Ministry is window into the world of immigrant teens


A Florida sunset by photographer Rachel, who is 11 years old and from Togo.


They are snapshots of a new land and a new life.

They are a window into the world of immigrant teenagers—photos that might show a different way of looking at things.

But mostly, this display of visual expression could reveal more commonalities than differences.

It’s “Picture My Life,’’ a photography exhibit that is spearheaded by UMCM-Suncoast, a Largo-based organization that addresses poverty, in part, through innovative educational programs.

Photographer Fatima’s shot of a crepe myrtle shows off its blaze of summer splendor. She is 15 and from Syria.

UMCM, which began in 1975 United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, still works closely with the church. But it has expanded into a free-standing 501(c)3 that now seeks a wider range of grants, scholarships and funding to facilitate its programs.

One of those programs works with immigrant teenagers from places like Sri Lanka, the Congo, Uganda and Palestine who have settled in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties

The kids choose a preferred technical skill to learn—in this case, photography—and the project generally grows from there.

They learned from a trio of visual professionals, who taught them how to shoot portraits, how to work with lighting and how to set up a studio. Dozens of photographs will be on display, showing the kids’ families, their communities, everyday life and their spin on the Tampa Bay area.

Picture My Life began Sept. 21 at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 E. Klosterman Rd, at the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College. The museum will continue the exhibit for three months.

The biggest public splash occurs on Oct. 17 at the Morean Arts Center, 719 Central Ave., in St. Petersburg. The event begins at 6 p.m. with a reception, followed by a talk with several of the student photographers. The photos will be available for purchase through a silent auction.

Tickets are $50 (general admission) and $100 (Picture My Life ambassador with reception access). Student tickets ($30) are also available. For information and a preview of the photographers’ work, go to www.unatampabay.org.

Video - Picture My Life Photography Class 2017-2018 by UNA-USA Tampa Bay

Versions of Picture My Life were coordinated in the past by the Tampa Bay chapter of the United Nations Association USA, but UMCM’s involvement has made this the largest effort to date.

“The photography might not necessarily be groundbreaking or something that will break your heart, but I think it’s remarkable in its own way,’’ said UMCM director of educational development Eliza Brumbaugh, who joined with photographers Avery Davis and Marissa Moss to teach the classes. “When people talk about immigrants or refugees, it sometimes invokes a visceral emotion of feeling sorry for people. This is something different.

“These kids are really cool, just normal teenagers, and you get to see the reflection of their individual personalities. What I hope will show is the understanding that we are all very similar in this world.’’

Brumbaugh has a bachelor’s degree in photography but soon learned that she was most interested in teaching. Photography became her favorite hobby, and she loved seeing kids pick up on that passion.

Roheed, who came from Afghanistan, captures a zoo member cooling off.

“The kids used a lot of technical skills, which was great to see because they experimented with the camera settings and different interesting ways of editing,’’ Brumbaugh said. “I think they really enjoyed it. Photography is not as intimidating as, say, drawing. It’s not so obvious who’s good and who’s not.

Photography lets you use a natural eye. It’s more immediate. You have technical skills to make things good. It’s more accessible and requires less language. It allows you to make friends and build community by making a connection through something you see.’’

Brumbaugh is gratified by the event’s partnerships with UNA/USA, WOKE (Welcoming Opportunity, Knowledge and Empowerment), the Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services and Peace4Tarpon.

Cliff Elbow, Tampa Bay chapter president for the UNA/USA, said the initial approach is simple. The students write biographies and describe their motivation for photography.

“What sort of pictures do they want to take, and what does it mean to them?’’ Elbow said. “There’s an initial awareness in some students. For others, it evolves. Depending on the person, you see it come out in different ways.

“I think people will experience a lot of surprise when they see these photos, just from the depth and vibrancy of what these students see. Some have been here for a few years, but others are starting new lives. So it’s a way for them to capture the world they see here and share that with the community. I think a lot of emotions will come out, because these are some relatable and touching moments that they have captured.’’

—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.


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