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Dialogue: Youth In Focus

Feature | April 11, 2018 | By Jonathan Shipley

 Youth in Focus is a 24-year-old youth development photography program whose mission is to empower young people to experience their world in new ways and to make positive changes in their lives through photography.

What is Youth in Focus?

We put cameras in the hands of adolescents and place them in a challenging environment surrounded by high-quality, talented teachers and nurturing adult mentors, creating a strong community of support. Through photography our students find their voice, identity, creativity, and gain new confidence in their worth and abilities. 

We are the people who teach kids how to develop negatives into positives. Nobody has as much fun creating a safe community of trust and support for youth through photography, as we do. Our impact is empowering youth to find their voice and gain self-confidence as they learn life skills and discover who they are, and what matters to them.

Are you a photographer yourself? What got you into the art form?

Back in the day my father bought me a second-hand film camera before I headed off to college. Since that time, I see the world in light and shadows. Photography has always been a magical medium for me to explore human emotions and nature’s gifts.

How did you get involved with Youth in Focus?

Selfie photo of a smiling white woman.

Trina Gadsden

While in graduate school, I was fascinated with the nonprofit and partnered with them any opportunity I could, to see how the organization could play on a larger scale and serve more youth through the gift of photography. When the former Executive Director decided to leave, the Founder, Walter Bodle, left me a voicemail and said, “You need to apply.”  At the time, I was running a nonprofit doing work in Uganda, but I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help empower youth in our community through a camera lens. 

Who are some of your favorite photographers? Why?

Our Youth in Focus students who create profound work and continue to vulnerably reveal their inner struggles through a camera lens. We often rush through our busy lives without truly noticing or appreciating all the unique things that surround us.  Our students continue to remind me of the beauty in the small things. 

In the professional realm, Joyce Tenneson’s portraits have always been hauntingly beautiful and unworldly to me. And Alan Ross, who was Ansel Adams’ assistant for years, chases light and captures emotions in nature, like no other.  

What are some specific events or activities throughout the year that the kids participate in?

We offer quarterly Core Classes for youth ages 13-19 in digital and black and white photography. Throughout the year we partner with schools, community centers, libraries and other organizations within the community through our Partner Programs, and we work with populations ranging from elementary school children to 92-year-olds through our Seniors in Focus program! 

Two girls focus their cameras.

Photo by Youth in Focus student.

What are some of your favorite memories of Youth in Focus?

One of my favorite memories at Youth in Focus has nothing to do with photography and more about the connection with the youth. A few years ago, there was a student named Tony, who was personally struggling because he had been moved around so many times while in foster care. He would come early to class and would sit in my office and we would talk about his day, sometimes he would ask for advice on how to get along with his foster parents better as he didn’t want to get moved again, but most of the time I just listened and let him know I saw him and appreciated him. About a year into our program, after changing schools and his foster care home again, he ran in my office and said he was getting adopted by one of his teachers in his school! We were both so excited, we started crying and jumping around my office! His new “Dad” showed up to his End of Quarter Show and Tony was grinning from ear to ear as he shared his final image and spoke to the crowd about his work and experience in our program.

What do you hope for the organization in both the near and distant future?

My goal has always been to be a sustainable organization that can serve more kids through quality programs. Long term, we have been working with Mahlum Architects to help design ‘Youth in Focus in a Box’ so we can expand to other communities in the state and nationwide. 

How can one support Youth in Focus? 

Individual donations go such a long way in our nonprofit and help cover scholarships, film and cameras, just to name a few things! Corporate sponsorship of our classes is extremely helpful, along with simply spreading the word and sharing the work we do with more people to gain support!<

Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in West Seattle. He's been published in the Los Angeles Times, Fine Books & Collections Magazine, and Seattle Magazine, among others.