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Keeping it all in FOCUS

Sousa JHS kids learn new photography skills

(Published July 12, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

The four eighth-graders walk around the lobby of One Judiciary Square dressed up in their Sunday best, joking with their friends and families. A combination of swagger and nervous energy that only eighth-graders know how to pull off, the two boys and two girls are here showing off their photographs in public for the first time. Their works draw approving smiles and comments from their parents and numerous city workers who pause to admire their work before leaving the building for the night. Munching on hors díoeuvres and sipping soda pop, the smiles never leave their faces. This is part graduation party, part opening night and part coming-out party.

The four students, along with a dozen other younger kids, completed the FOCUS photography program at Sousa Junior High School in Southeast Washington. Math teacher Jason Kamras started the semester-long program. Students would stay after school every weekday for two to three hours to learn the art of black-and-white photography. The kids learned everything from how to expose their film properly, how to mix chemistry and process their own negatives, and how to print their final prints. The work on display in the lobby at city hall, 441 Fourth St. NW, is theirs from start to finish.

Erica Stewart was surprised at how much work went into photography. She said when the course started they would take the pictures and Kamras would develop them. But once he taught them the techniques they were expected to do it themselves.

"Now weíre to the point where we do all the work ourselves," Stewart said proudly.

Kamrasí students learned photography from the ground up, using all-manual cameras so they could learn to calculate exposures rather than rely on an automatic camera to do it for them. He said teaching photography is a great way of reinforcing his math lessons: fractions and multiplication are used to figure out exposures, ratios when mixing chemicals, and linear proportions when making enlargements. Mostly, though, the kids just thought it was a fun way to learn something different.

"Itís something I really enjoy doing," Kamras said about photography, "and I thought they would enjoy it, too."

More importantly, the program gave the kids a creative outlet for their energy and ideas.

"It was something to do after school," Christopher Lane said. "I didnít want to be hanging out on the streets with nothing to do."

Lane admitted that he had to be talked into taking the class at first, but once his interest was sparked he enjoyed the work. He currently has a job in a photo lab near MCI Center he said he enjoys, although he hasnít decided if he wants to make it a career.

Kamras assigned all his students to shoot a final project, but he said he let the students decide the subject of their projects. He required them to write a paragraph about each of their final photos telling what the picture or the subject meant to them

"I had them sit down and think about how they could explore the themes in their projects," Kamras said. "They surprised me sometimes by what they choose to shoot."

Shot selection and picture editing were important parts of the final projects.

"When you take a picture, you just canít take any picture," Devon Morgan said. "It has to excite you and give you ideas."

The kids shot what was important in their lives, which any eighth-grader will tell you is mostly their friends. Laneís project was titled "Around the Way: Hanging with My Boys" and is portraits of his friends where they like to hang out. Barbara Wilson chose to photograph the important people in her life, which include her sister and mother and her best friends.

Stewartís photos explored the different expressions on her friendsí faces, whether serious or cheerful, and she wrote about why she chose to show that side of their personalities. Morgan was the only eighth-grader in the program who chose to shoot a different type of subject.

"Not too many people my age take pictures of nature," Morgan said, explaining why he shot scenes of Great Falls, the National Arboretum and Roosevelt Island.

Most of the participants in the program got an added bonus Ė Kamras took 16 of the kids to his native New York City as a sort of urban photo safari. The trip was used as a group project, which is also part of the exhibit. The exhibit will be on display through the end of July in the lobby of One Judiciary Square.

Kamras is currently teaching the course during the summer and has added a computer aspect with the help of another Sousa teacher. Students will be taught some basics of digital photography and will be constructing a class web page to display their work online.

The FOCUS program was funded by grants from the public school systemís DCPS 2000 program, and equipment and supplies were provided by Penn Camera. The America Online Foundation also provided a grant for the summer program.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator