With powerful photos exploring poverty, racism and more, students’ exhibition at Muskegon Museum of Art is a call to action

Sereniti Huff stands by her work, “Translucent Opportunities,” at the Muskegon Museum of Art.

These images are stopping people in their tracks.

They’re stopping. And looking. They’re coming back to look again.

They’re taking photos and returning with spouses and children in tow to show them.

They realize some of the people in the photographs are standing right next to them, and they say: “Thank you. These are so powerful.”

The local high school students’ photos showcased in  “What is needed for a healthy community?”, a new photography exhibition that opened at the Muskegon Museum of Art on Thursday, Dec. 13, are indeed powerful. And they raise deeply important questions, dialogue and topics that are simultaneously calls to action and catalysts for change in our city, state and country.

All taken by members of Community enCompass’s Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), the photographs are both complex and straight-forward; they are images filled with layers of social criticism and poignant observations about homelessness, low wages, racism, mental health, suicide, education, and more. They are photos that ask of their viewer: What needs to happen for us to become a healthy community? Whose voices are we listening to—and whose voices are we ignoring, or attempting to silence? What truths aren’t we hearing?

Sereniti Huff’s photo, titled “Translucent Opportunities,” takes a hard look at the role racism and bias play in employment.

“When you’re looking for a job, there’s more of a preference for lighter skin color than qualifications,” said Huff, a freshman at Orchard View High School. 

The exhibition presents eight photographs taken by students from Muskegon High School, Heights Academy, Mona Shores, Orchard View, and Muskegon Covenant Academy. Each of the students is part of the YEP program, which aims to empower area youth and grow their leadership skills. YEP is organized by Community enCompass, a nonprofit that focuses on neighborhood development in Muskegon’s core neighborhoods.

For the exhibition, YEP partnered with PhotoVoice, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit that promotes “the ethical use of photography for positive social change, through delivering innovative participatory photography projects,” according to its website. For the organization’s projects, PhotoVoice provides cameras to a community and asks participants to take pictures that capture both their personal lives and the issues facing their communities.

For months, the YEP students worked to develop their photography project, which “is based on the simple, yet often ignored idea, that an individual is the best expert on their own life, and the best resource for understanding the struggles they face,” as explained by a statement at the exhibition.

“The resulting photos are intended to foster critical discussion about community opportunities and challenges, and serve as tools by which the photographer can inform and influence elected officials and community leaders in shaping public policy,” the same statement says.

In other words: the students are taking their narratives into their own hands. These are their own stories, being told by them. These are issues they themselves have grappled with; these are the topics they want the community to not only understand, but to truly engage with and, ultimately, to change. The students want area residents, and particularly those in power, to embrace really facing racism, homelessness, poverty, and more head-on, and a large part of addressing these issues means listening to, and empowering, those experiencing them.

These images are not meant to elicit a passive, “Oh, isn’t that sad,” but rather aim to light a fire under our feet—and responses from the viewers last night are certainly proof that the flames are there. People stopped and looked—really looked—at the photographs, and they then talked: about homelessness, about racism, about poverty. About why they exist, how we allow them to exist, and how we can change that.

Miracle Huff by her photograph, “I Am More Than a Test Score.”

For Miracle Huff, a sophomore at Orchard View High School, she wanted her photography in the exhibition to raise questions about our educational system and how we can better support and empower students. Huff emphasized the need for schools to be flexible when it comes to assessing students’ abilities.

“A lot of teachers will say, ‘We know who’s going to pass or fail,’ and they don’t get to know the student,” said Huff, whose photograph shows her with a sign that says, “I am more than a test score.”

“Schools don’t think about how children feel when they’re labeling people with a grade,” she continued. “Their sense of self worth goes down; it’s part of the reason why people give up.”

The students’ public statements on issues that are not always easy to discuss are deeply courageous acts by the teenagers, Dawanda Greene, the mother of Miracle and Sereniti Huff, said during the exhibition’s opening.

“We have a lot of conversations about these issues at home, so I wasn’t surprised they felt so strongly—but what did surprise me is that they brought it to this platform,” Greene said. “I felt very good that they felt strongly enough to do that, that they felt empowered. That’s how change is effected.”

“What is needed for a healthy community?” will be shown at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave. in downtown Muskegon) through March 10, 2019. 

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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