How Hipstamatic’s ‘Cause Beautiful’ is empowering youth through photography
Photo taken by Ar’Juan Mason, 17. | All photos courtesy of Cause Beautiful.
By Jocelyn Howard
“You have a voice. We want to see it.” This slogan, displayed in large font across Cause Beautiful’s website, exemplifies the organization’s goal of empowering kids to tell stories using a visual medium.
Cause Beautiful is the foundation branch of Hipstamatic, an app with features that mimic analog photography. Luanne Dietz, executive director of Cause Beautiful, describes the organization as “A way to cause change with a camera.”
Cause Beautiful funds the We Hear You (or W.H.Y.) project, which “empowers a generation through photography and storytelling to create change in their communities as well as in their own lives,” according to Cause Beautiful’s website.
Dietz, who founded the W.H.Y. project in 2012, became interested in using photography to empower students during a stint at a middle school in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she taught photography, video, and newspaper production.
Every day, Dietz watched students who were frustrated and discouraged by math and science light up when they entered her class. The kids were relieved to “finally be able to express themselves for 30 minutes,” Dietz said. She watched them develop confidence they hadn’t been able to find elsewhere.
When Dietz moved to California, she first approached Hipstamatic about partnering to bring the W.H.Y. project to a high school in San Francisco. They agreed. The project took place at Life Learning Academy, and was so successful that Dietz left her job at the San Francisco Chronicle to revive Cause Beautiful, which “had just been sitting dormant.” The foundation had its formal launch in September.
The W.H.Y. project targets inner-city youth “with an interest in media who don’t have resources to fulfill that interest,” Dietz said. It “breaks the vicious cycle of unattainable dreams.” W.H.Y. provides digital media teachers with a curriculum, and Dietz collaborates with them to carefully tailor the program. At the end of the curriculum, students display their photography in a show.
While some aspects of the program may vary by site, W.H.Y.‘s small class size is a constant. Current projects at the Life Learning Academy in San Francisco and the KDOL’s Media Enterprise Alliance in Oakland each have just eight students this year.
Dietz explains that for now, Cause Beautiful measures success in quality versus number of kids reached. “The program is so much more than just [having kids] take pictures in their community,” Dietz said. “It involves understanding that [the kids] do have a voice and that what they’re saying matters.”
To convey this aim to students, each W.H.Y. program starts by asking: “If you could tell the world anything, what would you say?” Dietz says that beginning with a question “encourages [students] to dive into what they find important and care about.”
Students capture photos using iPods outfitted with the Hipstamatic app Oggl, which allows manipulation of images and light with different effects and filters. Dietz says that students bring back photos documenting everything from simple streetscapes to heavier topics, like prejudices encountered by young same-sex couples. She remembers an especially powerful story: a boy who used a mirror image filter to convey his good side and his bad side – between which a judge recently told him he must choose.
While photographers from elsewhere often travel to document “inner city” areas, Dietz emphasizes the power of allowing kids who grew up in these very areas to share their environment from an insider’s perspective.
This year, the W.H.Y group in Oakland is exploring stereotypes of how outsiders might imagine the city versus how the youths perceive their hometown. Dietz explains that W.H.Y. prides itself on targeted teaching and meaningful discussion. During meeting times, students “discuss everything from what pictures they took this week to what they feel about Ferguson,” she says.
W.H.Y.’s use of iPods and app technology sets it apart from existing programs that link students in low-resource settings to photography. While Dietz acknowledges the merit of more traditional curricula that teach kids how to operate professional cameras, she feels strongly that the iPod paired with Oggl is a more effective tool for W.H.Y.
The technology allows students to document creatively without getting hung up on complicated equipment. “The iPods take technological barriers away, and allow [students] to use colors and light,” Dietz says. “Professional cameras can provide barriers to creating,” which might include technical difficulties, expense, or the risk of theft.
Despite the differences in technology, Dietz says that her own experience as a pro photographer directly informs the work she’s doing with Cause Beautiful. She gets to apply everything she loves about photo editing to her interactions with students. Dietz loves “helping kids not only get to a story, but also to show the ‘why’ behind what they’re doing.”
In addition to W.H.Y., a large part of the foundation involves maintaining a connection with professional photographers who are working full-time to make change. Cause Beautiful features interviews with different photographers on its website, and its Instagram page is taken over by a different professional every week. Dietz chooses contributors who use their trade to improve society and give back to the communities they photograph. Eventually, Cause Beautiful plans to offer funding to professionals for long-term photo storytelling projects.
Dietz says the response from the professional photography community has been “overwhelmingly positive.” She believes this is because the W.H.Y project’s impact appeals to the reason many photojournalists were attracted to photography in the first place.
Indeed, Dietz emphasizes that the idea of creating change through images isn’t new. W.H.Y. and Cause Beautiful are drawing on an established tradition.
“Throughout history, photography has ended wars and exposed [corrupt] governments,” she says. “It has the ability to capture truth and show history at the same time.”
Cause Beautiful hopes that for the students participating, the project also allows for the creation of a stronger future.