Fifteen-year-old Michael Valenzuela’s eyes shone in disbelief as he stared up at the wall of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
There, displayed in the entry hall of one of the most prestigious art museums in the United States, were his photos — and his story.
Fighting tears, Michael’s older sister and legal guardian, Marcy Valenzuela, wrapped him in her arms as she marveled at his art. “I’m so proud of you, Michael,” she said through his teasing rebuffs.
Michael has just completed the inaugural run of Unshuttered, an eight-week photography course for L.A. teens. His work, along with the photos taken by his peers in the program, will be on display at the Getty throughout the summer.
This is the first time in the Getty’s 20-year history that it is displaying student work, and the exhibit has a place of honor in the entry hall.
“Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum will be introduced to your work first,” Getty assistant director Lisa Clements told the students at the exhibit’s debut last month.
Art with a Purpose
The goal of Unshuttered was to develop a program that valued social justice as much as the advancement of the arts. The 23 participants were recruited from community organizations that partner with the Getty, including California Youth Connection, a nonprofit that advocates for the needs of youth in foster care.
While a few of the students had a background in arts and photography, most of them were selected because of their interest in effecting social change and unique perspective on a particular issue.
“The whole program was kind of built on their own social narrative,” Clements said.
During the course, participants spent their Saturdays at the Getty learning new techniques and practicing their skills. Each day was focused on a different tenet of photography — angles, focus, lighting — and at the end of each lesson, the teens were set loose to capture an image exemplifying that day’s teachings.
In conjunction with the course, the Getty launched a free Unshuttered app, which is billed as a photo community for teens offering pro tips and photo challenges to help users enhance their photography practice. Launched in late April, the app has already garnered 15,000 users.
The program participants act as ambassadors for the wider Unshuttered community. Several of them, Michael included, created videos for the app that explain some of the crucial components to taking a good photo. Already, the videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
‘Developing Their Lens’
For Michael, who has spent much of his life in the foster care system, photography is more than just a way to capture memories or garner likes on social media — it is also a tool to reframe his own story.
Michael is passionate about showing foster youth in a new light. He said that often some people he meets hold certain assumptions about him because of his foster status: they expect him to be troubled, disrespectful, disobedient.
Michael wants to use his photography to help people see past the “foster youth” label to gain a better understanding of the vibrant individuals who are so often overshadowed by statistics.
“I totally want to show people that aren’t aware of all this that we are human, that we just have a lot of trauma and that kind of gives off the idea of all these negative ideas,” Michael said. “But there’s nothing wrong with us. We just have different ideas on life because of the things that we’ve gone through.”
Michael’s older sister Marcy, who became his legal guardian after she aged out of foster care herself, surprised him by enrolling him in the Getty course.
“She likes to sign me up for things so I can be exposed to different things before I get older,” he explained. He’s been taking photos for about five years. He purchased his first point-and-shoot camera from a foster sister for $25 when he was 10, but this program was his first opportunity for professional photography education.
“One thing that I took away from the program was how we control what the viewers see,” Michael said. “We completely have control of our perspective, so if we take pictures in a certain lighting, it gives a different story. I think that was the best information and best advice that I got from the program: How we, the photographers, can show the viewer what our story is.”
Learning and growing through the program, and connecting with fellow photographers along the way, whetted Michael’s appetite for the art. He hopes to study photography in college and turn it into a career.
While his goal is to shed new light on the lives of youth in the foster care system, Michael also thinks photography can be a powerful and cathartic hobby for other foster youth searching for an outlet.
“By telling our story, we want to empower other people, not get sorrow. I want to encourage other foster youth to spread their story, not for pity, but for change,” he said.
Thanks to funding from Genesis Motors, Unshuttered will welcome a new cohort of students next year.
“We believe very simply at Genesis that when kids are inspired, they can create,” said Zafar Brooks, director of corporate responsibility for Genesis’ parent company, Hyundai. “We want kids to be able to express themselves through art about the would as they saw it – not as it was, but as they saw it.”
And with its successful rollout, Unshuttered has spawned a number of programs the Getty now offers to L.A.’s teens, thanks in part to funding from the Annenberg Foundation’s GRoW initiative. While most of the programs are open to all teens, many were designed particularly to appeal to and serve teens in care.
One such offering is a teen photography internship developed through a partnership with New Villages Academy, an all-girls charter school on the campus of St. Anne’s, a group home that serves predominately pregnant and parenting foster teens. Through this paid internship, students worked with a curator and professional photographers to develop a personal narrative with their photos. Their work culminated in an exhibit that is on display at the New Villages Academy through the end of July.
This summer, the museum is also running a student gallery guide program where youth learn how to help museumgoers understand one particular piece of art at the museum. Students pick a work that speaks to them and learn how to discuss that work with patrons. Most of the student guides are alumni of Unshuttered or the Getty’s other teen programs.
Clements shared a powerful anecdote that neatly exemplified the power these programs can have in the lives of young people.
One participant in the New Villages internship asked a stranger for permission to take her photo. When the prospective subject learned that the shot was for a Getty internship, she responded with awe: “Am I really important enough to be in the Getty?”
The photographer responded, “We both are.”
The next cohort of Unshuttered students will be selected later this fall. To learn more about the program, visit here.