In 2014/2015, I served as Bay Area Lead Photography Instructor for The AjA Project at College Park High School in Pleasant Hill funded by the statewide Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) grant initiative. Across a series of potent 1-week workshops held throughout the year, I sensed a rich theme to explore: uncovering what encourages a young person to truly thrive vs. merely survive while navigating a large public high school campus. Participants responded to tailored exercises and assignments with tenacious vision and generous vulnerability. The images that surfaced are both artistic and introspective, prompting the community to at once be in awe of the lens of another and see our own experiences in a new light. Each student traversed their own insecurities, values, and quiet triumphs with written reflections to accompany their images. As guide throughout the process, I was hushed by the authentic and articulate glimpses offered up and witnessed the steady sharpening of empathy and expression in and out of the classroom walls. Many found a fresh creative outlet.

The AjA Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization headquartered in San Diego, California, that utilizes photography-based educational programs to transform the lives of displaced youth. AjA Project is an acronym for the phrase, “Autosuficiencia Juntada con Apoyo” (supporting self-sufficiency). Utilizing participatory photography methods and an assets-based model, we believe youth and communities have the ability to change from within. The AjA project exists to ignite change, break cycles of marginalization and to build healthy communities. We do this through a creative platform called participatory photography that asks participants to reflect on and analyze their personal and social landscapes. The AjA Project operates from an “assets-based” model rather than a “deficit-based” model. We believe our students possess the skills and tools for success and self- sufficiency. Participatory models are intended to reverse power dynamics and provide a venue for self-guided reflection, reconciliation and growth. Throughout this process, participants find their own voice and sense of empowerment leading to sustainable, behavioral change.

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One of my favorite methods to kick-start real conversation is to curate anonymous raw responses to honest questions in a single class period and collectively reflect back what was gathered the very next day. One one side of a blank imposing index card, I challenged each one to craft a short statement in response to a flurry of questions like, "What makes you thrive? What makes you feel most like yourself? What are you doing when you feel at your best? When are you happiest? What makes you creatively confident? What kind of atmosphere makes you come alive? On the backside they added in contrast and strict confidentiality, "When do you feel like you are just surviving in life? What are some things that hold you back?" The handwritten card dropped in a tin box at the door when the bell rang were phenomenal and according to some student's reactions, a reassuraing breathe of air to have heard..

In session two, students practiced interviewing skills and as a first assignment were directed to photograph a complete stranger, a casual acquaintance, and a best friend; deftly drawing out their personalities with gutsy open-ended questions intended to uncover and celebrate. What does it mean to truly listen to someone? How can you honor someone by taking a portrait of them? We studied the body language, methods, and personal philosophies of a slew of contemporary artists like JR and others to fuel confidence. Cameras in hand, students conducted a mini campus-wide listening campaign to pursue first-hand an insider pulse of their school climate.

For a third session our group turned their focus inward, selecting from an eclectic list of given and peer-generated set of phrase prompts to translate visually. Among the dozens of options:

  • I am secretly proud of..
  • When I am around them..
  • This is joy. 
  • I don't deserve this.
  • This is where I found out that..
  • I'm learning why..
  • This has to change.
  • 6:00 AM
  • I am free here.

These bold text catapults turned into the very first words of a caption for each photograph submitted, later typed up as hidden metadata in Lightroom during the editing phase. The range of themes covered was beautiful, revealing ownership and careful interpretation. 


“Best Foot Forward” David, age 18

A good distraction is going anywhere on my skateboard. The fortunate ability to cruise around gives me a feeling I couldn't describe to anyone else. I can move fast on a simple set of four small wheels and a piece of wood, off and on the street, weaving between obstacles. Everything seems to go by so fast nowadays, just like moving on my skateboard. Technology, traveling, people. Life is going by rapidly, and I like it. It's almost a blur, as I experience new things and meet new people. Most of my friends I've met were through skateboarding. Since I started skating a few years ago, it's shaped me as the person I am today, not entirely, but there have been so many positive influences because of it. Skateboarding has fit to my personality so easily because it's fast, just like everything I've experienced in my life, putting my best foot forward.

“Closed Doors” by Chloe

I am learning why some people are the way they are.  When people don't feel at home they act obnoxious at other places, because they're not used to feeling safe, so they don't know what to do with themselves.  If you ever see someone annoying you should just let them be them, they've probably been through some hard stuff. You never know.

“I Can't. I Have Soccer” Holly, age 17

As someone who has plays soccer year round for a competitive club team, I have very little free time, especially on weekends. This phrase represents something I have to say quite often in response to being asked to do things with friends. Despite this somewhat troublesome social setback, I really enjoy the sport and it's space in my life. I have been playing soccer since kindergarten and playing competitively since 8th grade. It's presence in my life has only benefitted me for the better. I have made many new friends and acquired many new skills. My experience with soccer has been nothing but positive. 

“Back of College Park” Andrei, age 15

I was assigned to take a picture of a stranger on my school campus. I chose Rodrigo to pose, who I didn't know very well. It was very peculiar how we got the picture of him and the dog. It started on a rainy day where we went to the back of the school to check it out. While we were there, we found a small dog in a car nearby. After waiting there for a few minutes deciding what to take a picture of, the teacher who owned the dog showed up. Rodrigo and I asked her if we could borrow her dog for a class project. She said we could borrow it, so Rodrigo took the dog, I took four shots, then we returned the dog right back to the teacher. The funny thing is I found out after interviewing him that he wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up. Rodrigo recently changed schools, so maybe we will see him next as a veterinarian..

“School” Gete, age 15

School makes me feel like I am trapped. I feel so pressured here that I might explode. School makes me feel boxed in but also isolated. School has so many standards and I feel I can't live up to the standards of my peers or myself. School just reminds me how far I have to go and how much work I need to do. But one way I can lose myself and forget about my responsibilities is through reading. I have so many expectations I have to meet and and if I don't I would be disappointing not only myself but others who expect me to be nothing but perfect. I use books as a gateway to another world where Im not judged but Im also accepted. Even though school is stressful I've found a powerful outlet to let myself be free and calm.

“Reminiscing” Maddie, age 18

I wish it could stay like this. My friends threw me a surprise party two weeks ago and it restored my faith in humanity again. This year has been really tough for me, in a way my best friend ditched me and I have been having trouble trusting others since then. I'm already a private person so I have a hard time confiding in people. Opening the door and having them all there screaming Happy Birthday made me want to cry (out of joy of course). I had no idea how much these people actually cared about me. Most of the time I just tell myself that graduation is coming and then I can find new friends. But now that this happened I know just how loved I am, and I never want to forget these faces because I know they truly care. That's why I wish it could stay like that night, when I was surrounded by my closest friends.

“Make a Wish” Hailey, age 17

11:11am, make a wish! I have always remembered getting very excited when it was 11:11am, we would always make a wish. I always remind my friends in photography class at 11:11 to make a wish. I think it's so magical and gives us hope for the future. It makes us feel young again. Also, when friends come back from breaks or weekends they sometimes tell me they thought of me at that time of day. It gives them a way to remember me and it's a memory for us to have. 

“Soccer Motivation” Kimberly, age 15

This is Eric Lopez. Eric is my soccer coach at CYC the Community Youth Center. He is a senior at College Park and I got to interview him about his love for soccer. He told me, "I plan on majoring on political science and minoring in business at either state or UC school. I also plan on playing college soccer. Soccer has taught how to keep my cool when times are tough and also to push through those times and succeed. What makes me different is I always try to train harder than the guy next to me. I admire that I always play to the best of my ability and have stayed motivated to get better since I first touched a soccer ball.” 

“Kayla” Katelyn, age 15

Q: What type of people do you like to surround yourself with?
A: "People that make me happy and accept me for who I am."

Q: What's the first thing you'd like someone to notice about you?
A: "I guess my personality, since I'm proud of it, and it's a unique quality in everyone.

“Sea of Sheets” Zoe, age 15

I feel most safe... in my bed in the comfort of my own home. Here, I can be alone and have some time to think. School is so overwhelming, especially since there are 2,000 kids at College Park. I feel as though I'm just a face in a sea of people. My head is filled with voices of other people,  gossip, sudden sharp noises, and screams. I feel like I can't be myself among the chaos, but I can truly be who I am here. I can clear my head and relax in the quiet comfort of my bed.

“Showing My Real Self” Hannah, age 14

"This caption is really about how real my feeling is about life. And how I always try to hide it from people that I know or don't know. But when I'm taking the picture I could get that opportunity to show how I feel from the photo that I take. The feeling of doing that can bring  more understanding to people who don't really know me that well and I can just be myself without acting like a different person."

“Gone” Ethan, age 17

Life is about experience and living through every moment you get. I often feel at home or "In the right place" when I experience things with friends and people I care about. As I have grown I have come to notice this more and more. You need to stop worrying about things that truly don't matter in the grand scope of life, and instead learn to appreciate and experience things as often as you can. However, these experiences come to end and this can be very difficult for me. People leave your life and you feel like a part of you has died and will never come back, and in some cases, this is true. The feeling that a decision has been made and could change your entire life is terrifying. However, new experiences are always coming, and you can eventually look back at those experiences in a positive way. Thats what this picture is about. Seeing something or someone leave your life for good, and yet still being able to find beauty in the experience.

“Someone in Need of Help” Chase, age 14

One thing I enjoy is helping people. For example, last year I took a trip to Oklahoma with my friend and we volunteered with a group called Samaritan's Purse to help rebuild this guys house because there had recently been a tornado that threw a car through the second story of his house. I took a picture of these two hands to symbolize someone helping someone out or up.

“I Don't Deserve This Job” Arielle, age 18

I work at a swimming center teaching lessons to some of the greatest children I've met. They are so sweet and make my job truly fun and easy. I have taught special needs children and have learned more from than I feel that I have taught. I feel that I don't deserve this job because my hourly wage is $20 an hour and I recognize that there are so many other working people who are not as fortunate as me and might work even harder than I do for a lower wage. I feel guilty that as a teen I earn this much money. It motivates me to be the best teacher that I can be so that I feel as though I truly earn the money in my paychecks.

“My Big Dreams” Javied, age 15

I'm dedicated to football it is a big part of my life because it's the most important thing to me. I go to sleep thinking about football and wake up thinking about football. I train football everyday for a good 3 hours straight. When I play football I always imagine me and my best friend Luis Navarro playing for a D1 football team like LSU. I release any type of stress when I am on the field. As soon as I have the ball in my hands , I feel like I can fly or do the impossible. Just the fact of thinking about 100 people watching me and my team play is the most exciting thing I can think of.  My varsity team is my inspiration to do good so I can make it big. I have a couple good friend who mentor me when I train football. They always tell me to do the right thing because it's the right thing to do. They always been a inspiration to me in my football career. 

“Self-Image” Jeannette, age 14

I cannot stand the negative way people see themselves, and when they self depricate themselves. You are who you are and can change that for the better if you see yourself as someone who can change. Not if you see yourself as a looser or as someone who can't do anything because they think they are just one big flaw. Loving yourself is the most important thing, and that is what we all need.

“Friend” Micth, age 18

Q: What is your true "hidden" personality?

A: “I'm really open with friends I know but if it a person I don't know I will try to act differently.”

“Jonathan” Javied, age 15

Q: What is the meaning of life to you? 
A: "Life is about being happy and love and never hate." 

Q: What motivates you ?
A: “To make it big one day bruh… to make it big one day.."

Q: What is your dream?
A: "My dream is to become a professional soccer player."

“Home” Arian, age 14

I pass by this picture every day because it is hung up in the wall at the living room and every time I see that picture I feel at home. Back in the day when I was about 7-8 years old, I was walking bare feet to all these places, playing soccer, badmitten, and cricket in Afghanistan. I used to catch wild chickens and play with them, but at dinner we cooked the chicken up and ate it with some tea. Nothing feels better than being with my families back in Afghanistan. Another reason why I love this picture is because whenever I look at this picture it reminds me of the pain and suffering we had with the 50 years of war that we had and all pf the innocent people that we have lost.

“Times Like These” Kiana, age 14

There are some times in my life where I'm feeling down, which is something that everyone experiences. There were times where I didn't know when it was going to get better and spent restless nights filling my mind with questions that I didn't know the answer to. What really helped me in situations like these is surrounding myself with people I love, who make me the happiest. In this photo, it represents that I'm so grateful for what and who I have to support me throughout my life. I appreciate everyone in my life, the good and the bad, because they've shaped me into the person I am today. 

“Becoming a Man” Davon, age 17

Someone asked me what I wanted to do with my life after high school. What was my vision quest? I want to be a Navy Seal and my vision quest is to do something really impressive and courageous to get my glory. I have no family member in the military but as long as I can remember I've always wanted to join the Navy.

“Change” Kimberly, age 15

If I were to change one thing about myself, I would choose to not be so shy and closed off. My whole life, I chose to push people away and out of my life. I chose not to share much about myself and just share little bits of pieces. I learned not to get too attached because I know one day they will eventually walk out of my life or i'll annoy them to the point that they leave. Many people had gone in and out of my life and over time I got used to it. I used to fight this battle between wanting to be alone but also not wanting to be lonely. One day, I got tired of being alone. I overcame what I was afraid of and opened up to people that I felt was worth opening up too. I met someone in particular that made a huge change in my life in such a short amount of time. Someone I can always rely on, someone that treats me like i'm worth something, someone that listens to me and actually cares, and someone who would be afraid of losing me like I was afraid of losing someone I cared so much about. That person made me comfortable on putting myself out there without being afraid. Now i'm no longer that girl who chooses to cancel people out but a girl who learned to let people in and be happy about it.

“Passing the Torch Beyond Brotherhood” Owen, age 16

My brother Vince has to be the fuel that drives my passion on being a better role model. I don't think showing him the way and holding his hand through everything is a chore at all. I love the position that I'm in by caring, looking out for his best interests, guiding him through the way of life, and even more as he grows. He will learn his mistakes, stumble on the road to success, but I will be there to teach him and help him out to the best of my abilities no matter what. He may want to go in a different direction and he my want something different in life, But that does not take away the fact that I don't want him to make the same mistakes in life as I did when I was his age.

“Self” Devyn, age 18

This is where I found out that my life was no longer in my control. My parents took everything from me. My choices, my voice, my happiness. Mostly they took my freedom. It is no longer important what it was that happened. But it did happen and I am still struggling to recover from it both physically and emotionally. I came here, to this park, because I always used to come here as a child, and it is where I could feel at peace. Here, I was alone and was able to process what was in store for me. Since then I have come to believe in myself. With everything I've gone through in my life, I still manage to keep going. I have a certain strength that gets me through each day, that has only come about by fighting through adversity. I know that things will eventually get better. But for now, I know that I can continue to make it through each day, no matter what life throws at me. 

“The Leaf and Me” Joseph, age 14

I took this picture because sometimes I feel alone and in this case the leaf is alone also. To me the black bench represents society and the leaf is me because it is in the background almost unnoticed.

“Freedom” Isabella, age 15

In my family, I am always the one behind the camera. Taking pictures makes me feel free because you get to capture all the memories and share all the fun times you have with one single picture. The picture will last forever and when you look at it, a million amazing memories will pop into your head. 

“4:15 PM” Cassidy, age 16

4:15 is teatime at my house. Every Sunday, my whole family has tea together. We talk about our day and what is going on in our lives. It is one of the few peaceful moments in our hectic lives. This has been a tradition at my house since before I was born. I started drinking tea in kindergarten as a way of bonding with my parents. It is an important tradition that has enabled communication in my family. We talk about how my parents' work is going and how school is progressing. Our conversations also include topics such as scientific research and the political movements going on. I hope to continue this tradition when I have a family of my own.

“Anger” Shawn, age 18

In this self-portrait, I had just finished a heated argument with my dad. It show a good perspective on how I felt at that very moment, disappointed, and angry. This image is meant to show the chaotic state that my house is in. Photography is one of the biggest aspects of my life. If I don't how say it I'll photograph it. Photography helps me calm down. when I look at this photo it reminds me of that night. when I look into my eyes in this photo i will always see sadness   

“Lock”  Jaz, age 14

School isn't about learning anymore, it's about getting good grades.

“7:15 AM” Hannah, age 14

This is College Park's Quad area at roughly 7:15 AM, when most students have not arrived at school yet. However, I usually get here early around this time soley to be alone and collect my thoughts while listening to music before the day begins. The feeling of being by myself, even just for 15 minutes, is calming and prepares me for the busy day ahead. It can be a rush to leave my house so early, but it's all worth is when I can get to school, sit down, put in my earbuds, and enjoy the sky. However, walk the Quad during lunchtime and you'll experience a completey different scene. There are hundreds of students buzzing about, all with different backgrounds, hardships, and stories to tell. It's here that I realized that everyone is going through a unique situation and I have to take this into account before assuming anything about a anyone. I've learned that I have to stand in another person shoes and look from their point of view in order to really understand them.