Helping kids tell their neighborhood to say 'cheese'

Feb 15 2011 - 12:19am


Charles Trentelman/Standard-Examiner
Young photographers at the Lied Boys and Girls Club get ready for a day’s shooting.
Charles Trentelman/Standard-Examiner
Young photographers at the Lied Boys and Girls Club get ready for a day’s shooting.

My son Ben and I have this fun thing we do with the kids he works with. We take them out taking pictures.

Ben is program director at the Lied Boys and Girls Club on Salt Lake City's west side. The photo project is a learning experience on a number of levels.

For the mostly grade-school kids, cameras that use film are so old and clunky they're interesting and new. Ben and I even set up a darkroom and let them see their images appear, painted by light on a piece of white paper. Wow!

For Ben, the exercise is a way to involve his kids with a volunteer adult (me) who Ben claims is a good example. I'm flattered he thinks so.

For me it's an eye-opening way to see the ground-floor battle for the minds of these kids.

It's a battle we have to win.

Ogden has its neighborhoods, but Salt Lake City's central west side, centered around 4th South and 1400 West, is lined with jammed-in apartments packed with low-income, immigrant and refugee families from a dozen nations, all with children who are looking for something to do after school.

And what is there to do? There's the club. There's a little grocery store around the corner from the club. There's a park down the street.

"That's it," Ben told me. "Except for us, that's all there is around here."

Well, and gangs and drug dealers. Ben constantly has to shoo them away from the club building.

The club is jammed. Kids really want something to do. If society doesn't give them something good, they'll find something else.

Ben tells me adult volunteers help. He deals with kids from broken families, gang families, poor families, abusive families. An adult who's none of those things, who pays attention to them, is a welcome change.

I call Ben the Kid Whisperer.

"You have to let them know you understand them and respect them," he said, and when he works with a kid you do see the kid grow and learn.

No, he did not get that from me.

Last Tuesday I showed up with half a dozen plastic thrift-store cameras. Ben picked out some shooters, and away we went.

The first problem was explaining how film cameras work. These are children of the digital age so, no, you don't have to turn it on. No, you can't see the picture right away. Yes, you have to wind the film. No, you can't take a hundred pictures and hope one is good.

You have to think, to create, to see. "Find ways to make your neighborhood look neat," Ben told them.

To me, their neighborhood is a challenge: aging small homes, run-down fences, dirty yards, monolithic apartment blocks, and much traffic and grime.

Ah, but the kids!

They saw icicles hanging from bumpers as glittering jewels.

They found snow angels amid the sun-streaked crevasses of slushy footprints.

Spiky plants were hives of shadows and lines. Graffiti was urban art, and real urban art was a cultural surprise. There was much oohing and aahing and clicking of shutters.

Know what? The negatives look really fun. Those kids have great eyes. We're talking seriously exciting images here. I'm going down today to help them make prints.

I have no idea if I'll change a single kid's life, or if they'll just think film photography is quaint.

But it is amazing what kids do remember later in life. The pictures will be real, and these kids need to know how good they are.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or e-mail He also blogs at

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