Friday, June 1, 2012

My Suburb, My Community


One of several gritty sites captured in My Suburb, My Community      Picture: Cheyne Carter

By Steven Savona

Armed with cameras and a knowledge of their local area, students from Kingswood High School have produced photographs that expose the stark realities of their suburb.

My Suburb, My Community is an exhibition that aims to empower local youth by allowing them to document the issues they face every day.

The project is the brainchild of Mandy Schöne-Salter, a local visual artist who provided the students with cameras and some complimentary tuition, and tasked them with capturing the essence of life in Kingswood.

“I wanted them to give a warts and all portrayal of their suburb through photographs. All too often, teenagers have no connection to anybody outside of their family or peer groups,” she said.

The students delivered, offering representations of multiculturalism, bored youth, and the effects of a declining job market.

Ebony Paranihi of Year 11 considered the project an enlightening way to shatter misconceptions about Kingswood.

“I realised Kingswood’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. Taking photos taught me that Kingswood’s not so bad after all,” she said.

Cheyne Carter, also of Year 11, said the project surprised her in a similar way.

“It wasn't what I expected. Kingswood seems to be a normal, welcoming place for the public. It’s not rundown and horrible like my peers make it out to be,” she said.

Ebony and Cheyne believe youth have a duty to care for and promote their local area.

“The way you treat your area and how well you look after it reflects on the type of people that live in that area. If people see our community in more of a positive light then they won’t be so hesitant to come here,” Ebony said.

                                                                                             Picture: Emma-Leigh Maley
 “Kingswood youth need to create an environment which isn't labelled as a bad area,” Cheyne said.

When asked how it felt to see her work in a public space, Ebony humbly replied “pretty ordinary,” but said the process of taking the photos was far more rewarding.

“I really got to see how Kingswood looked during the night and when it rained. I also got to find new places that I never even knew existed,” she said.

Cheyne was also modest about seeing her work on show, but said her mum was very proud of her.

She said the project gave her a taste for creative control and strengthened her ties with friends.

“Taking the photos was great because I could give people my take on the community. It was also fun to enjoy the experience with my friends,” she said.

Schöne-Salter has worked with disadvantaged young women and preschoolers in the past, but this is her first project involving high school students.

“I really enjoyed working with the students and found it very rewarding. Society seems to think youth don’t care about much, but my experience revealed the opposite,” she said.

“They really wanted to talk about the issues facing Kingswood and share it with anyone willing to listen.”

My Suburb, My Community is backed by RailCorp and is on display at Kingswood railway station.

Schöne-Salter chose this location because it is a prime position to catch the gaze of passing commuters.

She also believes public art at train stations serves a societal function.

“Research has shown that public art at train stations makes commuters feel safer and results in reduced crime rates,” she said.

The project is part of Penrith City Council’s ‘Magnetic Places’ Grants Program, and is funded by the council’s Neighbourhood Renewal Grant.

The program seeks to create invigorating public spaces and meeting places in the Penrith area.

It encompasses three streams: Community Collaborations, Creative Communities and Seeding Initiatives.

My Suburb, My Community belongs to the Creative Communities stream, which entails imaginative collaboration between a range of partners, and encourages innovative concepts.

The project has already been selected as part of the Head On Photo Festival—the world’s second largest photography festival.

Schöne-Salter believes the exhibition has worked because of its fusion of art and activism.

In particular, she advocates the use of ‘photovoice’—the combination of photographs and captions to propel social action.

                                                                                                Picture: Milica Nestorovic

“It’s been used in anti-gambling and anti-alcohol ad campaigns with great success,” she said.

“It is a great way to grab people’s attention and give them a different perspective, in this case an insight into a disadvantaged community group.”

According to Schöne-Salter, Penrith City Council have already expressed interest in a follow-up to My Suburb, My Community.

The exhibition is on display at Kingswood railway station until June 30.

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