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Foreheads scrunched, heads bent intently toward screens, eyes narrowed with determination, the girls of Northwest Passage III scrolled through hundreds of pictures taken during their photo excursion to Interstate Park in St. Croix Falls. As I walked among the girls, they pointed with pride at their favorite pictures and navigated photo shop with ease, working with the other expressive arts interns, Caroline and Marit, to crop and enhance their photos. I had been set the task of facilitating reflection writing. Each girl was to choose a photo that made her particularly proud and write the story of that photo—How did she feel when she caught sight of that colorful burst of flowers or of the vivid red cardinal against solemn piney branches? What was she feeling when she finally captured the perfect shot? What did the photo remind her of, in particular? Did she see some of herself in her subject?

Never having worked one-on-one with the girls before, I was somewhat apprehensive. Writing, many students feel, is tedious, even daunting, work. A question that Ben Thwaits, creator of the In a New Light photography program, poses over and over to the his interns is “How do we unleash the expressive power of a medium?” He wants us to find ways to “demystify” different forms of creative communication. This includes writing. As I prepared to sit down with each girl to facilitate reflection writing, I turned over this thought in my mind—how could I try to make writing seem less scary?

My apprehension dissolved as I sat down with my first resident, and we began simply by having a casual conversation about her photo. She was a little unsure about how to start, so I asked her to relate the story of her photo, which depicted a vivid spray of pine branches on a gray, snowy background. What I heard was insightful and honest. She told me that she and the other girls had been traipsing around in deep snow toward the end of this year’s marathon winter, feeling tired and down, when she happened upon the scene of her photograph. She described how she felt as she looked at the bright springy branches of that pine tree. Her laptop screen showed that she’d written the word “breath” in yellow across the top of her photo. As I listened to her explanation, it seemed that in a word, her photo depicted hope. “Perfect,” I told her, and we worked together to write it down.

The next girl caught me off-guard. She was an independent writer—after a short conversation about how she related to the spindly black spider in her photo and what we might learn from it, she sat writing intently for the next fifteen minutes. The result was beautiful. In reading her prose, I saw a perspective that was compelling and wise. I stared with blurred eyes at the words she had written with such conviction that they were carved into the next 20 pages of my notepad, faint carbon copies of her insight. She couldn’t keep the smile off of her face when she saw how emotional her words had made me. I loved seeing her be proud of herself.

That was the most rewarding moment of the morning. A girl that faces great challenges in her life caught a glimpse of her great capacity to create something beautiful, something moving. From what I’ve seen in my first couple weeks here at Northwest Passage, that’s what the In a New Light Program does. It allows youth to see their capability to do something constructive, to put something good into the world. Many kids in the program are all too used to feeling like they don’t have something positive to contribute—especially when the some of the only feedback they get from their communities comes as a result of negative or destructive action. This program, however, proves to both kids and their communities their capacity to do great things—to make people smile, feel hopeful, and even, sometimes, to make them cry.

A sampling of the girls’ reflections:

Spider vs. Fly

“Take a Deeper Look”

by Deszii

Normally people take one look at spiders and instantly freak out and try to kill them. But what people don’t understand is that they’re a lot like us—in the most common ways. There is so much detail in them that you wouldn’t see if you look at them as a threat. Just think about it—spiders are just like us! They fight to stay alive, just like we fight for love. They create webs to live in, just like we build our houses to live in. If you honestly just take a moment to see their true beauty…you just might be surprised!

“Back to Life”

“Back to Life”

by Ana

When I took this picture, there was still snow on the ground. I felt winter was never going to end and spring was never going to come. There I was, surrounded by knee-deep mucky snow, fixated on this breathing tree that was calling for my attention and a reminder to remain positive.

That’s when I concentrated and looked beyond the imperfections of my life. I was delighted to overcome this miserable winter. Therefore, I had hope and felt like I was coming back to life.

"Grass"

“Grass”

“Grass”

by Stephanie

Little droplet being gently held up by a graceful blade of grass as sharp as a sword
The water magnifying the victories in my life
Around the sharp blade is where I have messed up and made me get some sharp edges
In the end we all focus on water droplets in our life and in my picture
That’s where we should all look at in our life.

"Shadows of Me"

“Shadows of Me”

“Shadows of Me”

by Lauryn

I’m searching,
for what I know not yet.
The sun shines brightly over me,
even though I am not happy.
I bask in the sun anyways,
looking at the shadows,
eerie, small ones
shadows of what haunts me.
I turn away from them,
and cast different shadows,
beautiful tall ones,
shadows of me.

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