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Shaping Lives, One Photo at a Time

  • Amy Cutler World News Service
  • Published Nov 17, 2011
Shaping Lives, One Photo at a Time

(WNS)--Alicia Hansen is wearing blue jeans, a white button-down blouse, and navy blue Converse sneakers. Smiling, she opens the heavy metal door to a studio on West 29th St. “We’re still getting settled in,” she says, leading the way into a white room with huge windows, a ladder, open paint cans, and boxed photography equipment. It is the new studio for New York City SALT, a nonprofit photography program for low-income middle and high school students.

Inside, she introduces Lewis Escano, a part-time employee and NYC SALT student. His dark curls are pulled into a ponytail. He slips wireless headphones back into his ears after shaking my hand with a smile.

Hansen unfolds two white chairs for us by a window overlooking Chelsea, then tells me how she fell in love with photography: She left her own camera on a train in Italy and had to share her friend’s manual Pentax camera for the rest of the trip. Back home, that first taste of photography translated into classes, workshops, and then an internship with The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois.

During the internship, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer saw her work and told her she had potential. That was the encouragement she needed to pursue photography professionally. She eventually moved to New York City in 2003 to work with world-renowned photographer Joe McNally. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would actually get a job and move to New York City.”

In 2005, she started her own photography business. Then she saw the movie “Born into Brothels,” a documentary chronicling the experience of brothel-born children in India through photos the children took with disposable cameras. The film inspired Hansen and her friend Rebecca Locke to start a free photography class for students enrolled in “Operation Exodus,” a Christian after-school program in Washington Heights.

Six years later, NYC SALT is thriving as a nonprofit organization aiming to empower New York City teenagers through photography, professional skills, and mentoring. The name comes from Matthew 5, where Jesus refers to salt as necessary for flavor and preservation. “I was reading through notes from a Bible study fellowship I was involved in, and it spoke to me,” Hansen said. “I wanted my program to do that.”

Almost all the NYC SALT students are Latino, and most live in government-subsidized housing. The time they spend with Hansen is time off the streets --- away from drugs, gangs, and alcohol. Instead, they’re learning professional skills like “what it means to be on to plan ahead, presentation skills, and how to speak articulately about... art.”

NYC SALT places an importance on going to college since college graduation is often synonymous with escaping poverty. “I have eight kids who are the first generation in their family...going to college,” Hansen said. “Talk about an end to poverty...Hopefully they will have good jobs and enter into a professional workforce in an area they are called to, created for.”

Devin Osorio started attending NYC SALT in middle school and continued through high school graduation, becoming one of the first students to graduate from Hansen’s class. He said NYC SALT taught him more than professional skills and a good work ethic - it allowed him to reinvent himself and gain confidence.

“Devin didn’t think college was worthwhile,” explained Hansen. “He thought it was way too much money until he started interning with [prominent fashion designer] Diane Von Furstenberg.” Fashion and photography often go hand-in-hand. Now, the 18-year-old is studying fashion design at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. He and one other NYC SALT student received a combined $17,000 in scholarships for their portfolios.

Hansen supports herself with her freelance business since most of the work she does at NYC SALT is unpaid. The volunteers, all of whom are professionals working in their industries for at least 15 years, are also unpaid. Five foundations support SALT through finances and equipment like printers, ink, and paper.

NYC SALT has also earned support from the local church. Hansen lists Trinity Grace Church, Everyday Church, and Central Presbyterian Church as supporters that have either featured the organization’s video during service or provided funds. While she says funds from the churches are good, she’s hoping for more Christian mentors.

“It is still a challenge to find people who are committed to being a part of the organization in one specific way that they are gifted in,” Hansen admitted. “I want them to come behind what we’re doing,” she says. Specifically she wants “people who will commit to a year of building a relationship with a kid-that’s what I’d like to see.”

Hansen knows the influence a mentor can have. Her own confidence as a photographer came from encouragement she received as a young woman. Now she is the one encouraging others, using her skills and network to help students achieve their dreams.

“I’m using what I know best to catch kids’ attention and grasp their interest, and using it as a vehicle to help them become who they’re created to be."

She stops speaking and smiles, pointing to the far end of the room. Escano, the young student I met earlier, is engrossed in whatever song is playing on his headphones. He’s dancing the Bachata with his eyes closed, wet paintbrush held high.