Picturing Peace

Sixteen-year-old Jerrell Stafford stands before a photograph of two interwoven hands—one black, one white—and pensively holds his own to mirror the image. In a world plagued by violence, social injustice, and corruption, this, he says, is peace.  

“I put part of my heart into every one of these pictures,” the Cooper High School student said. He is one of the many youth artists whose work is featured in “Picturing Peace,” a youth documentary photo exhibit touring Minneapolis this summer.  The project—sponsored by Minneapolis’s Department of Health and Family Support and the Downtown Improvement District—explores themes of youth violence, community, and peace. 

For too long, policymakers and news outlets have written the story of youth violence in our communities. Here, those most affected use art to offer a rare and intimate glimpse into their everyday realities with the hope of influencing change.

Picturing PeaceThe images—on display at City Hall until June 18—are amazingly honest. Brave, even. Before beginning the project in March, few of the participating teens from the Division of Indian Work and the North Community YMCA knew anything about cameras. Now, Jerrell said he seldom goes anywhere without his. It gave him a voice, he said. 

So what does peace look like to these young people?

To some, it is sunsets with deep tangerine skies that melt into endless rosy hues. Smiling mothers embracing their toothless children. Still libraries stacked to the ceiling with books. Warm embraces that defy race, class, and background differences.

But before “picturing peace,” the South and North Minneapolis youth first capture the barriers standing between them and the lives they hope for. From locks and fences, to stop signs tagged with racial slurs, to empty beer bottles and fast food wrappers littered over their playgrounds and sidewalks, they hold nothing back. One teen creatively captures a blurred flyer publicizing a reward for help in a homicide. The caption? “People get away with murder.”

The images don’t follow all of the basic rules of photo composition. But though they may not use leading lines, or the rule of thirds or even perfect focus, they all employ the gritty, uninhibited sense of truth that is behind all great works of art. Following the “photovoice” methodology, they are not meant to be beautiful, they are meant to make a difference. The students will tell you this themselves:

“I want you to see the bad things I see in my pictures.”                

“I want to let the world know that Indians aren’t so bad after all.”

“I want to make a change in the world.”

Project coordinators admit even they were surprised by what the young photographers came up with. From creation to curation, they are responsible for every aspect of what the audience views. 

But the project doesn’t end with the exhibit (which will tour Hennepin County Libraries through Nov. 30). You also can check out the youths’ photos in downtown Minneapolis, where they’re being wrapped around utility boxes and made into public installation art that will be kept up for at least a year.

All of this should get you thinking. If somebody were to give you a camera and ask you to capture your community’s strengths and weaknesses, what would you capture? What would your friends capture? Your children? Well, give it a shot! The project is hosting the 2012 Picturing Peace Summer Photo Contest. It’s open to all ages, and winning photos will join the youth images as public installation pieces in downtown Minneapolis!

Visit the exhibit and then take what you see to inspire your own photos. Make it a family thing to get some insight into how your loved ones view the world around them. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did. 

Picturing Peace 2012 Exhibit

June 5 – June 18
City Hall Rotunda
350 South Fifth St., Mpls.

June 20 – Nov. 30
Hennepin County Libraries Tour

Visit PicturingPeaceMPLS.com for library dates, public instillation locations, and more information on entering the photo contest.