Crossing cultures, capturing lives

Brattleboro photography program brings together youth from southern Vermont, Chicago, Pine Ridge Reservation, and the Navajo Nation

BRATTLEBORO — Sixteen year-old Noa Petrie of Brattleboro had never been away from her family for more than five days when she went on the three-week Exposures Summer Program at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota this summer.

Although she was uneasy about going on this new adventure, she said, “It turned out to be literally the greatest experience in my life.” She made new friends, learned about a new part of the country, and experienced first-hand a very different culture from her own, which she came to treasure.

From July 1-21, youth from southern Vermont, the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and Chicago joined youth on Pine Ridge Reservation for the Exposures 2012 Summer Program. Over three weeks, participants used photography and other creative tools to collaboratively explore themes of place, community, and culture while engaging with and learning about the Pine Ridge community.

Developed collaboratively by directors of The In-Sight Photography Project and the Hall Farm Center, Exposures is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

Programming began in 2001 with a retreat in southern Vermont for young photographers from In-Sight in Brattleboro and the International Center for Photography at The Point in the Bronx.

At this time, Exposures also began to work with youth organizations on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, assisting with the implementation of photography programming for youth on the reservation and forming relationships within the community.

This developed into Exposures' summer programming, which began in 2003 at Pine Ridge.

With the addition of Exchange programming in fall 2009, Exposures expanded to offer year-round opportunities for youth participation and collaboration between partnering communities. That same year, Exposures formally became a program of the In-Sight Photography Project.

Exposures calls itself an “exchange program intended to facilitate creative cross-cultural dialogue and experiences that lead to a better understanding of our diverse communities and cultures.”

This year, participants came from the In-Sight Photography Project in Southern Vermont, Street-Level Youth Media in Chicago, Little Wound School and Shannon County Virtual High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and the Diné Southwest High School from Navajo Nation in Arizona.

Through fall and spring classes in their home communities, the youth in the Exposures Exchange programs learned photography skills to document their experiences, cultures, and communities.

“Our special focus in this year's spring and fall Exposure Exchange programs was called 'The 24 Hour Project,'” said Sophia LaCava-Bohanan, Exposures assistant director. Participants were instructed to make photographs to represent a 24-hour cycle of a typical day in their area by capturing an image from each hour of that day.

“From the photographs of each participant, Exposures students in each community had to curate a communal work that best represented this 24-hour period,” she added. “Participants thereby learned photographic skills and techniques to explore how daily routines build a sense of place and culture.”

Exposures participants also collaborated with youth in the other participating locations through an online gallery and forum in which they share and respond to one another's creative works.

Upon completing one or both of these classes, students were able to apply for the Exposures' Summer Program and have the chance to go to Pine Ridge Reservation to continue their cross-cultural study. The eight students chosen this year came from each of the five communities, and ranged in age from 16 to 25.

“We were a very diverse group,” said participant Sam Grubiner. ”Not just geographically, but also in age.”

“The program develops the value of young people from very different communities and backgrounds who are able to come together and create works of art using their actual experience and knowledge,” said Exposures Director Erin Barnard.

“Many different kinds of people forged new friendships as they worked hard on their multimedia projects,” Bernard continued. “On an individual scale, this opens their minds to the value of having an experience with people from a very different culture.”

While this may be all about multiculturalism, more specifically, Barnard said it is about “how having these kids go out to South Dakota helped them to appreciate and understand elements of Native American culture which has been erased in contemporary culture.”

Bernard also said she believes it is very important that “the local youth from Pine Ridge who were involved with the program, by working with 'outsiders' who were trying to understand their way of life, learned a lot about themselves and their own culture.”

The curriculum of the Exposures Summer Program incorporates photography and other arts, which have included creative writing, collage, book making, interviewing, audio production, and mask making.

'Place, community, and culture'

Bernard said that participants generated a rich inter-cultural dialogue as “travelers and local youth worked together to learn artistic techniques, created collaborative projects and shared and developed their perspectives of place, community, and culture.”

Petrie was struck by how much there was to do. “We had to drive an hour to workshops we had everyday from about 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon,” she said. “And we had cultural excursions most every night, including pow wows and sweat lodges. It was so amazing.”

Grubiner, who turned 19 on Pine Ridge Reservation during the summer program, called the experience “incredible.”

Although he has gone out of the country before, traveling to Europe and to Tanzania with the School for International Training (SIT), he said that Pine Ridge was “different from any travel in my past.”

“I made more of a human connection,” he said. “Exposures was not about sightseeing or tourism, per se. It was about the human component, about people and their stories. I love to travel in general, but the reason I was here was different, and therefore the way I was received by the people also changed. I learned an incredible amount of history, about Native Americans in general, and about issues facing the Lakota people specifically.”

“We seldom talk about Native Americans in our mainstream culture,” Grubiner continued. “And if we do, we do it in the past tense. We may say, 'This was their culture.' But we don't hear what is happening now, even though their history is very much alive.”

Grubiner and the other participants were taught through Exposures how to respect this unique culture.

“We were told what was acceptable, what was polite,” he said. “For instance, there were things one could not photograph. We had to understand that we were there as guests of the Lakota Nation.”

He said he was struck by generational issues facing the Lakota people.

“There seems to be a disconnect between the more traditional elders and the younger,” he said. “Their pressing worry is that the native language of the Lakota is now spoken only by the elders, causing a genuine fear that it may be lost forever.” Coming to understand the nuances of such issues, Grubiner said he came to comprehend this distant culture more intimately.

Petrie may have found her experience with a culture so foreign from her own thrilling, but so too was the sheer physical landscape.

“Pine Ridge was so different from here in Vermont,” she said. “I felt like I wasn't even in the United States anymore. I never believed land could be so incredibly flat. And what grew out of it was super brown.”

When she said that home grass sometimes turns brown, but not that brown, in Vermont, she was told by her hosts that the grass in South Dakota comes out of the ground brown.

Petrie fell in love with the landscape and the people who live there.

“I am already making plans to go back next year,” she said. “I am going to drive out, picking up along the way girls from Chicago I met through the program, so that we all can once again go through this fantastic experience together.”

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