Profile of VisionWorkshops Founder Kirsten Elstner

What gave you the idea to start VisionWorkshops?

Before I founded VisionWorkshops I was working as a photographer with The New York Times and the International Red Cross. I got the idea to put the camera in the hands of the youth who were the subject of our photographs so that they could tell the story from their perspectives.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat have you learned about running a nonprofit these past twelve years?

It’s so important to have passion and to love what you do. When I was working as a photographer it felt great to have my photos published, but it never felt impactful enough for me personally to drive me to want to do it every day. When I started VisionWorkshops I felt like I had a chance to really go out and do something meaningful, which is why I love the work so much.

As a photographer I also had to learn a lot about the logistics of running a nonprofit. I had to learn how to manage the finances, to get funding, and to connect with the wide variety of agencies and organizations we partner with. This was definitely a learning curve, but the work that I do with the students definitely makes it worth it.

What has it taught you about photography?

Kids can take amazing photographs because they have a fresh eye. I quickly learned that that even without technical training, these students are capable of taking great photographs because of their individual perspectives and imagination. It is so cool to see the way that they approach photography, because each student sees things in such a unique way. Their energy is inspiring.

What have you learned as a person?

To be flexible and to not worry so much about my career and how everything else will turn out. I have learned to put my best effort into everything I do and to try and make the world a better place in my own, small way through the work that I do. If I can focus on that, things will all work out as they should.

What gives you the drive to keep trying to expand the program and find new communities to serve?

I think we have to do what we can to make a difference. When I was working for the New York Times, the mantra a co-worker and I adopted was “Work Smart,” because we felt that we had to squeeze all that we could into each day to meet the deadlines. This later changed to “Be Impactful,” when I realized that I will only be around for so long, so I should try to create as positive an influence as I can in that time. Photography is what I know, so I try to use that skill to teach others and impact them through it.

Some of my most rewarding moments come when I’m reading the students’ evaluations at the end of a camp, and they say that the program has given them self-confidence, or helped them with their language skills, or made them understand what it means to tell their own stories. Whenever kids tell me that the program has changed their lives and made them more curious about the world, it gives me all the motivation I need to continue working on the program.

Why teach photography? What are the benefits of teaching students that art as opposed to something else?

It enables the students to tell their own story. Anyone can pick up a camera and start shooting. I think that this makes photography one of the most democratic arts. It’s a fully visual medium, so it allows our students to communicate without words. This allows a lot of our English as a Second Language students to share their experience with others without the normal communication barriers they face at school.

We also have the students do a lot of writing within our programs, using the photos they made as the catalyst for written expression. They might make a portrait of someone they admire, and then write a letter to the person, for example. Often their teachers will tell us that our workshops help students who are struggling to express themselves verbally.

What is your favorite memory from the program?

We did a workshop at a Marine Sanctuary in California with both American and Middle Eastern teenagers. During a discussion we asked the students what they had learned. One student raised his hand and said, “I learned that not everyone will hate me because I am Muslim and from the Middle East.” Another student from inner city Los Angeles smiled and said half jokingly, “I used to think all you guys were terrorists!” They talked about how through the camp they had learned to work together and that they had so much more in common than they realized. They both wanted to get a solid education, make a good life for themselves, and care for their families. I loved the way that through something as simple as teaching kids photography we can break down a lot of cultural barriers our students face and leave them more knowledgeable about the world around them. They work together to create a story – a photography workshop is such a powerful way to bring people together.

Why do you work with so many English as a Second Language Students?

I often seek out projects that benefit young refugees and new arrivals to the U.S. Working with these kids is just where my heart is. I have seen over the years that the types of programs we do, and the photo workshop concept in general, can truly help a young person connect to his/her community, can make a positive impact on that person and community. I remember a workshop we did with Burmese refugee teens in Baltimore. As one of the students watched the final multimedia piece they had produced (with their photos and audio of them speaking about their journey stories), this students said, “I feel so much more confident with my English now!” After hearing himself in the final video, that’s what he got out of it. You never know exactly how what you’re doing is going to help someone, you just have to have faith that it will and continue moving forward.

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