Downtown Miami

Students show their world through their lens

As their bus pulled into Overtown’s Gibson Park, the 25 high school students on board –– most of them timid –– wondered what would be in store for them for the remainder of the afternoon.

The students, camera phones in hand, split into three small groups and roamed the historic downtown enclave, their last stop of the day. Earlier, the teenagers attended a three-hour photography seminar. Now they had the chance to capture the world around them on their own terms.

“There are messages and stories everywhere,” said Karen Vital, 16, adding that she was moved by the events of the day. Karen is an active member of Urgent Inc., a youth-based organization that encourages kids to transform their community. The lecture, she says, opened her up to a new form of expression and storytelling that the world is in need of. “It’s a movement,” she said.

The teens were selected by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools to participate in a photography workshop, “Through My Lens: Art Is Life,” sponsored by the Play to Win Foundation, an organization that empowers and educates inner-city youths through sports and academics. The workshop was specifically for high school students participating in an after-school program sponsored by Urgent, Overtown Youth Center, Touching Miami With Love and the Foundation of Community Assistance Leadership.

The students’ work will be exhibited at FusionMIA Art Gallery Wednesday through Sunday during Art Basel. A closed panel will vote on the work, and the student with the winning photo will be selected to go to the NBA All-Star Game in New York in February.

What Play to Win does, says Sunny Crosby, a coordinator for the foundation, is unlock the student’s passion through sports to redirect it toward other channels.

“Through My Lens is one of the workshops that start to expound upon that theory,” said Crosby, 28. “It was really designed for kids to capture their neighborhoods, their surroundings and the world from their perspective to show them that the world is not limited to what they see everyday.”

The selected teens are all from Allapattah and Overtown.

For the students, the day began the morning of Nov. 8 at Moore Park where they attended a series of seminars. The first was led by Jumaane N’Namdi, the director of N’Namdi Contemporary Miami, an art galley in Wynwood. N’Namdi spoke to the students about the history and legacy of photography. Stanley Lumax, a Nike photographer who specializing in marketing and advertising, later shared his personal journey of turning his passion for basketball into a career.

Afterward, Carl Juste, a Miami Herald staff photographer, spoke to the students about his life in Haiti and returning to photograph after the earthquake devastated the country in 2010.

In 1965, Juste –– only 2 years old at the time –– and his family fled the country, escaping persecution from Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971. “We had to give up our livelihood for political freedom and we had to start from the bottom,” Juste said. “I tried to give them an idea of where I draw my inspiration.”

The presentation left some teary-eyed, according to Crosby, who said she was moved by Juste’s introduction –– he broke down in tears.

“It kind of gave us a sense of what was to come,” Crosby said. “When we saw the video, the kids understood and they made a connection between real life, a photographer, a photographer’s passion, his background, how it all comes together and how it changes you.”

Karen said she also “cracked a tear” during the photo slide show that transitioned to R. Kelly’s I Believe I Can Fly.

The student’s sorrow quickly turned into appreciation, however.

Nike presented the students with custom backpacks with the Play to Win Logo, and Wendy Norman, an executive at Microsoft, presented them with a Nokia Lumia 1020 camera phone that they would use to take photographs throughout the day.

After a lunch break, the students were bused to the N’Namdi Gallery where they were divided into three groups –– each group led by one of the three photographers: Lumax, Juste and C.W. Griffin, a former Miami Herald photographer.

The 25 students, clad in their Nike gear and equipped with their camera phones, toured Wynwood, later concluding in Overtown. Juste, who is preparing several shows during Art Basel, lead Karen and her group of nine. He says he’s adamant about teaching photography as a language, not just a skill.

During the day, he encouraged the teens to be proactive and seize every opportunity to take compelling photos.

“Don’t be scared,” he said. “They’re not props. You’re shooting people that look like you. They’re telling you a story.”

He adds that understanding how to design a photo as “a visual language,” will hopefully give the teenagers a chance to start a new conversation about the world they experience.

That message especially resonated with Crosby, who works closely with kids in the neighborhood.

“When these kids from the inner city walk away, they’ll have a new perspective on life: my world isn’t limited to what I see everyday –– the crime, the poverty –– the mundane day to day,” Crosby said. “The kids are really affected by the side they don’t show, and this program will give them a chance to show that to the world.”

If you go

Who: Play to Win Foundation, Fusion MIA 2014 BET Art Lounge

When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday

Where: Wynwood Pop-Up Gallery at Northwest Second Avenue and 22nd Lane.

Cost: Free