Last week we had a surprise guest speaker in my photography class. His name Will Okun and he’s a Chicago Public Schools English teacher on the West Side of Chicago, in Austin, at a school that’s basically a second chance school for kids that have dropped out. He’s also really into photography and, more specifically, photographing his students and their families. Will realizes that people have already photographed the same scenes in poor minority neighborhoods a million times.. photos of drugs, teen mothers, dirt and grit, and he believes in taking photographs of moments of happiness and joy that occur in those same neighborhoods and situations. As a result his photographs are really something special.
Will doesn’t just take photographs of his students. He also realized how much photography could benefit his students by bringing them together and by taking them out of whatever their personal situations are for a while and by discovering hidden talent. If you hand a high-end SLR to a few dozen people, you’re going to find out that at least 1 or 2 of them have some real talent hidden in there, no matter who they are or what their background is. So, Will successfully got private and government grants to start a program, buy a van, buy a few cameras and run a photography class. Every day he teaches a couple periods of English and then when it’s time for photo class he loads about 30 kids up into a van, drives to a neighborhood in Chicago, has them shoot, then takes them back to school.
Will also goes home with his students to shoot photos of them with their families and friends. Many of those photos can be seen on WJZO.com, his website. He also photographs parties and weddings and baby showers and whatever else his students may request. And he goes to a lot of cultural events on the South and West sides that a lot of us on the North Side never even hear about. He told us about Carifete, a Carribean celebration, and showed us some amazing photographs. Basically, he’s showing us all a different view of our city than we’re used to seeing.
Will also does photography work with local newspapers. At one time with the Trib, now with the Chicago Defender. He’s also affiliated with Vibe and Spin. He briefly mentioned to us how he has also been blogging at the New York Times. Last week I looked him up and come to find out, he traveled around Africa with NYT writer Nick Kristof and that’s what he’s blogging about there. He had to enter an essay contest to be included and this is his winning essay. It tells a lot about what he does here in Chicago.
I think the work that Will is doing is amazing, the documentation of lives that are probably otherwise overlooked and not celebrated. And I’ve been reading up on his blogging in Africa and he’s a fantastic writer. Very down-to-earth. Very “what would it be like if I up and went to Africa?” He also does a good job of relating his trip to experiences in America. After spending the day in Rwanda he met the Rwandan president and wrote this:
The media can no longer just depict â€œAfricans as people holding bowls in our hand asking for people to put something in it.â€ The President concluded that the Rwandan people are effecting results and these â€œhuge differences (from the time of the genocide 13 years ago) need to be captured.â€
This frustration with media portrayal also exists among many American communities, like the West Side of Chicago where I teach high school. Of course, excruciating problems do exist on the West Side, but the media fixates on these negatives and rarely notes the groups and movements that are achieving progress. School places unprecedented number of graduates in college? Pass! Mob action fight in another school? Traffic jam of television trucks.
Give it a read here. Will’s photography is fabulous, but his writing is just as good.
It was great to hear Will speak. After he was done students were lined up to get his card and ask him questions and speak to him. I told him I was involved with Chicagoist and that maybe we’d have an opportunity to work together. He said he knew the site and thought it was “dope.” We exchanged cards. We’ll see what happens.