Newhouse graduate students put refugee youth behind the camera

by Lani Diane Rich

May 13, 2019

Students Maranie Staab and Joshua Ives work with National Geographic at Utica-based Photo Camp.

For five days in April, staff from National Geographic visited Utica, New York, to teach refugee youth the art of photographic storytelling through the Photo Camp program. Newhouse visual communications graduate students Maranie Staab and Joshua Ives were there to help teach.

Utica lies 55 miles east of Syracuse and is nicknamed “the town that loves refugees,” with refugee families making up almost 20% of the city’s population, according to the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees. National Geographic has been offering Photo Camps since 2003, according to the organization’s website, with a focus on giving at-risk and refugee teens an opportunity to tell their own stories.

“I've done a lot of work internationally, in those marginalized communities,” Staab says. “It's one thing for me to go in and take pictures. It's completely different to [say to] someone from that community, ‘Your voice is important and here's a tool to express yourself.’”

Staab spent her winter break last year conducting similar workshops in Iraq and Kurdistan, after which she connected with National Geographic Photo Camp director Kirsten Elstner, who invited her to participate as an instructor for the Photo Camp in Utica.

“They provide gear to the students. It’s part in-classroom instruction on how to use a camera, as well as [teaching] the concept of storytelling,” Staab says. “We're trying to empower youth to have a way to express their own voice and their own stories.”

Staab pulled in Ives, who used to live in Utica and had experience working with international populations from his time serving in the Navy.

“Most of the kids here had never used a camera besides their cellphone,” Ives says. “To be there for those five days and watch these folks go from beginners to putting a show on at the end… it was amazing.”

The Photo Camp included classroom instruction, led by National Geographic photographers Amy Toensing and Matt Moyer, followed by jaunts in the city, with student teams taking pictures. At the end of the week, Toensing sorted through approximately 35,000 photos to choose images for the public exhibition. Two students narrated the exhibition using written components provided by the young photographers.

Both Ives and Staab say they would love to revisit their students in Utica and provide additional instruction.

“We're trying to get some cameras, because once the Photo Camp left, the cameras went with them,” Ives says. “[The students] have phones and they have this basic concept of storytelling but it's kind of a perishable skill. If you're not constantly doing it, you're forgetting about it. We would definitely love to go back.”

“I think I'm always inspired by what the youth choose to photograph and how they see their world,” Staab says. “I end up learning just as much from them as I would like to think I'm able to teach. It’s just really special to see how people see the world.”

“I've always heard that people on the instructor side say, ‘I think we like this even better than the students,’" says Ives. “Now I understand.”

To donate cameras for workshops like the National Geographic Photo Camp, please contact Maranie Staab.