When I was child, my family traveled extensively, not just around my country of birth, Germany, but also throughout the surrounding countries that stretched from the North Sea south through the Alps and down to the Mediterranean Sea. As a child these travels made me feel that the world was infinite. Every country we visited led to new experiences with people who lived their lives much different than I did. When we moved to America, once again, the world became even greater in scale than I could have ever imagined. As we adapted to an American lifestyle, I felt that I drifted far away from my European roots. However, as I grew older, I began to notice the similarities between both the culture of my youth and that of my present home instead of the differences. The world seemed to grow smaller, just like the experience of visiting my elementary school as an adult, where the desks that made me feel so mature in first grade were transformed into miniatures. Similarly, the world that had seemed so limitless and overwhelming became conceivable, as I began to relate to all cultures.
For the youths involved with the Photo Exchangers project, associated with the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and Regional Advisory Information and Network Systems, based out of Tamale, Ghana, this experience must be similar to the one I went through when I was their age. Both groups were given point and shoot and single use 35mm cameras and then set out to explore their surrounding neighborhoods with the intentions of sharing their lives and daily routines with each other. Through the use of interviews and photography both groups learned not only about the other groups culture, but also more about their own culture and the neighborhoods in which they live. The results of all their efforts over the last year, plus the addition of more correspondence by other youths involved through summer camps from around the greater Boston area, culminated in an exhibition of their photographs, quotes, books, and e-mail correspondences at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center.
Throughout the entirety of my visit to the gallery I couldn’t help but think about the relevant importance of such a project in present day America. What struck me the most was that with all the global politics and news of war and destruction we are bombarded with on a daily bases through all the technology we tend to surround ourselves with, I could rest assured that there was still hope for childhood innocence. One youth’s e-mail read off a list of names of bands and singers, stating that these were what were listened to by American youth. A youth from Ghana replied with a similar list of band names and singers from Ghana. Without explanation or judgment they were simply listed off. Both sides of the world represented themselves with great pride for what they had and for their environments, instilling an unspoken equality and sense of dignity for both sides.
In the global society we live in today, I find it more and more important that our youth be educated in the ways of the global community. It seems often times that, probably due to the sheer size of America, our youth are sheltered from exchange and interaction with the rest of the world. The Photo Exchangers project shows how universal the language of art can be. As Joseph Beuys once declared, ”everyone is an artist,” and much like Beuys’ other theories, art can be used to heal the wounds of society. The visual dialogue of snapshot photography lends itself particularly well to this situation-- it’s simple, cheap, and highly reproducible. Combine all of these benefits with two groups of enthusiastic youths and you have the beginning of a life-changing and cultivating experience for the participants and all the neighbors and family members they touch.
To find out more about this project or to make materials donations for the youths, you may contact the founder of the project, Samara Hoyer-Winfield, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The exhibition at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center will be up until September 1, and you can read more about the project and see the youths photographs at the Photo Exchangers website.
"Photo Exchangers" is on view until September 1st, at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center.
All images are courtesy of the artists participating in Photo Exchangers and the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center.