Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1998

Frontier College's Beat the Street launches Picture This! A photography project with voices from street youth

In the summer of 1998, planning and preparation began for what became a three month long photographic initiative with street-involved youth in the city of Toronto. This program began at Beat the Street (BTS), a Frontier College literacy program that works with people who are street-involved or homeless.  Inspired by a number of different photography projects with street youth across North America, Juana Berinstein, BTS's Group Coordinator initiated this project.  She developed the curriculum based on Popular Education methodology and drew on other photo projects at organizations such as KYTES and Turning Point in Toronto.  Juana also found inspiration from various projects that used art for social change such as The Guerrilla Girls, Grand Fury, June Jordan's book Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint (Routledge, 1995) and many other independent artists.  Within the curriculum, space was made for the participants to identify the kinds of issues they wanted to see reflected in the photographic images they would create.

Six youth were selected through referrals from other agencies.  They were interviewed, and based on their interest in photography and level of commitment to the project were chosen to be a part of the Picture This! Collective.  The youth were each paid an honourarium for their time and food and TTC (public transportation) were provided as well.

Before any photography was introduced, the first few weeks were dedicated to team building.  Popular education exercises using art, writing and discussions were then offered where relevant issues and themes were identified by the youth themselves. These themes were then used as a starting point and focus for exploration and reflection through photography.  After the first few weeks, photography and darkroom instruction began. The photography was based on and reflected the themes that came up in the workshops.  The group found themes such as housing, poverty, drug use, sex trade, media representations etc.  The bi-weekly darkroom time allowed the participants to develop some skills, as well as print some of their favourite work and explore some more advanced darkroom techniques.

The group met 3 times a week.  One day was set up for the theme explorations, and learning about other examples of art for social change. The second day was dedicated to either photography or printing in the darkroom, each occurring bi-weekly.  The third day was open for participants to work independently on their projects, meet with Juana individually, or meet with each other informally.

A large portion of the materials and equipment were donated.  The 35 mm cameras, were provided on loan by a local camera store, the film and darkroom supplies were donated by a major film supplier, and the darkroom space was provided by a Toronto gallery.  Also, the final postcards and some of the final exhibition prints were printed at no or reduced rates by print shops.

This project coincided with a lot of anti-squeegee media that was prominent around that time.  The mayor of Toronto, referring to squeegeers as "thugs" declared "war" on them in hopes of getting them off the streets.  His tactic, along with Premier's Crime Control Commission Task Force, was to look "for a sure way to wipe the city clean of squeegee kids" (Detroit News, Friday July 24, 1998).  The politicians' interest in getting the youth off the streets however resulted in tighter laws, a stronger and more aggressive police presence and more arrests, leading in essence the criminalization of poverty.

In many ways, Picture This! served as a form of uncontrolled expression and a response to the political climate around homelessness, squeegeeing and panhandling in Toronto.  One of the final projects was the creation of postcards that were sold at the photography exhibits.  Proceeds from the sales of the postcards went back into Beat the Street for future photography projects.  The postcards not only had striking images, but also statements or poems that added an informative element, and a political message such as:

Bill 96, the so-called Tenant Protection act, enables a massive transfer of money from the pockets of millions of tenants to a handful of landlords and developers.  This law is, by all accounts, a social disaster and has already caused poverty on a massive scale.  Bill 96 should be repealed and strong rent controls and equitable rights for tenants should be legislated in Ontario. (Toronto Action for Social Change)

The first exhibit took place at City Hall in the early spring of 1999 and it coincided with a rally organized by the 1% coalition around a committee hearing on anti-squeegee laws, and a lot of press and publicity on homelessness.  The youth themselves chose this as a location in hopes of having some kind of a presence and voice that they are normally excluded from.  The intent was that City Hall, a place were political decisions are made and political power is housed, would be a place where the presence of the photos might be seen by a segment of the population that was not normally exposed to such voices and images.  The show at City Hall was one week long.  There was another exhibit as a part of Contact '99 in May at Harbourfront and the cards were sold there as well.

As far as follow-up went, the youth still had contact with Beat the Street if they needed it for support.  One young woman did apply for a photography program in a community college with the help of Beat the Street, and was accepted.  Picture This! has not been repeated again since, however Beat the Street has been involved with several other photography projects.  Get the Picture was a Beat the Street run photography project and Gallery 44, has offered for the last two years a photography and darkroom workshop to a group of youth from Beat the Street as part of their outreach programming.  Many other programs and projects like Picture This! have been happening all over the world.  The use of art as a catalyst for social change is everywhere, and regardless of lack of funding or government repression, it will continue as people express themselves through poetry, song, music, theatre, visual art, film, performance, photography, zines, written word, spoken word...the possibilities are endless and the potential immeasurable.

References and related information:

Beat the Street. "Picture This!" Collective: Allan, Charmaine, Donna, Hector, Mathu.  Coordinator: Juana Berinstein. Toronto. 416-979-3361 Gallery 44. 416-979-3941.  www.gallery44.org/

Jordan, June. Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Blueprint. Routledge, 1995.

Wang CC. Photovoice: A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women's Health. Journal of Women's Health, 8 (2): 185-192, 1999.

Wang CC.  Project:  Photovoice Involving Homeless Men and Women of Washtenaw County, Michigan Health Education and Behavior, 25 (1): 9-10, 1998.

Websites/ References on art, education and social change:

Brand, Dionne.  No Language is Neutral. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1990.

Cooper, Afua (ed.). Utterances and Incantations: Women, Poetry, and Dub in the Black Diaspora.  Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1999.

Greene, Alma.  Forbidden Voice: Reflections of a Mohawk Indian.  Toronto: Green Dragon Press, 1997.

Hendel, Tamar (ed.). Life With Death: Drawings and Life Stories by Child Holocaust Survivors.  Maryland:  Creative Expressive Arts Press, 1996.

Likimani, Muthoni.  Passbook Number F.47927: Women and Mau Mau in Kenya. Britain: University Press, 1985.

Ruggles, Clifton and Olivia Rovinescu.  Outsider Blues:  A Voice from the Shadows. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1996.

Smith, Ford Honor. Lionheart Gal: Life Stories of Jamaican Women. Jamaica: Sister Vision Press, 1987.

www.artculture.com/aentries/g/guerillax.html
www.csunm.edu/~blankreg/I-funk/guer.html
www.geocities.com/SoHo/Gallery/38151/images.html
        (lots of links to political and activist art sites)
http://globalvisions.org/cl/sfsc/other.html
www.guerillagirls.com
www.library.arizona.edu/users/juarezm/designforsocialchange.html
www.photovoice.com
www.photovoice.org
www.sit.edu/studyabroad/africa/zimbabe.html
www.speakeasy.org/~anitra/activism/homelessness/index.html
http://sunsite.berkely.edu/Goldman/Curricula/ArtLiterature

Information on Squeegeeing in Toronto:
www.canoe.ca/CNEWSOntarioElection/990519_harris.html
www.detnews.com/1998/nation/9807/24/07240110.htm
www.interlog.com/~cjazz/awar.htm
www.newswire.ca/releases/September1999/20/c4678.html
www.ottawacitizen.com/national/980729/1890863.html
www.premier.gov.on.ca/English/news/archive99/Houseret_eng.htm

Prepared by Lisa Silverman (OISE/UT)

April 2001

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Last updated on July 04, 2001.