The pictures help start the conversation,” says Anna Stulb ’12, a communications design major.  

When discussing PAL and his work with city school students, Mahan regularly turns to his mantra, a quote from British educator and author Sir Ken Robinson: “There are too many brilliant kids in the schools who think they’re not.” Mahan recognizes these students, he says, because he sees himself in them. He was hyperactive, constantly in trouble, and had difficulty paying attention and reading. Eventually, a passion for photography led him to an M.F.A. degree from the University at Buffalo, where he taught photography in a program for inner-city kids. The combination clicked. “I know a lot of these kids have the same difficulties I did,” he says. “If I can make one kid or any number of them feel they’re capable, intelligent, creative, and have something substantial to add to the conversation in class, then that’s rewarding to me.”

At Fowler High School, that challenge is regularly put to the test. Many of its students come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Like many urban schools nationwide, Fowler is underfunded, overcrowded, and faces scrutiny for standardized testing performances. Look beyond that, though, and you see a global village: students from Bhutan, Nepal, Sudan, Liberia, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Iran, and elsewhere. At last count, 21 languages were spoken in Fowler’s halls. “This is a tremendous clash of cultures,” Lutwin says, “and our program gives students the ability to not only be comfortable sharing their deepest thoughts, but to appreciate others as well.”

Hari Ghimire, a Nepalese student, shares the story of his family’s struggles in his native Bhutan and how the family’s life has changed since immigrating to the United States. The children are attending school and learning English, and his father is happily working. Some of the students are shy about reading their writings, so the mentors help out. Meng Shui ’11, a communications design major from Chengdu, China, finds working in an American high school challenging and interesting. “What I learned from television is very different from what I see here,” she says.

Now in their third year of working together, Mahan and Lutwin have encountered their share of stark, honest writing that reflects the all-too-real lives of the students. One wrote about his father’s suicide, others about domestic abuse, street violence, teenage parenting, and homelessness. “Most of these kids do not have an outlet for their emotions and this causes turmoil,” Lutwin says. “They grow to imagine that their views and feelings are simply not important. On the contrary, these kids, when given the opportunity, have the ability to dazzle readers and viewers with their rawness and uncommon maturity.”

Mahan and Lutwin measure the program’s success in helping the students realize the value of their words and imagery—that they have something to say. It is a way for them to discover they are important. “When the pictures are all laid out on the table, it is impossible to tell which kid has difficulties,” Mahan says, “and that is what motivates me.” —Jay Cox



Watch the video



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Fowler High School English teacher Adam Lutwin reviews photo contact sheets in his class. 

Photo by John Dowling



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Photographs with poetry by Fowler High School student Wilquan Burke.

Image courtesy of Stephen Mahan