The following piece was excerpted from The winter edition of the Syracuse University Magazine
Stephen Mahan (right), director of Syracuse University’s Photography and Literacy Project.
Giving voice to city school Children Helping students discover that voice through writing and imagery is Stephen Mahan’s mission. With digital cameras, journals, and a fierce sense of commitment to the students, he helps them learn storytelling techniques and media skills that trigger self-expression, building self-esteem as they explore their outside worlds and inner selves.
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 it’s worth it.”
At Fowler High School in Syracuse, which has a 65% drop our rate, the highest in New York state, that challenge is regularly put to the test. The majority of students come from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Like many urban schools, the school is underfunded, overcrowded and faces scrutiny for standardized testing performances. 40% of the students are African American and 25% hispanic. There are also children from Bhutan, Nepal, Sudan, Liberia, Vietnam, Iran and elsewhere. At last count, 21 languages were spoken in Fowler’s halls. In this tremendous clash of cultures, Mahan’s program gives students the ability to not only be comfortable sharing their deepest thoughts, but to appreciate others as well.
In the six years Mahan has been doing this, he has encountered his 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 which causes turmoil. When given the opportunity, they have the ability to dazzle readers and viewers with their rawness and uncommon maturity.
Mahan measures 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’s what motivates me.”