The Newest Americans Project has been a tour de force since emerging on the scene in 2014, producing a web magazine, compelling programming, and a string of high-quality documentary photography and film projects on the immigrant experience at Rutgers University–Newark and the Greater Newark area.
From its inception, the group has provided outlets for immigrants to tell their own stories, giving voice to a diverse population too frequently marginalized in the mainstream press.
Continuing that work, Newest Americans recently hosted a five-day National Geographic Photo Camp for 16 Newark high school students, inviting them to explore their world through photography and share their perspectives by writing about and exhibiting their work.
The camp took place Oct 5–9 at Express Newark, RU-N’s community arts incubator space in the Hahne’s Building. It was run by veteran filmmaker Julie Winokur and photographer/filmmaker Ed Kashi, co-founders of Newest Americans, along with a handful of staff members from National Geographic.
The purpose is not to make these students photographers necessarily. It’s to show them that their personal stories are worthy and interesting.
“The purpose is not to make these students photographers necessarily,” says Kashi. “It’s to show them that their personal stories are worthy and interesting. If this ignites them to become photographers, then that’s beautiful, but it’s really about them exploring their identity and building both confidence and community through the medium.”
To date, the National Geographic Society has sponsored 85 Photo Camps, focusing on youth from underserved communities in more than 20 countries, including several locales in the U.S. The org provides the funding, staff, equipment and meals, making the experience free for students.
Camp Director Kirsten Elstner, formerly a photographer for The New York Times, approached Winokur and Kashi about bringing the program to Newark after hearing them present on Newest Americans at a National Geographic photographer seminar in Washington, D.C., earlier this year. Kashi had worked with Elstner at 10 such camps in Uganda, South Sudan, India and Jordan, along with San Francisco and the South Bronx.
“In 2018 and 2019 our camp is focusing on the human journey, the movement of people around the world, and youth perspectives on that,” says Elstner. “I’d been following the work of Newest Americans, and when I learned about the global diversity in Newark and at Rutgers, it just made sense to look at student voices there.”
To recruit students, Winokur leveraged Newest Americans’ local contacts and the enormous good will the group has built since launching. The sophomores, juniors and seniors who were accepted were a diverse bunch, an even split of girls and boys coming from public, charter and private schools: namely East Side and West Side High Schools, People’s Prep and St. Benedict’s. They also spanned a range of races and ethnicities such as African American, Mexican, Dominican, Brazilian, Ecuadorian and Guyanese.
Each day the camp focused on a different photographic theme—sense of place, portraits, candids and details, personal perspective—and mixed field work with class discussions and editing sessions. The goal was to provide the students with an opportunity for visual storytelling, writing and self-expression about their lives, their communities, and the issues they face growing up—many as immigrants—in New Jersey’s largest and most diverse city.
“We asked the students, ‘What do people think Newark is? And what is it to you?’” says Winokur, who is a Professor of Professional Practice at RU-N and was lead camp organizer. “The goal was to have them show us Newark through their eyes, to own their narrative in contrast to what they hear from the outside world. For all of them, especially the immigrant kids, it’s a place of community and opportunity.”
During the camp, students were also pushed outside their comfort zone as they talked to strangers out in the field and practiced patience to let scenes unfold before shooting. These and other life skills are integral to photography, says Winokur, and not something students receive readily in a classroom.
On the fifth and final day, the camp staff held an exhibition of the students’ work for friends and family at Express Newark. The students have also been invited to contribute work for a National Geographic Photo Camp exhibit at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., coming up next year.
“We’re looking forward to potentially seeing their work at, of all places, the Kennedy Center,” says Winokur. “That would be a really exciting opportunity for these kids as well.”