by Emily Homnick '09
In the age of digitization and mega pixels, red-eye correction and instant photos, Elayna Snyder has developed the raw power of the disposable camera. The Kalamazoo College senior uses them to teach a photography class at Ministry with Community, a food and daytime shelter provider helping the City of Kalamazoo's homeless, poor, mentally ill, and hard-to-serve adults. Though Snyder's program began tentatively with just a few arts and crafts, the at-first hesitant participants soon seized the opportunity to learn from her and develop their photographic skills, and more. In the process Snyder learned as well.
An artist skilled in many mediums, Snyder hoped to use art--especially photography--to help people marginalized in the community and thus strengthen the entire community. At first a lack of funding confined class materials to colored pencils, crayons, and yarn, and the initial results were disappointing. "My students were quite intimidated by art and said they couldn't do it," said Snyder. "But after we switched to cameras they were incredibly excited." A grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation made the switch to disposable cameras possible.
The value was apparent immediately. As news spread and photographs circulated, class attendance grew and became more consistent. Conversations expanded beyond the subject of art. Snyder led discussions and encouraged her students to express the emotional, social, and political themes in their photos. Class members gained a sense of authority and self-confidence not only as photographers but also as social commentators--people who could speak articulately of the connection between their artwork and daily life.
Photographs taken by Snyder's students were exhibited in the Light Fine Arts Gallery at the January 2009 Martin Luther King Symposium, "Reclaiming Our Voice: Connecting with Community." The enlarged, boldly displayed photos were accompanied by poignant poems and short stories that expressed the hopes and struggles of the artists. A few of those artists attended symposium events and spoke with students and community members about their experiences and artwork.
Snyder felt she had successfully connected with marginalized members of her community, but the process was gradual. She became especially close to the 10 individuals who faithfully attended Wednesday class. She improved the instructional and intercultural skills she had begun to develop as an English teacher in a Calcutta (India) orphanage during study abroad. There the barriers between her and her students were cultural and linguistic--her students spoke Bengali and no English.
"Initially, I felt differently about teaching a marginalized group in my own country," said Snyder. Ironically, her students may have seemed less like her because of the very language and citizenship they shared. "But as I continued to teach I let go the social stigmas we use to create barriers between us. Those barriers became unnecessary when
"As I continued to teach I let go the social stigmas we use to create barriers between us."my students and I formed relationships based on personality, connection, and interest--no different than the relationships I have with classmates at 'K'." Through the trust she shared with her students and through their photography and writing she began to feel the implications of hunger and homelessness as she never had--a first step to addressing those issues.
This spring Snyder--between juggling a heavy course load and getting ready to graduate--is teaching ceramics workshops at Ministry with Community in which her students make bowls and planters. "Class members draw upon their photography to create narratives on their ceramic creations," she said, which will be sold during the City of Kalamazoo's June Art Hop. Proceeds will be donated to efforts that address hunger and homelessness in the community.
Snyder is a Civic Engagement Scholar at the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Institute for Service-Learning, and she's certain she wants to keep doing what she loves to do--photograph, teach, and travel. Ultimately, she hopes to teach college students to use photography to facilitate more engagement between academia and other communities. She wants to discover and apply the most beneficial, utilitarian, and political possibilities of the medium she loves. "I'm ready to move outside the classroom," she said. With the help of a few disposable cameras, she already has.
Photo by one of Elayna's workshop students; and a photo of Elayna in a gallery exhibit of her students' work