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With classes and cameras, NYC Salt gives underrepresented youth a voice

The June 21 issue of the New York Times Magazine features an image of a protester, standing above a crowd on a light post and waving an American flag with the words “I can’t breathe” written across it. The photo was captured not from the sidelines, but by a photographer who the publication’s editors praised for his ability to get into the center of the action, even when that meant getting teargassed.

Malike Sidibe, a photographer who moved from the West African country of Guinea to New York at age 13, is just one alumnus of NYC Salt, a nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging, inspiring, and empowering high school students through photography and videography. The organization works largely with immigrants, first-generation college students, and kids from underserved neighborhoods by offering classes, mentorship, and loaner gear to jump-start a college degree and a career in a creative industry. 

“When you go to a school in areas like The Bronx instead of Beverly Hills, they don’t have the budget for creative classes and photography classes. It’s hard for kids from those areas to dream about being a photographer or an artist,” Sidibe said. “… Art is not an option, especially me being an African kid growing up in Africa — it was go to school and be a doctor or a businessperson. Discovering Salt opened up my eyes to being a creative person instead of working 9 to 5, to have a creative vision and make a difference in the world.”

When you go to a school in areas like The Bronx instead of Beverly Hills, they don’t have the budget for creative classes and photography classes.

The organization equips students to share what is often an underrepresented perspective and also gives them the tools and knowledge to express themselves. In addition to working with high school students, the nonprofit also runs a new Emerging Artist program for 19- to 26-year-olds navigating a fledgling photography career. NYC Salt continues to provide support to students in college, including providing access to a studio space and equipment. The group currently has around 30 high school students, 10 emerging artists, and 80 college students.

The program has helped jump-start the photography careers of students like Sidibe, a fashion photographer who regularly experiments in other genres, and Christian Rodriguez, a full-time editorial photographer who was the first in his family to attend college. Rodriguez, the son of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, has now been a part of several gallery showings and the New York Times portfolio review.

NYC Salt’s studio has been closed since March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic. NYC Salt

“Teaching the kids how to use a camera and to express themselves gives them a sense of belonging, an agency, and an identity that bridges a lot of things for their lives,” said Alicia Hansen, NYC Salt’s founder and executive director. “In terms of belonging, a lot of our alumni look back and have said that the camera opened up the world socially for them. When kids are in high school, social relationships are so important when you are trying to figure out who you are, where you want to belong. The camera gives kids access when they otherwise wouldn’t have access.”

As the camera opens doors for the students, however, the COVID-19 pandemic has shut others for the organization. NYC Salt classes have moved entirely online except for one experimental outdoor street photography class, a change that will likely remain in place through the end of the year. While teaching photography online presents several challenges, Hansen says that students have also been able to use those online classes to interact with other students and dampen the isolation.

NYC Salt classes have been held online since March 12. NYC Salt

“Photography is a great tool for teaching students that failure is okay,” Hansen said. “We learn from failure. In the editing process, you learn how to go back and shoot things again. You learn and get another chance to shoot. How we learn to recover from failure is important.”

When NYC Salt classes moved online, many in-person fundraisers were canceled. An expanded Nikon partnership helps cover some of that gap by turning the usual consignment to the organization into $20,000 of new gear every year to outfit NYC Salt’s equipment locker. Nikon has also launched an annual scholarship for one NYC Salt student. 

To help make up for funds lost due to canceled fundraisers, Nikon Ambassadors are now running an online print sale through the end of the month. Ambassadors will also join in a new mentorship program pairing students with professional photographers.

“A lot of kids wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn photography if not for [Nikon’s] generosity,” Hansen said. “We’re excited to be able to give more opportunities to kids.”

The online print sale runs through August 31, with all proceeds supporting the organization. To Each Their Own, a photo book on coping with the pandemic put together by the students, is also available for purchase.

“[NYC Salt is] not just an afterschool program where you do, learn, and leave — it’s a sense of community,” Sidibe said. “I’m still in touch with others from the program, and some of them are my best friends now.”

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