Rosenblum: Photo students focus on lives of people with disabilities

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2013 - 11:13 AM
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Mother and Son by Kara Sajeske

A photography exhibit opening May 9 in Northfield offers us a window into the lives of community members rarely seen with such intimacy.

But the eyes opened widest were likely those of the young photographers themselves.

“Take a New Look: A Photographic Journey Through a Day in the Life at Laura Baker” features the work of 12 intermediate photography students at St. Olaf College. Each student spent six hours with a client of Laura Baker Services Association, a community resource offering residential and in-home services, a vibrant arts program and a school to people with developmental disabilities.

The collaboration was part of St. Olaf’s new civic engagement effort, which invites students to take their learning beyond classroom walls. It also gave Laura Baker an opportunity to raise awareness about the clients it serves, both their special challenges and the comforting ordinariness of their days, which parallels our own.

“For so many years, the people we support have been hidden away,” said Executive Director Sandi Gerdes. “That builds up a mystique which can create fear. We want to raise our clients’ voices and their profile in the community. But how?

“The best way was through pictures.”

Gerdes contacted St. Olaf art professor Meg Ojala, who already had experience with community partnerships, including one bringing art to people with autism and another with the League of Women Voters.

None of Ojala’s students balked at the idea, she said, although one client did back out. “Some [of the students] had logistical challenges,” she said, “but they were all willing to do what they had to do to make it work.”

Ojala first had them photograph their own surroundings, then took them on a tour of Laura Baker, blocks from St. Olaf, but a world away.

“They just didn’t realize the clients were integrated into the community as much as they are,” Ojala said, “or even that Laura Baker was there.”

In early spring, the students set out with their cameras across about a dozen venues, from home settings to work places to the Laura Baker school. They took hundreds of photographs and then began the difficult task of whittling them down to their favorite 30. From that number, about a half-dozen were selected from each student for the show.

Ojala was struck by her students’ distinct, often surprising, approaches, “the unique vision that comes through.”

Student Kara Sajeske’s “Swiped,” for example, captures a hand swiping a credit card to pay for groceries, steadied by the hand of a staff member. Chris Massey’s “Making Lunch,” shows a staffer and two clients in a communal kitchen about to dig into tubs of pasta and salad. William Wright’s “Happiness” catches a momentary, and loving, embrace between a client and staffer.

Some photographs offer subtle hints of lives apart. One adult client studies the pages of a Dr. Seuss book. Another stands proudly next to his sticker collection, which features Cookie Monster and Big Bird.

Ojala was impressed, too, by her students’ use of light. “Really beautiful,” she said. Most beautiful, though, were the relationships that developed between students and subjects, she said.

“For the students, the connections they made were probably the most important thing.”

In his artist’s statement, Kiran Raghubir noted his surprise at how much he and his client, Britni, had in common, “from books about dinosaurs to watching animals on Animal Planet.”

Gina Gaetz worried about feeling a sense of separation, standing behind a camera to photograph clients Larry and Glen. Instead, she wrote, “I formed unforgettable relationships with two members of my community.”

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