Faces of the South Side
“Move to the left, move to the left, move to the left,” someone says. She has one hand on her 35mm digital camera, which is also secured with a strap around her neck, while her other hand is in the air, wildly gesturing along with her commands. She sighs, exasperated. “Ugh, you moved too much.”
She pauses as she contemplates how to salvage her vision and moves around the model instead as she continues to snap. Finally, she pulls the camera away and squints intently at her footage. She seems satisfied. “I just love photography now,” she says. Her name is Lydia, and she is 12 years old.
“… we have cool programs like this. This program is amazing. I love every minute of it – I’ve learned so much.” – 14 year-old Gejnique
Welcome to an afternoon of Faces of the South Side, an after-school program that recently turned four years old. It runs on a grant from ArtsQuest’s Banana Factory, yes, but it’s powered by the passion of photographer Ryan Hulvat and an all-star team of assistants: Ruth Rohrer, Justin Gifford, and Dawn Moser, Hulvat’s wife. It culminates with a show at the South Side Arts Festival, yes, but the real takeaway – the reason why Ryan hasn’t had much else on his mind for months – Is the immense personal development that unfolds for the children as the program progresses. “I want the kids to know that they can be whatever they want to be if they’re passionate about it,” Ryan says. “I want them to know that there are possibilities.” It’s about photography, yes, but it’s also about life.
“Faces of the South Side isn’t just photography,” says Stacie Brennan, the senior director of Visual Arts and Education at ArtsQuest. “It uses the umbrella of photography to teach life skills – healthy living, social skills, and, of course, problem solving. Photography isn’t an easy skill to learn.”
For an hour and a half on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fifteen Broughal Middle Schoolers roll into Hulvat’s sunny Bethlehem studio, where they learn about photography and take pictures of figures in the community – business owners, chefs, city planners, and artists are among this semester’s lineup of models. Amid the scuffling of tennis shoes across the studio floor, chatter about Snapchat filters and Selena Gomez’s latest single fades as the students direct their attention to more pressing matters, like their after-school snack.
Hulvat is concerned with what the kids eat after school, too. “Food is love, and food is important because you can’t learn if you’re not fed. I like to feed them things that will make them smarter, healthier, and stronger,” he says, piling pulled pork onto a fresh roll with a slice of pineapple, coleslaw, and a side salad for each student. He drizzles a thin ribbon of Sriracha on each sandwich. “You’ll like it,” he promises. (They do.)
After a quick lecture, the students split into smaller groups to tackle their photography subjects of the day. Some stay in Hulvat’s studio, some head outside, and one group adventures to an unused wing of the building: a bright, window-lined loft space. The model in this room smiles, moves, and leaps for the students, but the young photographers’ screens return dark images that are hard to make out. “Figure out where the light is coming from so you know where to stand,” Moser reminds them, helpfully angling a reflector to bounce light across their portraits. She draws on her degree in Art Education from Kutztown University to guide the students. “It’s important to teach kids communication skills and the ability to work through simple problems and simple tasks,” she says.
Lydia is trying to get another good shot now, one that her grandparents might like. She lives with them in Bethlehem’s Southside. Her mother and four siblings live in Allentown, and Lydia visits them most weekends. She misses them during the week, but keeps herself busy reading. She also likes to take pictures, which is why she signed up for the program. “I thought it would be cool to capture the light,” she says thoughtfully. While the students have their own memory cards, there aren’t enough cameras for them to have their own, so they share. “I’m an artist. My pictures look really good today,” Lydia says, finally relinquishing the camera to Desiree.
Two hoop earrings large enough to fit a telephoto lens through dangle from Desiree’s ears, catching the light as she tilts her head from left to right, trying to take the perfect picture. Desiree has been Lydia’s best friend since third grade – “since forever” – a fact they are both quick to share. In fact, Lydia is the reason why Desiree is here. “I never knew what to be when I grew up, so Lydia said we should try photography together since she doesn’t know what she wants to be either,” Desiree says. Prior to this program, she had only taken photographs with a cell phone. “This is way, way better,” she says.
Across the room, Ruth works with another group of students as they vie for the best angles and most creative compositions. “Faces of the South Side is important to me because I like to help kids, especially inner-city kids, because I was one of them,” says Ruth.
To her left is 14 year-old Gejnique, who dismisses creative direction from a friend. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” Gejnique says confidently. He has always called the Southside home, and he loves it. “We have a bad reputation and I don’t know why,” he says. “Plus, we have cool programs like this. This program is amazing. I love every minute of it – I’ve learned so much.”
Ten minutes later and Gejnique is bounding across the room to show off the pictures he’s just taken. His warm brown eyes scan the camera’s photo history as he scrolls past a series of photos dismissively before finally landing on one where the subject is jumping. “This one,” he says. “This one is my favorite. It’s a micro-movement.” If he wasn’t in the program, he’d be playing basketball after school, but he says he always does his homework first because he wants to go to college. “My parents didn’t go to college, so I want to set a better example for my younger siblings,” Gejnique says.
The afternoon is a blur, and the 6 p.m. deadline arrives sooner than anyone expects. The students scramble to get in their last shots. Hulvat concludes the end of every session with a group picture, so students and instructors alike squeeze shoulder to shoulder to fit in the frame. When he gives the okay for everyone to break, it’s pandemonium: returning memory cards, accounting for cameras, stacking journals, cleaning up plates from the sandwiches, and collecting their belongings to leave, but discernible above the clamor is a girl telling her friend, “I want to be a photographer when I grow up.”
To contact Ryan Hulvat about Faces of the South Side, visit ryanhulvat.com.