Students use the digital arts to capture the city, the uprising, themselves

Students use the digital arts to capture the city, the uprising, themselves
Wide Angle Youth Media teen photographers took turns taking portraits of each other (Courtesy/Amiyah Spraggins)

On a Tuesday evening in early April, seven students sit at iMacs in a classroom, some wearing headphones, as they transcribe interviews or watch video footage on the computers' screens. Two instructors unplug recording equipment from retractable extension cords connected to plastic orange spheres the size of volleyballs that hang from the ceiling. A few students begin to help by folding tripods and packing up boom mics, preparing for their assignments to film on the streets of Baltimore.

Instructor Mawish Raza divides the students into groups, guiding four of them to collect specific footage in the field and giving individual instruction to the three who will remain in the classroom. She moves quickly through the room, making sure each student has a task, answering questions about editing, shooting, interviewing, and pausing to offer doughnut holes—she brought in Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts—to give her hard-working students a treat.


These high school students are part of Wide Angle Youth Media's Mentoring Video Project (MVP) program. Last fall, Wide Angle's MVP students created a series of eight audio stories to commemorate experiences, moments of awareness, or achievements that were significant to them.

"I learned that the city would rather arrest the young victims affected by their systems than hear our voices. That was a hard pill to swallow," says student Logan Young in his audio project "Inaugural."

On the one-year anniversary of the Baltimore uprising, Wide Angle is sharing its collection of student work via social media and through the April 27 publication of a book of 120 photographs and essays created by the teens. Students collected photographs at protests and through workshops at schools, libraries, and other organizations in more than 15 neighborhoods and were able to spring for publication costs with support from the Baltimore Community Foundation's Fund for Rebuilding Baltimore.

"We wanted to redefine the history of Baltimore in 2015 by highlighting these moments from many students," says Raza, Wide Angle's lead media instructor.

"I personally hope people are able to see Baltimore with new eyes," says Eboni Sellers, who worked on the book project as an intern at Wide Angle last fall and is now an assistant instructor teaching a photography workshop at Forest Park High School. "Because the media has come in and tried to get people to view Baltimore as a negative city—not full of kids, but full of thugs. We illustrated a book so people can actually see our students."

Founded in 2000, Wide Angle Youth Media offers after-school programs to Baltimore high school and middle school students. In addition to MVP, the organization's advanced video production program, Wide Angle offers programs in graphic design and photography, as well as one-day photography workshops and media education projects for community groups. Wide Angle student work has been featured at film festivals around the world, and several films have won awards.

Wide Angle also operates an apprenticeship program, Wide Angle Productions, to give graduates from its high school programs the opportunity to gain paid, real-world experience working on video production projects for clients.

Julie Lauver, Wide Angle's Youth Photography Exhibit coordinator, frames her workshops in the context of the protests last April. She tells her students, "this is your opportunity to speak for yourself."

She focuses on self-portraits. "We teach both the language of photography and that in making and viewing images you have a little editorial control," Lauver says.

In addition to instruction on composition, lighting, and framing, she emphasizes collaboration. "They work in teams and have to communicate with someone to take their picture," says Lauver.

The workshops culminate with a traveling exhibition, which is displayed at farmers markets and other venues around the city and includes the best portrait of each student.

Lauver says students often refer to Sellers as a mentor on workshop evaluations, a designation she takes to heart. She wants students to understand that they can become professional filmmakers and photographers. "I want to spill students into pursuing art and making a life out of art," she says. "To [be able to] express themselves through digital media."

This Spring semester, students in Wide Angle's MVP program are working on two new projects—a short film about what people are doing to help youth a year after Freddie Gray's death and a three- to five-minute piece highlighting what makes Baltimore special. As they research the Freddie Gray project, students are interviewing a member of the activist organization Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, talking to parents, and reaching out to student activists. Raza says they've also contacted the police, inviting them to participate in the film.

On this particular April evening, some students pack up their equipment and fan out into the neighborhood to begin shooting footage. Others stay behind to edit material they've already collected. Niajea Randolph, 17, a student at Independence School Local 1, became involved with Wide Angle through an internship program with Urban Alliance and, as she transcribes an interview for the Freddie Gray video, she says she likes hearing the range of opinions on what happened during the uprising. "I've learned that I'm not alone in thinking what I think about last spring," says Randolph. She wanted to participate in the protests last Spring but wasn't able to, so she is drawn to images related to the uprising. Some photos she saves and some she shares on Snapchat or Twitter to show what's going on in Baltimore, "showing that people still want justice for Freddie, especially because it's been almost a year."


What does she hope people who see the film get out of it? "That Baltimore is not a bad place at all. It's just that people have their ups and downs, and people make mistakes. And people get angry."

Andrew Hwang, lead media instructor for the middle school program and an assistant instructor for MVP, has worked at Wide Angle for four years. He teaches the basics of film and photography, "but it's more than that, too; I hope the students learn life skills."

When teaching, he shares his experiences working on film sets or in production houses and conveys how high those employers' expectations are. Cell phone use is an example, he says. Students love their phones. But on a movie set, if a phone goes off, the phone's owner could be fined hundreds of dollars.

While some Wide Angle students go on to pursue careers in film or photography, not all do. "Everyone has their own path in life, and maybe this is the part where they figure it out," says Hwang. "The main goal isn't to teach them film. That's what I hope—it's something I enjoy and want to share with them—but sometimes life takes them in a different direction, and they find a new passion. And that's OK, as long as they learn something, like how to talk to people or come out of their shell or be more creative."

The Wide Angle Youth Media book of photography debuts on April 27. The student-created audio stories can be found on the organizations Vimeo page: