There is no better example of the inspirational saying, “If you can see it, you can be it,” than in the grassroots efforts of the community-based arts program Newburgh Community Photo Project (NCPP). Founded in 2017 by photographer, educator, and community activist Vincent Cianni, NCPP teaches photography and related media to an underserved population of Newburgh youth, with a goal to explore critical social justice issues directly related to participants’ lives and community.
In our second story on notable youth photo programs, Cianni elaborates on NCPP’s mission to cultivate role models who look like the population it serves. Read on to discover how the organization’s effective mix of workshops, mentorships, gallery exhibitions, public art actions, and other community events, help to raise awareness and engage the public at large, while simultaneously laying a solid foundation for program participants.
Above photograph © Brian Wolfe, from Video and Sound Projection screened on opening night of Unmasking the Truth: A Public Art Action in collaboration with JR’s Inside Out Project.
Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy of Newburgh Community Photo Project
Program Name: Newburgh Community Photo Project (NCPP) *
Location: Newburgh, NY
Year Founded: 2017
Non-Profit Status: Fiscal Sponsorship through PROOF: Media for Social Justice
Length of Program: Summer workshop and mentorship opportunities
Ages Served: Male and female students, 16 to 24 years old
* B&H Photo is proud to support NCPP as a program partner.
Jill Waterman: Tell us about your education and your connection to the field.
Vince Cianni: My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Science in Community Development from Penn State University. In the 1970s, the program was one of three radical social change majors that dealt with public policy and community organizing. As a junior, I took a year off from coursework to intern with a Lackawanna County, PA drug agency. That part of my background influenced my interest in photography when I ultimately went to graduate school to study photography at SUNY New Paltz in 1983. That’s when I began merging both disciplines.
How long have you lived in Newburgh, and when/why did you start NCPP?
I moved to Newburgh from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in November 2007, and started NCPP in summer 2017, nine months after the 2016 elections. The outcome of the election prompted me to think about using my skills, not only as a photographer but also as a community organizer, to start a program that might offset potential consequences of that administration. I began thinking about this a few years earlier, when I began photographing in the streets of Newburgh. I always develop a connection with the neighborhood I'm photographing, beyond just photography, and developing a model based on socially engaged art seemed indisputable to me.
Where is the program headquartered?
I originally rented a workspace in the basement of Atlas Studios on Spring Street, in Newburgh, in 2015. As the concept for the program developed, I began looking at possible spaces to use. I found a large open, L-shaped space on the first floor of Atlas, with huge windows facing out to the streets. I realized it would be a great space for NCPP, which didn't have the name yet. I utilize the rest of the space for my own studio, including a darkroom, office space, and an archive space.
How did you start the program and run it initially?
During summer 2017, I began meeting with an ad hoc advisory board to determine the focus and scope of the project. We also developed graphics for our signage/logo and finalized the name and mission statement that I had proposed. Then I leafleted the neighborhood with flyers asking, “Want to be a documentary photographer or street photographer? Attend Newburgh Community Photo Project’s free info session.” About six people showed up from different neighborhoods and walks of life. Because the group was a bit older, we decided to approach the issue of gun violence in Newburgh, which took shape throughout the summer of 2017.
From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to teach concepts of photojournalism and documentary photo essays, as well as photography and camera basics, interviewing, and storytelling. Professional photographers from Newburgh with experience in photography and related media volunteered to help us get the program up and running. The first year was a great success. We involved communities affected by gun violence, and it situated us as an organization connected to these neighborhoods.
In fall 2017, we got a grant from the Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative program (ESPRI) to run workshops in the summer of 2018, which allowed us to focus on our target age group of 16- to 24-year-olds. We reached out to local schools, youth groups, churches, etc., and we set up a booth at Newburgh Illuminated, the city’s largest festival, in early June 2018. Through this call for applications and an interview process with about 15 people, we chose ten participants for the first #EveryDayNewburgh workshops with support from the state, as well as a grant from the Orange County Arts Council, and various sponsorships.
Are there any existing models for an organization you looked to for inspiration or advice when you were starting?
Yes, two very specific models. One is the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago, run by Theaster Gates, who is a sculptor using recycled materials. Part of their mission is using recycled materials to build local arts and senior citizen centers for residents in South and West Chicago neighborhoods with little access to infrastructure and improvement. It's a grassroots, community-based concept, where you build from the ground up and involve local residents. That really influenced a lot of what we do at NCPP.
The other model is Artists for Humanity, which was started about 30 years ago by a young Boston artist named Susan Rodgerson. She noticed some teens and young kids hanging on the stoop outside her Dorchester studio. She eventually invited them in, and they began making things alongside her, and became interested in the creative process. This developed into a teen program where participants go through training in a wide range of media—painting, photography, video, graphic design, computer arts—and get paid. Additionally, they have a very extensive program allowing participants to work professionally with Boston-area clients, a concept that helped define our focus at NCPP.
The basic idea of our program is to provide skills to young people from underserved communities that don't have access to such resources, and to involve the larger community in our activities, a key premise of socially engaged art. But not only do we train them and teach them photography, photojournalism, and audio skills, we also pay them a stipend. And each year the workshop ends with an installation in our project space and a public art project, both of which open on the last Saturday of September in conjunction with Newburgh Open Studios.
Did the idea for offering your participants a stipend come directly from Artists for Humanity?
Yes, and during the course of the year, we collaborate with other organizations that present us with a project where photography is needed. NCPP acts as the participants’ “agent” on a pro bono basis, but we negotiate a stipend for the workshop participants we choose as “freelancers.” One of the key projects we worked on was Newburgh Barbershops: Shaping Communities, in collaboration with the Frederick Douglass Consortium, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Douglass’s 1870 visit to Newburgh to speak on voting rights and universal suffrage.
How much of an incentive is the monetary stipend in attracting community youth to apply for the workshop?
I think it's a great incentive for them to apply. These are mostly high school- or college-age youth. We not only place a value on the work they do, but also give them an economically viable option for how to spend their summer. They don't receive the stipend unless they attend all workshop sessions, produce the work expected of them, deliver a finished photo essay with captions and interviews, and return the equipment they’ve checked out.
Is there a target number of participants for NCPP’s workshops?
We usually take 10 participants, and we offer a $500 stipend for completing the workshop. However, in 2020 we had to restructure because of COVID-19. The type of instruction required—showing people how to use cameras, lens demonstrations, etcetera—involves close contact, and we could not accommodate 10 individuals in our existing space. I decided to reduce the number of participants to five and focus on a public art project exclusively rather than a gallery installation. A public art project is always connected with our programming in some way, but this year it became the entire focus of the workshop.
As an aside, let me say that I use the word participant rather than student, because it alludes to the fact that they are being paid to collaborate with us, rather than just learning.
What are the criteria for selecting program participants?
Participants must be Newburgh residents, 16 to 24 years old. On the application, we ask them to explain why they are interested in the program. We also do an in-person 20-minute interview, where we discuss concepts of social justice, photography, and documentary work, and gauge their interest level in all three areas. They don't necessarily need previous photography experience, but they have to exhibit some interest in photography and/or social justice.
Do workshop applicants have much of an awareness of social justice issues when starting the program?
All of the participants do come in with an understanding of social justice issues. It’s part of their lives. Some are involved in community organizations and/or activism, such as volunteering with Planned Parenthood, or organizing and advocating for Black Lives Matter. In 2019, a few participants were actively involved in a youth group on immigration rights, and this year some were involved in organizing BLM marches and rallies. They come to us because they understand that we’re an organization that deals with community-based social justice issues.
Would you say the program changes their awareness or their experience of social justice?
I think the program allows them to change their awareness of how photography impacts social justice issues, and how photography can be used to communicate those ideas.
Do you supply camera gear for the workshops or do participants ever use their own camera gear?
A few participants already have cameras, but we do supply cameras, as well. During the 2018 workshops, we used older digital cameras that were donated to us. Last year for the 2019 workshops, we partnered with Madeleine Budd from B&H’s Marketing Department. Maddie, who is a former student of mine, arranged for Sony to lend us 10 DSC-RX100 III cameras free of charge.
For the 2019 workshop, we were awarded a grant from the Leonian Foundation to buy MacBook Pros and Adobe Creative Cloud subscriptions for Photoshop, which we purchased through B&H Photo. Participants keep the cameras for the entire workshop, but they only have access to the computers inside our space.
In 2020, we had received another grant from the Leonian Foundation to purchase the Sony cameras, until COVID hit. Since we could not follow through with what I proposed, we put this grant on hold until next year. The five participants in this year’s workshop are working with other digital cameras we own. Our 2020 operating costs are funded by a portion of the Leonian Foundation grant, money we raised at our annual fundraiser, and sponsorships.
When is the workshop held and is there a basic agenda for weekly meetings?
We normally meet on Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., with a one-hour, grant-funded lunch that we purchase from different neighborhood restaurants. The curriculum really varies based on the needs of the workshop.
In past years, the participants received instruction in technical, compositional, and aesthetic concepts, including camera, lens, and exposure basics, color theory, lighting techniques, basic Photoshop, and video editing, in addition to concepts of the photo essay, interviewing techniques, and caption writing.
Who does NCPP work with as teachers and mentors?
Our teachers and mentors include Harlem photographer Burroughs Lamar, Shari Diamond, and Lori Grinker, from Newburgh, as well as photographer and educator Francois Deschamps and Geremy Oustatcher, a Newburgh resident who works with music, video, and audio production. During the final two weeks of the workshop, we set up one-on-one mentorships with industry professionals, who assist with final picture editing, writing and editing captions, and a brief written statement about the work. In addition to the above-mentioned photographers, photo editors Sabine Meyer, from the Audubon Society, and Stephanie Heimann, of The New Republic, are also on board as mentors.
In addition to making pictures, workshop students also interview their photographic subjects. Are interviewing techniques taught as a separate skill set?
Yes, interviewing techniques are taught as a separate skill set by Geremy Oustatcher, who also helps with editing the participants’ interviews and sound pieces to accompany their photo essays. He covers technical aspects of using equipment, as well as interviewing techniques, i.e., how to ask pertinent questions, listening, being sensitive to the subject, and so on.
Do you find that having the participants interview their subjects makes a difference in the resulting photographs?
Very much so. Making the photographs informs the kinds of questions our participants ask their subjects about the issues they are exploring. Additionally, once they begin asking questions, they realize that there are certain photographs that might be missing from the photo essay that will help support what's being said.
Is there a structure to the final essay, or a certain number of required photos, or is it more free form?
It's free form. It really depends on the individual’s interests and perspective. We don't require a set number of images. Some people only come up with two images, while others produce eight to 10. It's really based on their skill set, the scope of their chosen subject, and their storytelling approach—i.e., portraits or portraits with text/audio, linear or non-linear narratives, grids, etc.—and the amount of work they put in.
How did this year’s workshop program differ from past years?
We didn’t have an application process this year. Because we were limited by COVID, I decided to select five of the most talented and mature of our 20 past workshop participants. Since they already knew the basics of photography, we only needed a brief technical review. We concentrated on studio and location portraiture, covering topics such as lighting, framing, posing, focus, selection of aperture, and backgrounds, to expand their skills. Next, we photographed Newburgh residents wearing masks that said one of three things: “COVID SAFE,” “#BLM,” or “I Can't Breathe.” Unmasking the Truth: A Public Art Action, was done in collaboration with JR’s Inside Out Project. The portraits were printed large scale at 53 x 36" by Inside Out Project. The final art action involved wheat-pasting the large format posters on buildings throughout Newburgh, to speak to the relationship between COVID-19 and the “I Can't Breathe” message of the Black Lives Matter movement. We also hung images in our existing project space, which functioned as an information center during the opening weekend.
Did organizing a public art action differ substantially from presenting the images in a gallery setting? If so, how did you handle the logistics? Did the format of your weekly meetings differ, as well?
Yes, it was very different. We began by introducing the collaboration with the Inside Out Project, brainstorming the concept we wanted to work with around COVID and BLM, discussing the intricacies of photographing residents, including who we would photograph, how and where the action would unfold, etc. Then, we asked each participant to be responsible for one aspect of planning, organizing, or implementing the project: 1) communicating and working with the Inside Out project and writing the project statement; 2) networking as a liaison to the city government to set up meetings, secure permissions, and identify buildings for wheat pasting, including abandoned buildings, or public spaces; 3) connecting with private property owners and businesses to gain access to buildings where we could wheat paste; 4) social media and handling all the posts for Instagram and Facebook; 5) an installation liaison for the actual wheat-pasting process and action. Each participant worked one-on-one with a specific mentor, who helped walk them through the whole process: how to write an email to a city council person, how to research materials needed for wheat-pasting, how to develop costs and a budget, or how to write captions for journalistic posts on Instagram and Facebook.
Once participants were assigned to a specific working group and mentor, we spent the first 90 minutes of weekly meetings presenting progress reports, so everyone was on the same page; we also discussed what needed to be done to move the project forward. The second half of the four-hour session was either a technical presentation on portrait techniques, interviewing subjects, etc., or looking at photos that were made during the previous week and doing a general picture edit. By the middle of the workshop, we spent the last two hours photographing in the community, in groups of two participants or with mentors.
Do the participants adapt well to working collaboratively on a project? And do you have any tips for avoiding interpersonal discord within a group project?
I’ll answer this question framed by my experiences with a documentary strategies class I developed and taught at Parsons, which was structured around collaborative work. Basically, we went through training sessions to build trust and a connection as a group. When doing collaborative work, it’s important to instill a sense of being responsible to each other, rather than just to themselves. We begin by having them interview each other and present each other to the group. There’s never been much of an issue with interpersonal discord during NCPP workshops since the participants know each other, and they work well collaboratively. They are very supportive of each other and step in to help each other when needed. There wasn't as much collaboration in previous workshops, because they worked on individual projects. However, they did have to come together to prepare for the exhibition, as well as mounting public art projects. This year, it was fully collaborative because of the unique situation we were in.
NCPP sometimes holds guest lectures and also had a film series in the past. What’s the frequency of this programming?
The film / lecture series started in our second year of operation, since we were working on such a shoestring budget when we started. During the first year’s gun violence project, we offered our space to the Race Unity Center for a three-part film series on the history of race relations. Since that first collaboration, I’ve offered the space to other community organizations and not-for-profits that don't have facilities or a big budget. Beginning in 2018, the Friday evening film series was intended to expand on the issues the participants were exploring, while also engaging the community, since we market these events through leaflets and advertising to bring in other community members. Sometimes we also collaborate with other organizations and present panel discussions.
The lecture series is more connected to the workshops themselves. When we started the #EverydayNewburgh workshops in our second year, specifically focused on Newburgh youth, we began by showing work of black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) photographers to expand participants’ understanding about photo essays, and plant seeds about issues they might work on. We bring working professionals from New York City who can speak about the issues our participants are exploring on a much more intimate level. Photographers such as Joseph Rodriguez, Russell Frederick, and Lola Flash come up to do a Friday evening lecture that’s open to the public, and then a presentation or critique in the Saturday workshop, exclusively for our participants. There are other local artists and professionals who get involved, as well.
In addition to photos from your annual projects and programs, NCPP’s Instagram page includes a featured photographer of the week. How are these artists selected, and what kind of response has there been to this feature?
Most of our social media posts follow the development of the summer workshops, the lectures, presentations, and panel discussions we present, and document the installations and opening reception. If there's any collaborative work we do during the year, we highlight that, as well. It's a diary of our activities. Since we have downtime during the winter months, I came up with the idea of featuring the Artist of the Week posts on Instagram, so we remain visible and maintain continuity. Even more importantly, these posts bring attention to national and global issues investigated by other BIPOC photographers. We hope to educate our participants, as well as our wider audience, about work being done around the globe by other photographers. We concentrate on younger, emerging photographers, but that being said, one of the first photographers we highlighted was good friend Donna Ferrato, and her work on domestic violence, because it’s an issue that is relevant to Newburgh.
Are there opportunities for publication?
Yes, we take out ads in Photograph magazine, and a number of local newspapers have covered our exhibitions and our projects, utilizing some of the photographs. Additionally, during spring 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the Hudson-based arts and culture magazine Chronogram ran a six-page spread of participant photographs. This is a beautifully printed folio-size magazine that has established itself as a strong advocate for the arts in the Mid-Hudson region, and is distributed free in all communities.
What have you found to be the most effective aspect of your programming in terms of engaging participants and keeping them engaged?
I think it's the personalization of the work, and the issues that participants investigate. You know, it's really about their lives, and their communities, and their families, and what they're experiencing. I think that’s the primary thing that engages them. Although, as an aside, I think the stipend helps a lot, too.
While NCPP has only been active for a few years, are there any noteworthy success stories to share?
Therese Fisher and David Cordero were both star participants in our 2018 workshop. They both worked on our Barbershop Project in conjunction with the Frederick Douglass Consortium. They were teaching assistants for the 2019 workshops, and this past summer they worked on the Unmasking the Truth project. Therese has been pursuing undergraduate studies in the media program at SUNY New Paltz, and she was just accepted into the Corcoran School of Art/George Washington University’s Photojournalism program, where she will start classes in January. She developed a portrait series for NCPP called Strong Women of Newburgh and produced interviews that formed the basis of our audio piece, edited by Geremy Oustatscher. David Cordero worked on a series about gentrification in the downtown area where he lives, and how the changes affect local communities and residents.
Is NCPP a not-for-profit organization?
No, we are not incorporated as a 501(c)3 non-profit, we have a fiscal sponsor, PROOF: Media for Social Justice. This frees us from some of the bureaucratic aspects of running a non-profit. We work on a grassroots level. I think the concept of being a grassroots organization allows us to do the things we want without a lot of bureaucratic structure around it. This could certainly change in the future, dependent on the kind of funding we can secure for long-term initiatives, but unless a young 30-year-old photographer interested in social justice, community organizing, and documentary photography comes along and says, “I'll take over,” I think we'll stay as a fiscally sponsored organization.
How did you choose PROOF as your fiscal sponsor?
Leora Kahn, whom I've known for many years, runs PROOF: Media for Social Justice. PROOF’s mission is very similar to what we do, yet on a more global and national level. So, it made perfect sense. And Leora is wonderful to work with, too.
In addition to fiscal sponsorship, what other types of fundraising does NCPP employ, and have you found one type to be most effective?
I would say that 50 percent of the program support comes from grants, with our major grant being from the Leonian Foundation. Sometimes we’ve had a mix of state and local arts-based grants; but we’ve recently focused more on building a relationship with one granting institution. Getting a big chunk of funding from a foundation grant is certainly effective. This allows us to help buy the equipment we need. Much of our day-to-day costs and the stipends are covered by sponsorships, which we get by writing letters to targeted individuals and direct marketing to supporters, collectors, and so on—another really effective way of raising money.
But our annual fundraiser is probably our most effective outreach, because it engages a larger part of the community. The public is engaged with our work, not only as an on-site exhibition, but also with public programming, such as the banners we hang on buildings, and public service announcements that we put in shop windows. Our name is constantly connected with these communities. Our annual fundraiser usually involves a raffle with local community merchandise, art, and photographs, and a wide variety of services, but this past year we did a magic show with a smaller version of the raffle.
How did you come up with the idea of a magic show fundraiser, and how did audience response compare with past fundraisers you’ve done?
The magic show idea came from an event I attended with family and friends, Brian Ledbetter’s Magic Dazzling Deceptions. I had never seen a magic show before, and I found it amazingly entertaining. I noticed the auditorium was completely packed with people of all ages, and from different walks of life. It was only the magician and his assistant, but he engaged the audience wonderfully. At the end, he mentioned that he ran a not-for-profit organization during the off-season and traveled the country to help other organizations fundraise. After the show, I told him about NCPP, and we traded contact information.
I don't think Newburgh had ever seen or presented a magic show like this, so I thought it would be a great way to tap into a diverse population in planning something different. Our participants, instructors and mentors volunteered to help organize the event and sell tickets. I contacted our local higher education institution, Mount Saint Mary College. They have a beautiful theater that seats approximately 600 people, with a special non-profit rate, which was very enticing. We had a popcorn machine, refreshments and candy for the kids, all of which was free. Right after the show, we held the raffle, and people stayed. The attention and interest this generated was pretty remarkable. A much larger segment of the community came, not just from Newburgh, but from the surrounding area. All of a sudden, NCPP was getting recognized in a larger sphere, and we also raised more money for our programs.
Generally speaking, how much of your time as Director goes into fundraising and grant writing?
I’d say I spend half my time working on fundraising, but it's a seasonal thing. During the late fall, winter, and early spring I work on fundraising and grant writing, as well as developing the next summer workshop. The other six months, from late spring through early fall, my focus is on running the program.
Your website mentions underwriters, sponsors, and donors—what's the difference between those various levels of giving?
Underwriters are those that donate larger amounts of money for stipends or operating costs, sponsors are those who underwrite specific participants or activities, such as the lecture/film series. Donors are people who give us books, photo equipment, furniture, or computers, and who donate items for the raffle.
Does your program have regular interns or staff members?
Now we do, with Roger Richardson, who is the program coordinator, but we also usually have one or two interns throughout the course of the year. Sometimes we get students through local schools, such as SUNY New Paltz, or from Parsons, but we also have an internship program set up with Bennington College.
Does NCPP have an advisory board or board of directors, and if so, do they have an active role in general program operations?
Since we're not an established 501(c)3 non-profit, we don’t have a board of directors, but we do have an advisory board, consisting of some of our instructors and presenters. From the very beginning, our advisory board has helped to shape and form our organizational concepts, as well as the goals we wanted to establish. This includes the age group we're dealing with, the type of instruction we're delivering, as well as the type of work we look at, based on our focus on documentary and journalism related to community-based social justice issues. Beyond that, the advisory board doesn't have that much input or influence on a day-to-day basis. It’s generally to establish more general, universal missions and goals.
What do you look for in the industry professionals who serve as teachers, mentors, guest speakers, or board members?
We primarily want to tap into the local community, which has become an important resource for us, since a lot of industry professionals have moved to Newburgh in the past five to 10 years. However, the other major consideration is to connect with professionals who look like the population we serve. So, we try to tap into black and brown practitioners, because I think it's more relevant for the participants. Cultivating role models with that particular voice and perspective is a priority for us, and it relates very well to NCPP’s mission.
What methods do you use to measure program success?
Internally, participants fill out an evaluation form. During our previous 10-week workshops, evaluations were done weekly because we had different instructors and presenters coming in. This year, we only had an end-of-session workshop evaluation. The other gauge is by attendance at the opening, and social media engagement, to track how many people like social media posts on Facebook and Instagram. We also look at the continued collaborations we do throughout the year, and the involvement, feedback, and engagement we get from the community. So, it's not a specific quantitative evaluation, but it's certainly qualitative based on the kinds of response and engagement we get.
In your opinion, how does the work of NCPP serve the community at large?
Because of the collaborative aspect of our mission, I think there's a continued engagement with the community in almost everything we do. Whether it's attendance at openings or collaborations with other organizations, a substantial number of people attend. And, because what we do is so unique in the community, and in the area, we get really good press coverage from local newspapers. There aren’t many programs that focus on social justice issues intended as socially engaged art. The arts and photo organizations around the area are geared more toward traditional fine arts, artist-centered initiatives. So, I think we're very unusual, and we get a lot of attention as a result.
Do you have any thoughts about plans for future workshops?
I think the experience we had this summer, because of COVID, really informed us about one of the more viable ways we can engage with the community and connect with a much larger group of people. When we sent out an announcement that we needed volunteers to help with wheat-pasting, the response was tremendous. A group of people came and helped, including several of the subjects we photographed. It was a lot of fun, and it turned into a community effort. And, after 10 or 12 hours of wheat-pasting, I'd come home and spend three hours cooking up lunch, to feed everybody the next day. I was totally exhausted, but you know, your adrenaline just starts flowing, and it really was a wonderful experience.
Do you know of a deserving Youth Photography nonprofit or program that you’d like to see featured in a future article? If so, tell us about it in the Comments section, below. And, to view more of our profiles with Youth Photography Program directors on Explora, click here.
Thank you for doing this series; it is both interesting and insightful. I would recommend interviewing Michael Kamber about the Bronx Junior Photo League at the Bronx Documentary Center: bronxdoc.org
Hi Daniel, thanks so much for the compliment on our series about Youth Photography Programs, and thanks as well for recommending the Bronx Documentary Center's youth program for upcoming coverage. They are definitely on our radar, so please stay tuned for a story about them, as well as other programs, in the months ahead. Long live photography, and thanks for reading the Explora blog!