Winter's chill still hangs in the air when eight young men grab their jackets in late March and troop through Downtown with their mentor, a neo-soul photographer who sports "cool" in his dark aviator glasses and colorful gray scarf wrapped just so around his neck.
For two hours with Kenneth Neely, the young men click their Canon DSL cameras at buildings, passers-by and each other. They end up on the Smithfield Street Bridge and something happens: They bond. In the moments of photographing river barges, they suddenly turn their cameras on each other.
Shy and quiet Lawrence A. Hill takes aim at Roomel Reese, a bold personality who wants to set the world on fire. Tyrell Greenwood, poised and confident, spies Thomas, skateboarder-skittish yet timid, crouched at an angle where he folds into the bridge architecture. Tyrell snaps the photo. These young men come from urban and suburban backgrounds. They hold different dreams but have come together to explore a budding creativity: photography.
The men are among 10 who are with the "Still Feel Like Going On" photography workshop. It's a 10-week Saturday morning session to teach techniques: light, angle, computer composing, as well as introduce them to careers in photography. But more important, it's a time to elevate their minds to the power of image. The workshop is designed to give them tools to critique images -- particularly mainstream news and entertainment images -- as these depictions too often cast black males as only criminals, gangsta' musicians or as muscle-bound, brain-empty athletes.
Monica Haynes, former Post-Gazette staff writer, is the co-creator and administrator for the workshop, which was funded by The Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Initiative. Since 2007, the Initiative has sought to increase the educational, social and leadership opportunities for African-American men and boys in the Pittsburgh region.
This project used several overlapping assets to reach those goals. First, all of the photographer-mentors were drawn from the community and from their participation with the original "Feel Like Going On," a project created to provide grass-roots photographers with the forum to share everyday images of the positive relationships they found in their own neighborhoods.
Each of the mentors came to the project, held at Point Park University, with their own incredible back stories. Sean Means, a graduate student and mentor at Westinghouse High School, spoke to the class about his passion for profiling subjects in front of red brick, which, for him, not only adds dynamic color composition, but also serves as a reminder of where he's from: his father and grandfather were laborers, toiling in the Georgia clay, making the brick to feed their families. There are also Carol Moye and Germaine Watkins: both educators, who came to the Saturday sessions even when they weren't teaching, warmed by the fact they were working with students who wanted to show up.
The mentors took their young charges into the community to interview and profile men making a difference. They found a historian, a media leader, a legislator, a minister, an engineer, a judge and a master Scout.
Justice Johnson is 17. He photographed state Rep. Ed Gainey. He had to catch him on the run in Homewood, where Mr. Gainey was preparing for a community forum.
"I loved photographing Ed Gainey," said Justice, a student at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12. "I had to walk with him, while talking and writing, and I had to talk loud and clearly. It went kinda fast, but the speed of it showed me how well prepared you have to be in real life."
The young men wore dress shirts and ties to the session to photograph the community leader, and they often came back to the classroom boasting on how good they looked.
Other mentors came to the class: Malik Vincent, a young journalist who gave lessons in note-taking and advice on finding scholarships; and Waverly Duck, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who asked the young men to weigh the consequences of who controls their image. Who benefits, he asks, when black males are seen as only rappers? Who loses when they are seen as only minstrels?
Soft-spoken Joshua Fitch, 14, a ninth-grader at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, wrestled with the questions. Joshua was recommended for the workshop by his English teacher, who called him a young leader of grace and dignity.
"I listen to rap artists every day," he said, "but I had never thought about black male artists and their images. And I never thought about the impact of how people see you because of this. Now I understand what those images might mean to other people and how that affects my community."
The students' last outing was a photo shoot at the Mansions on Fifth in Shadyside, where Mr. Neely captured images of the young men inside the elegant setting of a mansion turned boutique hotel. Ms. Haynes, who arranged the shoot, said it was an attempt to show the students that there are no limits, that their opportunities can range from street photography to upscale environs.
Her sentiments have historical resonance. The workshop introduced them to Charles "Teenie" Harris, the Courier photographer heralded for his 40-year chronicle of black Pittsburgh. But they also sat in class enraptured by "Half Past Autumn," the documentary of the self-taught pioneering photojournalist Gordon Parks, who died in 2006. A renaissance man, Parks wrote novels, screenplays and music compositions, but one of the most moving aspects of his life was how he used photographs to shape public consciousness.
"I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs," he said in 1999. "I knew at that point I had to have a camera."
Parks captured images of a washerwoman, a frail kid in a Rio de Janeiro slum and urban poverty. No matter the darkness of someone's life, he found a way to photograph them with dignity. It's a message the young men absorb.
Twelve years before Parks was born, W.E.B. Du Bois, the sociologist, came to the same conclusion: The black image suffered under racism. To fight back, he took 500 images to the 1900 World Exposition in Paris. The photographs, documenting the progress of the Negro in America, were not allowed to be shown in the American Hall. Instead, housed in a space near the Seine, Du Bois drew crowds to his sepia images of African-American students, educators, businessmen, homeowners in starched white collars and wearing proud smiles, posed in front of tidy homes. They were people ready to participate in a new century.
Every time these young men lift their lens, share an image on Instagram or tweet a photo, they are becoming a part of this same legacy.
The students' work will be unveiled during an exhibition that opens next Wednesday at the August Wilson Center and runs through Aug. 30. The center is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Ervin Dyer, a former Post-Gazette staff writer, is a senior editor at the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt Magazine and a graduate student in Pitt's Department of Sociology. He was a co-director of the photography project (email@example.com). First Published June 5, 2013 4:00 AM