A New Perspective
Local at-risk students get a change of view from behind the camera.
By Nickole Byrn
After debuting the popular Wonderspaces installation earlier this spring, Scottsdale Fashion Square is continuing its foray into the art world with a collection of original photography, on display between Nordstrom and the food court. But these aren’t just any photos—they’re ones taken by local at-risk youth participating in the Kids in Focus organization.
Founded in 2012 by photographer and philanthropist Karen Shell, Kids in Focus is a mentoring program that uses photography to ignite the imagination of children while building a sense of confidence and self-value.
From a young age, Shell was driven to help others. Through her work and through with various organizations, she discovered that her two passions could be combined to serve a greater purpose.
For 20 years, Shell worked on the Picture Day Project, which provides free school portraits for homeless students. She became close to the students and staff at the participating schools and began mentoring some of the children. This was the spark that led her to create Kids in Focus.
How It Works
“We are teaching these kids to see with a new perspective, observe things in a new way and find beauty in the world,” says Shell.
The program works with youth ages 10-13, many of whom come from backgrounds of abuse, neglect, homelessness or poverty, traumas that can cause children to disconnect from both the people and the world around them.
“There is something about seeing through the eye of the camera that helps these kids start reconnecting with their environment again,” Shell notes.
Kids in Focus works with a handful of photographers every year who pair up with students and act as their mentors for the duration of the nine-week course. These professionals offer their expertise to help the students see the world through a new and different light.
“Kids that come in can sometimes be very guarded,” says five-year mentor and photographer Keith Pitts. “They are not trusting and have emotional shields up. But by the end of the program, they have the tools to bring those barriers down and want to let you in. They can then see the world differently.”
Lessons on camera skills are taught through hands-on, practical applications. Students are given opportunities during the course to travel to sites around the Valley to experiment and learn from first-hand experience.
“We take them all over. We mix urban and nature. From the Desert Botanical Garden and Papago Park, to just waking around the streets of downtown Phoenix,” says Shell.
Kids in Focus Afterschool
A 8-9 week intensive program that builds relationships. Each mentor works with two students who participate in field-trips around town and at the courses end put on a public photo exhibit featuring their photography. The students also take home the point-and-shoot cameras they had been using as well as a hardbound book capturing their journey.
Camp Kids in Focus
This overnight camp is offered as one- two- or three-day experiences at campgrounds in Phoenix and northern Arizona. Professional photographers and student alumni from the Kids in Focus Afterschool program assist participants as they explore the stress-free environment of the great outdoors.
Grads in Focus
Grads in Focus connects students who have participated in one of Kids in Focus programs with their mentors through continuing projects. Private online forums along with quarterly field trips help youth remain in contact with their mentors as well as fellow alumni.
Kids in Focus Global
The program brings together kids in the Phoenix community to students around the world in an international photo exchange. Arizona photographers team up with professionals in other countries—currently in rural China and soon Cuba—to teach the Kids in Focus curriculum. Local alumni are paired with out-of-country students to share their own journeys through photography.
At the conclusion of every nine-week program, the organization presents a gallery showing of the students’ best work.
“These kids are not accustomed to having adults give them much praise; so to have people come specifically to see them and their work is something unlike anything else they have experienced,” says Pitts.
According to Shell, approximately 500 people have viewed the exhibits in the last two years alone. No only do the exhibits of student photography travel throughout the Valley, but a display of past and current students work resides indefinitely at Scottsdale Fashion Square and Biltmore Fashion Park.
Learn more at www.kidsinfocus.org