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AS220 Youth

There are very few organizations like AS220 Youth.

Sure, there’s lots of teen-focused arts organizations across the country but few have achieved the long-lasting and diverse roster of programming and results that AS220 boasts. AS220, similarly to many orgs use arts to connect and empower youth. Very few organizations, however, go into juvenile prisons to deliver photography education. AS220 does.


Very few organisations go into juvenile lock-ups to begin programming in order that they may continue it upon release of the teen with whom they work . AS220 does.

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Such continuum is practical AND hopeful. It says ‘We are with you, wherever you are. We share your goal to live free once more.’





AS220 Youth, based in Providence, Rhode Island, gave me the warmest welcome a few years ago. They opened the door so that I could do a workshop with their incarcerated students. I gave a public lecture on my developing ideas about prison imagery. I interviewed the staff and helped students with portfolio reviews. My eyes were open to what a community can be.

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Not only did the people stay in my thoughts, the work did too. In late 2013, I included light-paintings made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School in Seen But Not Heard (Belgrade, Serbia) a photography exhibition about U.S. juvenile detention. If AS220 Youth did not exist we wouldn’t see these views of the world created by kids who are locked up.





I’ve written about AS220’s youth programs before. I have noted how rare it is that photo programs are inside juvenile detention facilities. AS220 is doing things no-one else can do, or have the imagination to do. You’ve no reason not to help them out.

For the first time in AS220 Youth’s 15-year history, it is conducting a individual giving campaign. They’ve turned to IndieGoGo to push alternative revenue streams having seen public money dry up. AS220 Youth has about half the staff this time last year, and yet it is serving more students than this time last year.

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“Since I have been working at AS220 Youth,” says Youth Photography Coordinator, Scott Lapham, “five of my students have been accepted and have gone to or are going to RISD, one to Hampshire, one to the School of Visual Arts, one to Savannah College of Art and Design and one to Mass Art. All of these students are from poor/poverty backgrounds and all but one are students of color. While I couldn’t be prouder of those stats an equally ambitious and important accomplishment is working with students from what we have termed Post Risk backgrounds to achieve emotional and economic stability as adults.”

Bravo to Lapham, his colleagues and the AS220 students.






Help them continue their valuable work: visit the AS220 Youth Futureworlds IndieGoGo page.

Check out more about AS220 Youth program Photo Mem. See the students’ portfolios.

Above is a video about a public art project AS220 Youth made. Throughout this post are images made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School.


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Photography has innumerable uses, but one of its greatest qualities is it’s ability to tell stories. Sometimes that is through direct description of events and sometimes through evocation of emotion through colour and form.

In the rare cases when photography is used as a rehabilitative artistic tool for incarcerated peoples, straight documentation may be effected (even manipulated) by control and access privileges put in place by a prison administration. In the case of incarcerated youth, the essential and appropriate legal control which prevents identification of a child means that photo-education must be purposefully designed.

That is why when projects of light painting emerge from detention facilities such as the Rhode Island Training School (RITS), I applaud the invention and persistence of AS220, the Providence-based arts non-profit that conducts the program.

Writer and photographer Katy McCarthy published a gallery of the AS220/RITS’ light paintings on the excellent JJIE Bokeh blog recently.

“In the striking images from AS220‘s If These Walls Could Talk, the magic made is not an illusion. Like a surrealist painting, the manipulated photos employ metaphor and symbol,” writes McCarthy.

The images are like electric bolts from the darkness; not something we’d necessarily expect but that is because our imagination may not soar like those of imprisoned children.

Photography has glorious potential to unlock the emotional needs of locked up youth. (A few weeks ago, I featured the work of those locked up in New Mexico, enrolled in the Fresh Eyes Project.) However, given the dearth of photo-education in juvenile detention facilities in the U.S., I can only conclude that the sensitivities to publication/distribution, and the road-blocks to getting a potentially security-threatening camera inside any prison inhibit the development of programs such as those run by AS220 at RITS and The Fresh Eyes Project in NM.

Are we missing massive opportunities to connect by not embracing the camera as we would embrace, say, a pen or paintbrush? Clearly, much more goes into helping children through emotional and behavioural difficulties — rounded and relevant education, vocational skills, counseling, substance abuse help — yet propping up these efforts is the need to steady emotional and self-esteem needs says Anne Kugler, AS220 Youth Director.

“Unless you address underlying emotional issues you can put all the services in place that you want and it doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be able to move through adolescent development in a positive way. That’s where I think self-expression and creativity come in. Unless children have the experience of being recognized for doing something creative and good it’s a hard road; inside in their heart they must feel there’s a purpose to moving forward with education and counseling,” says Kugler.

Youngsters are responsible for the lion’s share of the 1.3 billion images made everyday worldwide. It seems a little perverse to deny photo-based activities and visual literacy to incarcerated youth, no? Especially as it’s so relevant.

“When you watch young people with cameras they immediately want to use them,” says Kugler. “They know how to do so. They want to get their hands on the camera and they want to take pictures of themselves and they love being able to see — especially with digital cameras — their pictures right away. It’s fun and very accessible. Bear in mind, there are some children who — because of self-esteem issues — feel a sense of horror if you ask them to write a poem or draw a picture, but I think a photo in particular has accessibility that works great out there.”

Bravo to AS220. And let’s see more programs for incarcerated youth like AS220’s If These Walls Could Talk! A special shout out to Scott Lapham and Miguel Rosario who coordinate and teach the If These Walls Could Talk program.

Check out Young Incarcerated Photographer Make Magic In Photos


All photos: Courtesy of students of the AS220 RITS photography program.


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