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Candid Camera or Another Vision of Detroit

Children see everything in pure form, whether it is ugly, beautiful or in between.

So hand them a camera and you'll see exactly what they see: that even in the most dire, hopeless situation, they can find something magnificent.

Earlier this year, veteran photographer Monte Nagler held a Master Class with 22 homeless children and their parents as part of the COTS “Through the Eyes of a Child” project. The result is a visual representation of the kids and their world: friends, neighbors and the city.

Canaan Thomas

Some background: COTS is the Coalition on Temporary Shelter, a private, non-profit organization that provides emergency shelter, transitional and permanent housing and support services for Detroit's homeless population.

The project was funded by a grant from The Young Women's Home Association of Grosse Pointe. The children were given a camera and lessons by Monte Nagler, who then turned them loose to express their feelings through photography.

The project got its start as all good things in Detroit do: a meeting of the minds. During a fateful seating arrangement, Mickey Nagler was placed next to COTS Chief Development Officer Lynn Wilhelm. Their discussion resulted in a meeting with the Young Women's Home. They wrote up a grant, got a few dozen film cameras and set up a tutoring session with Mr. Nagler.

Nagler, who studied photography under Ansel Adams, is an award-winning landscape photographer whose work is found in many private and public collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts.

He's worked with children before; but this was his first exposure to children this young and under such unusual circumstances. These aren't rich, spoiled kids. These are kids who need to worry about food and shelter – they don't often indulge in big artistic endeavors.

Nagler offered his best tips: how to frame a subject, where to focus your shot, how to get the best out of your camera. The kids ate it up, Nagler said. They were so pumped up to shoot.

“These kids did an awesome job. They did some really meaningful pictures,” Nagler said. “I've always thought kids see the things adults don't see. They're looking through what I call a child-like vision. They have imagination – the stuff that is snuffed out of you as you grow up.”

Nagler picked out the best from each child. Then, the child was asked to write up what was in the photograph in their own handwriting. Each photo was professional framed along with their narrative.

“See how important chance meetings are?” Wilhelm said. “It boosted the morale of the children, gave them an educational opportunity and helped us inspire the community. … It educates everyone on what homelessness really is. People have an image of the homeless as bums on the street who don't care about themselves or society. This (project) shows just how wrong that is.”

My favorite is from Canaan Thomas – it show two children standing high atop a steep stairway. They look proud, strong, almost defiant. This is the kind of attitude you need to survive such fraught beginnings. They own their world. Beautiful.

Each child gets to keep their camera and got a CD of all their photographs. They'll eventually get their framed work as well -- but there has been additional requests to COTS to show the photos at other venues...which is great for getting the word out about the organization, these kids and their vision.

I would love to fast-forward 15 or 20 years to see if any of these kids become professional photographers, artists or more. It is these chance meetings that change your life.

The final product, finished, framed images, each with a written comment by the child, can be viewed at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center until July 5. The BBAC is located at 1516 S. Cranbrook Road in Birmingham. Details can be found here or by calling COTS at 313-831-3777.

Demetrius Collins

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