Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
Photography can be a powerful agency for change, especially in a time of mass inaction. It’s what drives Lens on Life—a nonprofit providing photographic training by the likes of Philip-Daniel Ducasse to at-risk youth—as they prepare to host their third photo auction.
Philip-Daniel Ducasse is a photographer to remember. He has shot for The Wall Street Journal, T Magazine, Vogue, Document—and, most recently, a cover for Atmos Volume 06: Beyond. His work has taken him to Cuba, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, photographing stories about communities and their respective cultural practices. Yet, Ducasse didn’t always think photography was on the cards for him.
“I was raised in Haiti, and there were limited resources when I was growing up there,” he told Atmos. “It means that, today, I really identify with kids that aren’t offered opportunities and don’t usually see themselves represented.”
It’s an archaic industry norm Ducasse is continually working hard to challenge. After all, equipment is expensive, as is school, and creative jobs still tend to go to those with industry connections. So, when Ducasse first met with Sam and Jack Powers, founders of nonprofit Lens on Life, which provides photography and computer literacy to at-risk youth around the world, it took little convincing to bring him on board the project. In fact, just four weeks later, Ducasse was in the Democratic Republic of Congo on his first assignment: teaching young school kids about cameras, lighting, and composition.
“That was my first time teaching ever—I was actually pretty nervous,” said Ducasse. “But these students were so warm and so welcoming. They were like sponges, enthusiastic and willing to listen to anything I had to say. It meant that I really wanted to set an example and be an inspiration for them to know that they, too, can do it.”
Now, the photographs captured by Ducasse’s students will be displayed at Benrubi Gallery in New York as part of an exhibition that celebrates the work produced by young people across Lens on Life’s multiple programs in Brooklyn, Cameroon, and Iraq among other locations. The images are as much an exploration of local cultures through recurring themes like food, art, and music, as they are representations of the daily reality facing youth in areas most affected by conflict and natural disaster.
“It’s important for us not to drill down heavily on technicalities, but rather just allow students to have fun, express themselves, and have confidence in how they see the world.”
“The idea behind Lens on Life was to provide photography training to allow for students who had been through extreme trauma, war, violence, extreme poverty, to have an outlet to express themselves,” said Lens on Life’s Sam Powers.
Since its inception in 2016, Lens on Life has become a global organization with teaching programs based across multiple continents—but its roots were remarkably local. It was inspired by Sam and Jack Powers’ late mother, Bonni Benrubi, who after founding the Benrubi Gallery started bringing youth from Brooklyn—many of whom had never been inside a museum before—into the space to learn about the art world. Benrubi’s mission to democratize access to art motivated her sons to continue building on her legacy.
Lens on Life is driven by a devotion to the power of storytelling; to the instrumental role photography plays in helping us better understand and care for our planet and its people. Photography fosters empathy and acceptance; it breeds community and compassion. It helps us connect with those we have not yet met, and may never meet. It’s a crucial vehicle for change in a time of mass inaction.
That’s why photographic literacy matters. And it’s why representation behind the camera matters, too. Only by redistributing expertise and equipment to those on the frontlines of climate change can those stories be authentically captured and told.
“What was produced during Phil’s workshop showed the city of Goma [in the eastern DRC] in its mundane activities: in its markets, in its smells, in its vibrancy and also in its poverty and in its problems,” said Jack Powers. “But it wasn’t in any way similar to what you normally see within the zeitgeist of Congolese foreign affairs or your average correspondent from BBC or AFP reporting on Goma where you see AK-47’s and derelict cars. That’s why it’s important for us not to drill down heavily on technicalities, but rather just allow students to have fun, express themselves, and have confidence in how they see the world.”
Ducasse, whose personal work so often seeks to empower communities that have been historically underrepresented by mainstream media, is determined to continue supporting the cause: “We’re able to raise a good amount of money with these exhibitions. It’s going straight back to the students, and making a difference to each person’s life.” That’s especially the case now that Lens on Life gears up to grow the curricula on offer; they’re building photography schools in Goma and Iraq—the latter inside a Syrian refugee camp—as well as developing a learning curriculum and photography lab in Cameroon. Each additional program is a win for global photographic literacy.
“Students use the skills and tools provided to expose entrenched and contemporary issues within their communities,” said Sam Powers. “Some students capture photos that reveal the growing risk posed by climate change in their local communities, such as extreme weather. The goal of exhibiting [their] work is to show some of climate change’s direct effects in Africa and the Middle East to our U.S. audience.”
Lens on Life’s third exhibition and photo auction takes place on June 23 at Benrubi Gallery, New York. All student photos will be available for auction and 100% of proceeds will directly support Lens on Life’s critical work, including the purchase of new equipment and payment of teacher salaries and student internship stipends.