By Jim Colton
“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” ― Winston S. Churchill
There is no greater joy in life than giving back….especially when creating opportunities for those less fortunate. It has been my honor and privilege to have been part of many programs whose focus is exactly that….to open doors for hungry young minds affording them the chance to pursue their dreams.
For close to twenty years, I have been a mentor for JCamp, a program sponsored by the Asian American Journalist Association for minority high school students who are interested in journalism. At JCamp 2005 in Minneapolis, after my presentation on photography, a 16-year-old young man came sprinting up to me afterwards and stated, “I want to be the next staff photographer for Sports Illustrated!” His name was Timmy Huynh.
Over the next two years, I helped Timmy with his portfolio and in 2006 he became the youngest student ever to be accepted to the Eddie Adams Workshop. He went off to college, earning his Masters of Arts in Journalism at the University of Missouri and is currently doing amazing work as a photo editor at the Wall Street Journal. My heart soars!
Programs like JCamp and the Eddie Adams Workshop (I just returned from my 24th consecutive) are so vital and in many ways, are more important to me than the many wonderful opportunities I have had over the 40 plus years of my employment in this industry. It also gives me great joy to see others with the same philosophies, who give so generously and selflessly so that others have a chance to realize their dreams. One of those people is Alicia Hansen and her program NYC SALT.
Hansen earned her undergraduate degree in photojournalism at the University of Georgia and did her graduate work at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communication. She interned at several newspapers before landing a staff photographer position at the Atlanta Journal – Constitution and also served as Joe McNally’s assistant for two years before opening her own studio.
Her editorial work has been seen in Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and others and she has done commercial work for clients such as IBM, Microsoft and Amway to name a few. Her images have appeared in several books and she has been on the faculty of the Eddie Adams Workshop for many years.
Hansen has put her own personal dreams on hold and has created NYC SALT; a free digital photography and college readiness program for under-privileged high school and middle school students. Their mission, as Hansen describes it, “…is to engage, inspire and empower underserved youth through photography.” The genesis of the program came from what she was witnessing where she lived and wanting to make a change because, “There were too many kids hanging out on the streets in my neighborhood doing nothing!”
Her program boasts an incredible 100% acceptance rate into college, in a neighborhood where only 37% receive higher education. And many of those were on full scholarships; to date, her students have received over a million dollars in scholarships! To learn more about this amazing program, this week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the compassionate and generous Alicia Hansen.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about the paths that lead you to where you are currently. What was your first introduction to photography and who or what were your earliest influences?
Alicia Hansen: My first introduction to photography was losing my mother’s point and shoot camera on a train in Italy when I was a junior in college. Luckily, the friend that I was traveling with had an old Pentax with different lenses that she shared for the rest of the trip. Looking through the viewfinder of a “real” camera was life changing. There was something magical that happened when I picked up that camera. It was a different way of seeing and creating images.
At the University of Georgia, I went through six majors before I landed on a journalism major my senior year with an emphasis in photography. I knew at that point that since I was starting so late that the only way I could get experience was to intern…so I did! I interned at 7 papers and studied abroad in London with Syracuse University through the Alexia Foundation contest, drawing out my last two credits for another year so I could get the experience I felt I needed to get a job at a paper.
During my first photography class at UGA my professor, Steve Dozier, brought in Michael Williamson at the end of the semester to speak to our class. He critiqued our black and white print portfolios. His words of encouragement are what inspired me to pursue a career in photography.
I also remember going to the NPPA short course and hearing seasoned photographers speak about the stories they were working on. At that time I had no idea that the camera could be such a powerful tool to inspire change and educate the rest of the world on important issues. Listening to people like Yunghi Kim speak at this workshop inspired me to work to make the world a better place by telling stories that are important. She spoke about her photographs on Comfort Women in Korea.
My first internship was with the Athens Daily News during the 1996 Summer Olympics. I wanted that internship so badly that all spring I would call the photo department every morning at 8am and see what assignments they had for me to shoot for free everyday. Unfortunately the two intern spots were given to two other students with more experience, but the director of photography, Robb Carr, created a third position for me. I learned so much that summer about how to shoot. I only had a Nikon N70 body and a 35-70mm lens. I saved all the money I made that summer and bought two more lenses. I learned that persistence pays off and that if I worked hard enough I could do anything I wanted.
At the Western Kentucky Mountain People Workshop I shot my first photo story on a bookmobile. Being around so many talented students pushed me even harder to shoot better than I ever had. Afterwards, Robert Pope from the State Journal Register offered me a winter internship. It was because more seasoned photographers and editors encouraged me that I kept trying. I learned so much from that internship. Robert, TJ Salsman, Chris Young, David Spencer, and Rich Saal all invested so much time in editing my work, giving advice, going with me to teach me how to light basketball games and coaching me through a story I did on people who live in daily rate motels.
All these experiences lead me to my last internship at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The director of photography had told me that I was too young to hire for the staff position that was open. I had several offers at smaller papers for a full time staff photographer job after my internship finished. But in the last couple weeks of my internship, a tornado hit Atlanta. My photos made the front page - all six columns for the morning and evening editions. The director of photography offered me a job that day!
JC: You’ve worked as a photojournalist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and also as an assistant to a master of lighting and creative genius Joe McNally. Tell us a little about those years…and what you enjoyed and learned during that time.
AH: Working at such a big paper right out of college was a gift. I never thought I would be at such a big paper so soon. There were so many photographers that I learned from on staff. Every opportunity I could get, I would ask Joey Ivansco if I could go with him on assignment and learn about how to light portraits. And my best memories are of all the times that Dave Tulis would allow me to tag along and shoot the Atlanta Braves with him.
I would finish my shift and go to every game I possibly could. I loved shooting sports. Dave was a great mentor. Being at such a large paper gave me the opportunity to shoot an incredible variety of assignments from local to international news. There was nothing better than waking up in the morning and rushing to the door to see my pictures on the front page of the paper.
Working at the AJC taught me a lot of good life lessons too. I learned how to problem solve, make something out of nothing and shooting quickly because I usually had five assignments and a 5pm deadline to make it across Atlanta and back. I learned to edit, and to go with my gut when I felt something was a good story. Those skills have served me well as a freelancer in NYC working with corporate and advertising clients.
In my third year at the AJC, Syracuse University Newhouse School offered me a full scholarship to get my masters degree. You were one of the people I called to ask for advice on what to do. I was also offered a job at the State Journal Register. The choice was tough as it was at a time when the Copley papers were rockin’ it with great photojournalism and I really wanted to work at a place that valued photography. The advice you gave me was to go for more education, especially if it was free! I did…and it changed the course of my career.
I met Joe McNally and his wife at the time, Michelle McNally, while a student at Syracuse and interned for both before Joe offered me a position as his first assistant. I knew nothing about how to freelance and only a tiny bit about lighting. As an intern I made a deal with Joe that I would work for free full time all fall in his studio, but in return, he would have to use me as his assistant on any jobs that came up and that I would be able to bill an assistant’s rate for those jobs. I made enough to pay my NYC rent and he kept me busy all fall.
We embarked on the first all digital story for National Geographic together. The story was a celebration of what was new in the air in commemoration of the centennial year of flight. He was the BEST to work for. He was generous and always willing to answer my questions. I loved the time I worked for him. He taught me everything I know about lighting. He taught me how to travel with 17 sixty pound cases of gear. He was generous in introducing me to everyone he knew, giving me an amazing entrée into the photo industry in NYC.
I am so grateful to Joe and his studio manager Lynn DelMastro for opening their doors to me and teaching me everything I know about the business of photography. I loved editing his work and managing his archive and gear and helping to produce so many magazine shoots. One of the most intense stories I produced for him was an 18-page story about the new generation in golf for Matt Ginella at Golf Digest. I choose the subjects, scouted locations, and produced the shoots which were all over the country.
JC: What is NYC SALT and how did you come up with the idea?
AH: NYC SALT is a free digital photography and college readiness program for high school and middle school students at Title 1 schools in NYC (Title 1 means schools with a significant population of students who qualify for free lunch). Our mission is to engage, inspire and empower underserved youth through photography.
The inspiration for NYC SALT came from the documentary, “Born into Brothels.” I wanted to do something like what Zana Briski did in Calcutta in NYC. There were too many kids hanging out on the streets in my neighborhood doing nothing. NYC SALT evolved out of a class I created and taught for a nonprofit up in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in North Manhattan.
After several years of seeing how engaged students were in digital technology, I was challenged to write a business plan and entered it into a competition. It was a finalist. I was pretty amazed that people liked what I wrote and thought it was a good idea. I had no idea how to write a business plan nor knew anyone who could help me. I figured out how to write the plan by Googling it and then found a pro bono lawyer who would help me incorporate SALT as a nonprofit. In April of 2008 on the day of the students’ first show, we got our nonprofit status officially becoming a 501c3. You came out to that show Jimmy and it meant the world to me!
People always ask, “What does NYC SALT stand for?” I wanted a name that spoke to who we wanted to be in the community and what we wanted to do in the lives of the students we serve. Salt flavors and preserves. Every good photo story starts with a photographer being moved to tell a story of unrepresented people, or to give a voice to an issue that needs attention. The issue I think that needs attention in NYC is the lack of arts education in the public school system and the failure of our schools to prepare students for college.
In the neighborhoods of the students we serve, only 37% of adults receive higher education. Kids aren’t challenged to be creative. More specifically, kids of immigrants and kids from lower income families do not have the opportunities that the middle and upper classes do. My program helps level that playing field. Photography is the hook and once we have them inspired and engaged, my team of professional photographers uses our network to connect our students to higher education and amazing career opportunities and exposure to jobs they did not know existed.
I want all my students to think of work as a career and vocation, not a job that one does to get a pay check to pay rent. Just this month we received funding from the Heckscher Foundation for Children to build a college prep program and hire a guidance counselor to work with each student to make a plan for college as well as support our 28 college students.
SALT has two programs. We have a young photographer residency program that is the core of what we do. Sixteen students are chosen through an application and interview process each year. Students can stay with the program all through high school once they have been selected. The residency program meets once a week for three hours of photography instruction. There is a computer lab in our photo studio for the students to use any day after school and on weekends.
We do a fieldtrip once a month, a retreat for team building in the fall, and college trips in the spring and summer. Our residency students are all given a photographer as a mentor and editor throughout the year. At the end of the school year, we have a gallery show to showcase their work. Over the course of the year all students build portfolios for submission to college applications, contests and internships.
The second program is a series of 12-week workshops that we are developing for the NYC public schools. This past summer, we received a grant from the Hive Digital Media Learning Fund and the New York Community Trust to develop a smartphone photography curriculum. I worked with Ruddy Roye and Katrin Eismann to put this course together to pilot this fall at NYC Lab School on 17th street. We teach students how to see pictures, edit, and publish using Instagram as our main platform. The workshops are a way we can reach more students and be able to scout for exceptional students for the residency program.
Our cost per student is about $250/student for a workshop compared to the $7000/student we spend in the residency program per year. We fundraise to make our programs free for all our students. You can follow what our students are doing by searching the hashtag #saltphotoclub or follow us on Instagram @nycsalt or @saltphotoclub.
The third part of the program (that is in the very beginning stages of being built) is a picture agency program where our residency students will qualify by strength of portfolio to start taking on small freelance jobs. This is already happening in an unstructured capacity. We get calls from people all the time asking if we have a student that could shoot an event or a birthday party or do a headshot. Several of our college students have been shooting weddings. Those are all great ways of teaching the students business and life skills which will help them to be career ready.
We have also developed a photo camp program where we partner with summer enrichment programs. Our students work alongside a professional photographer to teach middle school students. It’s a pretty big paradigm shift for a student to realize that he or she has something to give others. The outcome from this program has been a huge increase in self-confidence.
JC: I understand that the students have an incredible college acceptance rate upon leaving the NYC SALT program. Could you give us a few stats about how the kid’s fare?
AH: In the past four years, we have had 28 seniors graduate from high school. 100% have been accepted to college. 86% are the first in their families to go to college. 85% have gone to four-year colleges and 15% to two-year colleges. We have had students earn full scholarships to Syracuse University, University of Vermont, Hofstra, SUNY Plattsburgh, SUNY Purchase, Binghamton University, and Fordham University.
I believe that the way to affect change in my community is through personal relationships. More that anything else, I value community in my program. We want to have a life long relationship with every student we serve. Devin Osorio, Christian Rodriguez and Melody Dunbar are all in college and are great examples of the importance of strong mentor relationships. Both Devin and Christian are in their last year at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Neither would have gone to college if it were not for their interest in learning photography and having mentors to encourage and lead them.
Devin is one of my first students. He grew up thinking that work meant a job where you use muscle and get your hands dirty. His worldview did not include the career possibilities in the creative industry. During Devin’s sophomore year in high school, one of our photographers introduced Devin to a friend who worked as a designer for Diane Von Furstenburg. This introduction changed the course of Devin’s life. He ended up interning at DVF for the next two summers, met the internship director who introduced him to SCAD as a college possibility and now Devin is a fibers major at SCAD preparing for a career in the fashion industry.
Devin said that he had no desire to go to college before he met the internship director, Neil Gilks, at DVF and fell in love with fashion. This past summer, Devin went to London for an internship. Through the generosity of several of my donors, he had a free place to stay and money to spend. Devin plans to go back to London after he graduates this year from SCAD. He will be the first person in his family to have gone to college.
Christian has a similar story. He started at NYC SALT as a sophomore. His plan after high school graduation was to go back to the Dominican Republic and hang out. He found a passion in photography that inspired him to graduate and go with Devin to SCAD. Both boys have received over $10,000 a year in scholarships for their photography portfolios. Christian struggled with his grades in high school, but when he got to SCAD, he excelled and made the dean’s list in his first year! As he gets ready to graduate in 2015, he has had numerous freelance, teaching, and assisting jobs already under his belt. He’s been a contest winner and has had many of his photographs in gallery shows.
Melody’s story best represents why it is so important for students to have help in navigating financial aid and figuring out which college to go to. Melody was offered a full scholarship to Hunter College and a partial scholarship to Binghamton University. The full scholarship sounded like a better deal until we started going through what that actually meant. She was awarded all the funding she needed for her tuition but was not awarded enough money for all the extras like books, subway fares and eating expenses. Binghamton University was really her first choice, but she thought that she could not afford it because she would incur $7500 in loans.
We made a spreadsheet of all her expenses for both schools and then compared the costs. It turned out that even though Hunter College was giving her a “full scholarship” she would not have the out of pocket money available to pay for everything else. Binghamton turned out to be the more affordable college and she started last July in the summer start program. Going away to college and dorming is almost always the best thing for our students because it gives them the chance to get out of their neighborhood and to learn responsibility as they grow up.
JC: It’s fantastic that you are making dreams possible for inner city youth. What dreams would YOU like to see fulfilled for NYC SALT? And similarly, what dreams for you personally?
AH: First of all, none of my dreams would have come true without the generosity of time and knowledge from my team, the amazing photographers and board members, who give so much of their time and resources. The program would never have grown into what it is today. The kids would not be successful without them. Adam Chinitz, Sari Goodfriend, Kevin Goggin, Michael Bocchieri, Ben Norman, Jackie DiBenedetto, and Tiffany Hagler-Geard are amazing teachers and photographers and I am so blessed to have them in my life.
Just having come this far with SALT and sending 28 kids to college, being a part of their dreams coming true…is the best dream come true. Looking back over 20 years of a photography career, I have been so blessed to have so many great mentors and so many amazing opportunities. I am so fortunate to get paid to do something I love everyday. Creating SALT was a huge risk. I have always thought, especially on months where we had no funding to continue, that if it all ended I would be satisfied with the privilege it has been to be allowed into the lives of my students. There is nothing that gives me more joy than seeing them succeed.
Of course I do have dreams of what more I want SALT to be. My plans in the next three years include building out our workshop program to serve 15-20 schools creating a larger recruitment base for the residency program. I would also like to see the residency program expand from 16 students to four classes of 16, one for each high school grade level. The first two years will be all about seeing pictures and storytelling and the second two will be apprenticeship training, teaching the business of photography and providing freelance jobs for the students to shoot, and concentrating heavily on portfolio development and college prep. And once we have a strong enough foundation here in NYC, I would like to plant our model in cities all across the country.
My dreams for me are simple. I want to keep learning and to work on more personal projects. I want the community we have started to develop with SALT to grow and for my program to be a place not only for the students to call family but also a place where photographers can feel connected and inspired.
JC: What are some of the ways that our readers could help? Are there opportunities to volunteer or make donations?
AH: There are many ways that your readers can help:
• Buy a print for your home or for decorating your corporate office space. We have a great shop on our website. https://prints.nycsalt.org
• Provide an Internship.
• Give a monthly donation of $25 or more. https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=V8BHXH2HPMDN8
• Like us on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/nycsalt
• Follow us on Instagram and Twitter. https://twitter.com/nycsalt http://instagram.com/nycsalt
• Provide a scholarship.
• Provide a gallery space to showcase our students’ photography.
• Provide a fieldtrip to expose our students to more careers in the photo industry.
• Help us build relationships with more colleges and universities that we could send our students to.
• Donate gear you are not using especially lenses!
• Look at #saltphotoclub and #nycsalt and comment on what our students are shooting to give them positive feedback on what they are seeing.
As we grow, we will be looking for more professional photographers and photo editors to volunteer as mentors and teachers for our classes.
JC: Is there a current exhibition or fund drive going on?
AH: Yes. We have two opportunities in October. On October 30th, we will host an open house at our studio in Chelsea directly following the PhotoPlus Expo at the Javits Center. We will showcase the students’ images in a small gallery show. It will be a time for our community to meet our students. The open house is at 214 west 29th street suite 1401, NY, NY from 6pm to 9pm.
We also have a fundraiser going on until Nov. 3rd at 11:59am. (See link below) It is a crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000 to fund our college prep program and several more workshops in the NYC public schools. If we raise more money than the other charities in this campaign, the Mozilla Foundation will match what we raise with $15,000. Adam Chinitz created a video for this campaign. (See link below)
JC: How do you divide the time needed for such a project and balance that with editorial and other work that you do?
AH: Building SALT has been my primary focus for the past six years. I put my career as a photographer on hold and have focused on using my corporate jobs to fund my personal project (NYC SALT). I have wrestled with the balance of my own photography work and building SALT. I have fought and sacrificed a lot to grow SALT.
This year has been a pivotal year. The investment that the Pinkerton Foundation made in my organization this year has been a game changer. It has allowed me some breathing room and has given me some space to evaluate and plan out what our growth will look like in the next three years. It has also allowed me to start on a few personal projects. I work a crazy amount of hours to pay my rent with my corporate jobs and to build SALT so that I can start hiring more people to help me. By the end of the year, I will hope to hire a full time assistant and have some time to focus more on a couple personal projects.
JC: Many years in the future, when someone looks back at NYC SALT and Alicia Hansen, what would you like to have them most remember?
AH: That we created a community where our students and volunteers have found family. I’d want them to remember that we changed a generation by exposing our students to opportunities in the photo industry and opened a door for them to reach their full potential. I would hope that what I am doing in NYC would inspire others to find ways to give back using their own unique talents. I hope that SALT will become a self sustaining community with a whole team of photographers leading the organization.
JC: As someone who nurtures our youth, what advice or encouragement would you like to share with those who may be interested in a career in photography?
AH: Work hard and follow your dreams and don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do something. You can do whatever you put your mind to. Learn to be a problem solver and always keep a positive attitude. Don’t ever publish anything on social media that you wouldn't want to be showcased on the front of the newspaper. Showing up is sometimes the hardest part of doing something new and scary, but once you do, it’s amazing how many good things can come from being present. Character is essential to success. Be kind, generous, thankful, and honest. Have integrity in everything you do. And always think the best of other people.
Alicia Hansen’s website: http://www.aliciahansen.com/
NYC SALT’s Website: http://www.nycsalt.org/
NYC SALT Fundraiser: https://www.crowdrise.com/Hive-NYCSalt
NYC SALT Fundraiser video: http://vimeo.com/107762643
Twitter & Instagram: @NYCSALT
Facebook: NYC SALT
DO YOU HAVE A STORY YOU THINK IS A GOOD CANDIDATE FOR ZPHOTOJOURNAL? EMAIL YOUR SUGGESTION TO: JIM.COLTON@ZUMAPRESS.COM