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.”
It was my first climb on Everest. As I left the last camp at 26,000 feet, to climb to the summit, I remembered the words of my climbing colleagues, “you will come across the dead bodies of many climbers on the way to the summit, it`s really frightening.” That part of the Everest experience isn’t talked much about outside the climbing circles.
Even though I was prepared, it was still a shock to come face to face with this frozen graveyard. If their faces had not been covered in snow, I would have thought they were sitting down taking a rest before climbing onwards. There was not much time to think. I had to reach the summit to complete my work, the first official measurement of Mount Everest in over three decades. As I pushed on, I passed more and more bodies, attempting to bury them beneath thoughts of reaching the summit.
At the third step, of the final pitch, I came across something I couldn’t bury. It was the body of a climber who had just died the day before. I knew him. We had spent the last few days together at camp, talking about climbing and our hopes of reaching the summit. The leader of his expedition had asked us to look out for him because he had not returned the day before. Even if he had still been alive, it would have been impossible to get him down from there.
A few hundred feet from the top, the wind became much stronger and I came to the cross roads many of the inhabitants of this “Dead Zone” had come to before me; continue with the dream or give up and return to camp. I stood there, hesitating for ten minutes before making that decision. I reached the summit, completed the measurement work for the government and made my way back to camp. That night, I thought about all the climbers who never made it off the mountain. I often wonder what makes us risk our lives to climb a mountain?
When I returned home to Chengdu and saw my young son, I said to myself, I will never go back to Mount Everest. But then, in 2008, when the government asked me to be the photographer for the Olympic Torch ascent of Everest, I agreed to go. I guess it’s in my blood – adventure for a lifetime.
“Earth River Expeditions, the whitewater-rafting company that pioneered the first raft descent of the Futaleufu in 1991, has and continues to put up a massive fight. They bought a large amount of land that the power company would have to purchase in order to build the dams and fought the construction of unsustainable development. In 2012, with the profits from their raft trips, they also founded a conservation organization, the Futaleufú Riverkeeper, to work on litigation, community outreach, and other conservation efforts full time. All profits from the trip go toward protecting the river.”
National Geographic Adventure Magazine, February 2013
Excepted From the Futa Friends web site, www.futafriends.org:
“Education and conscientious action are key to stopping Didymo. FutaFriends is working with local government, tourism, and non-governmental groups to establish a Didymo Awareness and Education Program to reach the local and tourist communities. FutaFriends has the priviledge to work with scientist Dr. Bill Horvath and outfitter/guide Robert Currie who, motivated by their love for the Futaleufú and for Patagonia, are spearheading advocacy for Didymo action at local, regional, and national levels. Their primary focus is to spotlight the issue and to help grassroots efforts move forward. Dr. Bill Horvath, an analytical scientist from the USA, is advising the technical aspects of informational materials and educational presentations, with a special focus on the role river guides and tourism operators have in educating tourists about Didymo. Robert Currie is putting a spotlight on Didymo within government circles.”
Montreal, June 27th 2005
M. Eric Hertz
Earth River Expeditions
180 Towpath Road
Accord, NY 1 2404
Subject: Sincere thanks
We would like to thank you for your precious collaboration with the Rivers Foundation and want to express our gratitude with a letter.
We want to thank you especially for all your actions regarding the Magpie River. Your participation in preserving waterfalls and rapids is very important and effective. Ecotourism is an industry that allows the preservation of our natural resources while being financially beneficial. Its promotion is essential in helping people to discover the wonders and greatness of Quebec's rivers.
Also, we greatly appreciate your efforts to mobilize the financial resources that allowed the Magpie publicity to be published in the paper Le Devoir. We believe that reaching people and raising awareness is the key to saving our collective natural patrimony.
We hope our collaboration will continue for years to come.
5834, rue Clark, MontnSal, H2T 2V7 T616phone : (514) 272-2666 T616copieur : (514) 274-0126