What do you do in a country that is obsessed with identity and its political manipulation, but actually offers few coherent vehicles to discover it, claim it and express it in a healthy way?
This is a collaboration piece originally published for Bittersweet Monthly.
One organization in New York City is trying to provide an answer to this question through art, community and the offer of lifelong relationship. NYC Salt invites high school students into a two-and-a-half-year-long photography program that is at once family and school, bridge and launchpad. The students hail from neighborhoods that don’t typically get an artistic hearing, at least not for a livable wage: Hell’s Kitchen and parts of Queens, the south Bronx and Brownsville.
“NYC Salt has become the heartbeat of a larger community,” says Alicia Hansen, who founded the organization in 2008 and is a decorated photographer in her own right. “It’s a tragedy that there’s so much talent out there that isn’t being tapped into. We are losing out by not investing in that talent … You never know who’s going to solve the next disease.”
It’s not just pragmatics, but heart. Walk into the Salt studio two blocks from Penn Station, and you’re immediately softened by smiles and scented candles. It feels like home, a bowl of Granny Smith’s resting on the counter amid scads of natural light. The staff whirs away with chipper purpose, their ease with newcomers palpable. Strangers are clearly welcome here, strangers who won’t be strangers – to others or themselves – for long.
Founder of NYC Salt, Alicia Hansen, and her husband, surrounded by some of the program’s first graduates, most of whom grew up in the nearby Washington Heights neighborhood.
Photographed by Jake Rutherford
“I was originally inspired by the film, Born into Brothels,” Alicia says. An Academy Award-winning documentary made in 2004, it features Kolkata’s red light district from the eyes of the prostitutes’ children. “The kids in that film wound up being interested in the camera itself … and before the producers knew it, they had started a school for these young girls.”
So Alicia attempted something similar in 2005, not sure if it would take in New York City. The first class she offered, high schoolers surprised her by showing up every week. “You can always tell those who really want it,” she says. “These kids had hunger.” She decided to grow it into a full-fledged non-profit.
“The demographics of this profession historically have been white men,” Alicia says. But how does one flood the top tier of the industry with different ways of seeing and being seen?
Using her strong production skills and the scrappy fearlessness every artist in New York City has to develop to survive, Alicia began building Salt. “There was nobody involved that had a depth and breadth of nonprofit knowledge,” Alicia says. “We just made our way.” She likens it to photographing a complex multimedia story. “You’re basically just taking one large problem and breaking it down into smaller problems to solve day by day.” And solve they do.
The NYC Salt program boasts a remarkable success rate: 100 percent of Salt graduates earn a high school diploma and are accepted into college, many of them (86 percent, to be exact) first-generation. Students have won scholarships and prestigious awards and ranked in the top photography portfolios in the country.
“We make two requirements of our students,” says Alicia. “Showing up, and engaging in the work.” She and her colleagues put a lot of time and energy into making it fun: Field trips, pizza dinners, state-of-the-art equipment that they can use off-site. Classes start in September and go through June. Most classes meet once a week for three hours each, with some of the more advanced classes meeting two evenings a week. Teachers come in from careers at The New York Times, National Geographic, and Fortune Magazine, to name just a few. All credit Salt for giving their skills fresh purpose, to say nothing of a demographic learning curve.
“There’s a level of trauma where our kids come from that kids from more Caucasian families don’t understand,” says Alicia. “Our kids often don’t have food at their home tables. They live in unsafe neighborhoods. They’re surrounded by people who do awful things to each other.”
“How to train up a generation that’s coming from these kinds of contexts?” she asks. “It takes a lot of sacrifice. You just have to take the time to invest in people from diverse cultural backgrounds.”
Salt takes a highly individualized approach with each student, requiring at minimum two-and-a-half years. A major part of Alicia’s goal is to get kids to take ownership of their lives, to find their agency and use it well. “As teens you’re just getting to know yourself: Who am I? Photography is just the starting point.” It is the gateway to explore one’s interior landscape and follow the breadcrumbs to a public mission.
“Philanthropic foundations think too often in short-term increments of impact,” says Alicia. “We cultivate a lifelong relationship, to the extent our students want it. The only way for there to be long-term significant change in poverty is for there to be long-term relationships that go very deep.”
Salt has developed an extensive alumni network that still contributes to Salt shows, mentors Salt students, and, for many, serves as a crucial form of family. When Alicia is pitched a gig, she regularly hands them off to alumni. “Salt is community,” she says simply. “We celebrate the life milestones: Quiceañeras, college graduations, marriages, babies.”
Photo by Devin Osorio
Devin, who started with the first Salt class in 2008 and now works in the studio as a full-time staffer, has known Alicia since he was in 6th grade. Alicia looks over at him replenishing the apple bowl, some wistful nostalgia in her eyes. “We’ve kind of seen it all,” she says.
Embracing the Crossroads
Born and raised by Egyptian parents in Kips Bay, NY, Rami Abouemira had always felt some detachment from his roots. “The school system was not for me,” he reflects. “I had behavior issues, insecurities, my parents divorced.” High school was a roving sea of disconnection and experimentation.
“Growing up,” says Rami, “there was a lot of Arab and Muslim influence in my life, but it never spoke to me on a deep, ‘this is my community’ level. I was just placed there. I spoke the language, but culturally there was nothing. I didn’t feel connected.” Relatives called him ‘whitewash.’ His friends at school were all non-Arabs and couldn’t relate.
“I was terribly bullied in middle school,” says Rami. “Kids used to call me ‘terrorist.’”
“I was not in touch with who I wanted to be as a person,” he says. “I had terrible anxiety problems and went to a therapist for years. I used to be really harsh on myself.”
A failed romance and his parent’s divorce left Rami excavating his interior landscape. “I was having a huge amount of cognitive dissonance about my own experience, my own decisions. I didn’t understand why I was doing the things I was doing. Where are the motivations coming from?” He began to realize how disconnected he was from his identity as an American Muslim Egyptian. “I didn’t really know what it meant to be me. I never looked at my life holistically because I was afraid to. I didn’t understand my childhood.”
Salt’s photography program introduced him to ‘more tangible tools’ that enabled him to explore the duality of his Egyptian heritage and the experience of American youth. The camera lens awakened him to hybrid identities embodied by others around him; he realized he wasn’t the only one carrying one DNA while being shaped by another.
“It’s not just the Muslim community that feels alienated,” Rami says. “It’s any first-generation kid. You feel so alone, but in your loneliness, you start to realize that other people feel lonely, and that then breeds community.”
Rami realized he’d been unwilling to embrace the both/and’s of his existence, nor had he been equipped to nurture them. “If I want to take the two paths of all that’s shaped me and make them one, then I have to do serious work on myself. Like super inner work.”
“Growing up having no positive image of masculinity left me aimless. So now I’m representing Muslim masculinity in an abstract way. I am hearing stories of Muslims that are not the norm and spreading them to the community so that maybe someone who’s younger is listening to it will think, ‘Oh, that sounds like me, I’m not alone,’ because maybe that’s how I felt when I was growing up.” / Rami Abouemira
Rami started a podcast called “Translating Muslims” and produced a video called “Identify Yourself.” He’s working by day in HR. And he’s now leading a New York chapter of men who meet regularly to dissect what modern Muslim masculinity is and how they might appropriately express it.
Rami says he feels like a totally different person than he was five years ago. “I’ve gone places I wouldn’t go because I have a camera in hand,” he explains. “It changed my perspective on everything. I now feel like a much more balanced version of myself. And because of that, it became strangely easy to connect with the community that I should have always been part of.”
Craft Before Mission
Fellow alum Christian Rodriguez also participated in the early days of Salt. “It was a different place when I was in the program,” says Christian, who graduated from Salt in 2012. “There weren’t people from the outside interviewing me. There wasn’t ACT prep. Kathy Ryan [a celebrated photo editor for New York Times Magazine] wasn’t walking into the building.”
“I understand that it’s now a career move to be in the Salt program,” he says appreciatively, “but at the time I went, it was a hobby, and I didn’t know that I was going to end up doing it for my life.”
Christian hustles as a freelance photographer, driving from gig to gig in an orange Vespa and wearing a handmade poncho from Oaxaca. He’s salty with a flair for the shocking sentence, but most of his clients are wealthy individuals who need a photographer for events. He earned his BFA in Photography from SCAD and refuses to be precious about this: “If it’s paying well, I’ll do it. If it’s not, then I’ll say no.”
It’s fascinating to watch students who came of age around the same time jockeying for wins amidst the attenuated moral landscape that is America 2019. Christian, for instance, may not be conceiving of his photography work as a missional vehicle for a particular political stance, especially at a stage of his career when he needs to establish credibility, but his craft is no less personal.
“I spent most summers in the Dominican Republic, visiting my grandmother and other family. During one of these trips, I learned my cousin Leo received a visa and would be leaving, not just his home, but his mother as well. Her visa wasn’t approved until a later time. This was the moment Leo said goodbye to everyone. His mother was in tears all day. They headed to the airport where she would say ‘bye’ for the first time, not knowing the next time she would see him. This became an opportunity to document a universal process, one that is painful, scary, and extremely courageous.” / Christian Rodriguez
When he first left New York, Christian says, “I started really missing all of the complexity and difficulty you experience in this city. Something was so disconcerting to me … I started missing my father in his own dysfunctional way. I was like man, I really just miss … something about the energy of here. I began to be interested in photographing my family at that point.”
You see this complexity lurking just beneath the surface of the entire Salt community – present students and alumni, both. It’s instructive to see the cultural and moral pluralism, the varying perspectives and motives, all working themselves out through the process of artistic collaboration and workshop critique, less outraged tweets or, healthier, a collective engagement with one worldview.
Ayman Siam is a Salt student whose experience in the program led him to start a photography club at his STEM-centered high school, Brooklyn Tech. His hope was to encourage his engineering-minded peers to widen their aperture (literally!) to a more artistic appreciation of the mysteries numbers can’t fully explain.
“Each helps the other,” he says. “Engineering is really disciplined, and each good photo is composed of discrete elements. Similarly, for engineering, you need to explain and communicate clearly with other people, and that way photography helps. I feel they go hand in hand.”
He came to New York from Bangladesh when he was 13 years old, adjusting on the fly to every shock of a radically different culture. His father, who became a taxi driver upon emigrating after a career in business management back in the homeland, hoped Ayman might study the practical sciences. Ayman was dutiful, but felt hard definitions couldn’t explain all that he was experiencing in the gap between worlds. Salt’s photography program gave him a visual language for his own evolution, and tools to build bridges.
Photos by Ayman Siam
“What I’m often trying to do with my photography is break down the stereotypes that a lot of Asian communities have,” he says. He wants to help his parents and that generation navigate an America that often seems to threaten values from another place and time. Cultivating an opposable mind through the right-left brain meld of art and engineering could be a way.
The Lens as Voice
For Salt alum Julia*, photography is not a career, but rather a lens through which to explore the world, and occasionally make a statement. Julia’s father has been deported three times. Originally from Honduras, he came with his family when Julia’s mother was pregnant with her. For years, she and her siblings have lived with the fear of losing him, which has indeed come true. Thrice.
She recently returned from her own trip to Mexico to see members of her dad’s family who he himself hasn’t seen in 15 years. Emotions are close to the surface as she showcases a draft of her final project to fellow Salt alumni in a workshop intended to perfect photographs before the long-anticipated annual exhibit. She speaks with a fragility and tenderness that catches a chord.
“My dad,” she says with carefully concealed pain, “he’s one of the most amazing people I have ever known.”
One by one, she lays out the photos that will appear in her final Salt exhibit. They’re profound in their simplicity: four images from the family’s life together – life milestones not unlike those that Salt celebrates with its students: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, a picnic. But then there’s a haunting curiosity: newspaper clippings where there should be a face – her father’s.
“I think carefully about what articles I’m using,” Julia says. “It’s not just picking any article. It’s about being very specific about what has to do with me and what I’ve been through … My hope is that people can relate to these universal moments. Like, ‘Oh yeah, I have a photo like that, you know, this was my birthday.’”
Julia points out that there are a lot of false statements and misconceptions about immigrants in today’s political discourse. “We’re giving back to the community every day,” she counters softly.
It took her a long time to get to this moment. “I kind of knew for a really long time this was something that I wanted to talk about,” she says of the family’s unwanted relationship with deportation. “I was just … it’s hard. I never felt like I had a way to do it and I never knew how far I could go. And feeling like … I wanted to do it right and being a little of a perfectionist. I kept stopping myself from doing something that I felt maybe somebody else could do better.”
But Salt’s support combined with the increasingly heightened immigration rhetoric pushed her past the fear hurdle. “I needed to start somewhere because, well, you never really know when your time is going to come,” she says. “And I knew that if I didn’t start now, I’d never learn to get it right.”
Alicia and fellow Salt students gave her feedback and critique. Criticism was hard to take at first – the project was pregnant with her own scars of growing up the daughter of an undocumented man. But she was encouraged to weave her dad and mom into the process.
“I wasn’t sure if they were going to understand it, or if they were going to feel like I saw them in the wrong light,” she says. But she took courage and went ahead anyway.
Today, mere days before the public exhibit, Julia’s dad’s eyes gleam with pride toward his daughter.
“Looking at these photos,” he says softly by her side, “I can remember each occasion. Every detail.”
“Seeing this is a reminder of how much I’ve accomplished. I’m not a victim of DACA. It’s been a blessing to be in America. I know I’ve not been a weight on the country. God has given me the strength to be able to support my family.”
A shadow crosses his eyes as he looks down once more at Julia’s project. “It does feel, though, looking at these, like I’m enclosed in a room where I’m screaming but nobody can hear me.”
His daughter’s project is a chance to lend visibility to his life and all that has made it meaningful, even as he has helped create such meaning for others. Each photo gives voice, to Julia, her father and the untold stories around her.
Negotiating the Gap
Sari has been mentoring students with NYC Salt since 2007. “My mom was diagnosed with cancer,” says Sari. In the wake of this devastating news, she began to re-evaluate her life. “I need to be teaching or mentoring,” she thought.
Shortly thereafter, Sari met Alicia and the Salt community, and 12 years later, she is still mentoring aspiring youth, in the art of both photography and life.
Mentorship is a major piece of the Salt process, and the relationships continue on through college and into adulthood. Sari says these transition points are particularly critical: “It is so hard for anybody to transition, but even harder if you don’t have that history in your family of having gone to college and the support from your parents who know what you are going through.”
In 2011, Sari was paired with a 15-year-old girl named Nora. “Oh my gosh, Sari is everything!” says Nora. “She took me under her wing when I was this super shy, sheltered, scared teen and taught me to build my own confidence, encouraged me to ask strangers if I could photograph them, to give a speech at a gallery show where I left the stage almost in tears, but those moments helped shape me.”
Nora remembers what it was like to have someone there to walk her through the college application process. “Sari helped me draft my statements, helped me understand the student loan process, and to this day is my support.”
“It never really ends,” Nora says of that support and the NYC Salt community. “Sari has been there through everything and no matter how much time passes or where I live or the mistakes I’ve made, she’s always held it down. She’s like the big sister I never had and if it weren’t for her I wouldn’t have grown in the ways I did. I am extremely grateful for her love and friendship.”
“This was shot for a project through Manfrotto that focused on movement. New York has never been known to be a place of calm, but occasionally you’ll catch moments of silence within the noise. This moment was exactly that – the unnoticed in the midst of all the chaos. This image is representative of how photography allows me to connect. By paying close attention, I am able to relate and see those around me. We’re all just as complex as the lives we live; sometimes we forget that we’re not alone in that.” / Nora Molina
It is telling that everyone who participates talks about Salt as a family – not a program – one where alumni want to give back and stay involved. “I want to come back as I go to college to help other people,” Ayman says, echoing other students. “Salt continues to be the backbone motivating me to be the best I can be.”
The students and alumni who have participated in the program are now making their mark on the world in unique ways, but all give credit to the skills and safe space that Salt provided.
For current student Andrew, photography and the Salt experience have served as a way to connect with both himself and others in the city. It has created moments of healing.
In an era where young people in particular have few handholds to discern their purpose, NYC Salt is proving that it’s in an accountable community of lens sharpening lens that you find crystallized meaning and self-understanding. Each student has ownership over their own personal interests and artistic development. Instead of focusing on one type of photography, Salt allows students to explore the prismatic possibilities of the craft and its intersection with other mediums. Most importantly, the familial ambience allows for honesty and cross-cultural exchange, rich mentoring relationships and diversity of thought and approach.
Whether philanthropy will see the benefit of a program that puts long-term relationships at the core of its mission remains to be seen. But if art is one of the few things left that might clarify and not obfuscate, unite and not divide, we should be all in on its communal expression.
“We are all cities within ourselves. There are times we get caught up in the midst of the craziness that comes our way, and things get overwhelming. Sometimes we just need to be comfortable in our own solitude. Just like you and me, each person in these photographs seemed to be seeking peace, if only for a few seconds. That’s what makes this project especially beautiful to me because just like them, I need space and time to myself to heal. A single body seeking invisibility even, if only for a little while, to charge up and heal these invisible cities carried around throughout New York City.” / Andrew Morocho
* Julia’s name has been changed to protect the identity of her and her family.
This is a collaboration piece originally published for Bittersweet Monthly in September of 2019. Anne worked with Bittersweet editor Amanda Lahr, photographer Jake Rutherford, filmmaker Brandon Bray and film editor Jay Salbert. The title image was taken by NYC Salt alum, Stella Estrella.