Apollo Rodriquez stands and moves into the spotlight at the Paradise Theatre in Paonia. Brandishing a recently dyed-red, cropped-to-his-ears haircut, he turns to face the audience, and lifts his eyes.

In front of his friends and family, he gives a brief artist statement prefacing a personal photo project. “It’s mostly about gender identity,” he said, shifting from foot to foot, “and uh, I hope you like it!” He throws a quick smile and darts to his seat.

As his photos flipped by on the screen, I watched him. I noticed the new red tinge on the outside edges of his eyebrows, dyed to match his hair. I hoped that as he watched his photos on the screen, he felt pride. I hoped he recognized the courage required for this radical act of self-authorship. In that moment, I felt fierce fulfillment for him, for the effort he devoted to photographing his story.

Rodriquez was one of three interns at the Western Slope Photojournalism Workshop, a visual storytelling program offered in Paonia, Colorado. Over the course of four weeks, 10 students gathered to learn the fundamentals of photojournalism. I facilitated this workshop, after spending the last year teaching Photojournalism at Paonia High School.

The images throughout this article were created by WSPJ participants during the course of the workshop, and reflect an adolescent experience of rural America. Participants were encouraged to reflect critically on their own circumstances in order to share their stories with decisiveness. The moments captured are subtle, but profoundly definitive of this valley we share.

The simple act of telling one’s own story gets at the heart of a fundamental question of modern journalism, “Who controls the narrative?”

Our workshop followed a basic format of an hour and a half of lecture and discussion, and an hour and a half of photography. The lecture and discussion component was threefold: create a space for self-expression, discuss modern issues in photojournalism, and review student work.

We looked at visual essays from all over the world, from the vibrant portraits of a Bahamian photographer to tender moments on a family farm in the Arkansas Ozarks. These essays remind us that there is no “one way” to create a visual narrative. There is only the immoveable sense of self in all our images.

All participants learned to photograph using manual settings, controlling their shutter speed, aperture and ISO. These decisions allow them to assert a greater degree of creative control over the final exposure. Different selections within these settings can fundamentally alter the frame in the viewfinder, making the final image “feel” or “seem” one way or the other. We used these tools to manipulate moods, tones and feeling within our images.

We welcomed seven professional photojournalists from around Colorado and Arizona as guest lecturers; some local, like Luna Archey and Shawn McCarney-Alviz, and some from the Front Range, like Eli Imadali and Forrest Czarnecki. These guests are contributors to local and national publications, and brought their valuable insight into the world of storytelling.

“Younger people express themselves more authentically because they don’t know the rules,” said Grace Ramsey, and she’s right. Young people photograph with a distinct sense of freedom.

Alongside many of the guest lecturers, I felt inspired by their work as they simply photographed anything that made them feel a certain way, seemingly uninhibited by external expectations or self-criticism.

Apollo took his seat after a round of questions from the audience. He was welcomed by a quiet chorus of affirmation from his friends.

As we worked through the rest of the projects, each unique in their own right, I felt that same sense of fulfillment. As a group, they created a body of work representing self-reflection and thoughtful engagement with their community. At its core, the workshop was a tool of connection for young people in the North Fork Valley.

The camera is a tool we use to paint in broad strokes, asking the big questions: “what matters to me?”, “how can I place myself in a larger world?” and consequently, “how can I engage with diversity?”

The ways we photograph our surroundings reflect our preconceptions, which inevitably provoke our positions on race, class and gender. Through these conversations we held firm in our trust in each other. Our “found family” as Abby Reedy calls it, is forged in our identity politics.

The photos are the common ground, and the ways we engage with our work reflects the way we engage with each other, and by extension, our communities. I ask that readers hold these students and their work in high regard, as you now are “bearing witness” to some of their proudest artistic moments.

This program occurred with the support of The Learning Council, The Western Colorado Community Fund, Arts for All, and the community, at large.

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