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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Phabulous Photographers: The Gift of Time and Teaching

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The gentler term is "people with developmental differences." Social worker Julia Mack notes that this includes disabilities such as mental retardation and Down syndrome.

As executive director of Potomac Community Resources in Potomac, Md., Mack, a 44-year-old native New Yorker, has led her nonprofit, nonsectarian group in seeking ways for the disabled to enrich their lives. So it was nearly three years ago that an idea hit her when she spoke to the mother of a disabled girl who wanted to enroll her daughter in the program.

"Tell me about the kid," Mack asked with a New Yorker's bluntness.

"Well, she likes taking pictures," the mother responded, "but she has no outlet. She can't go to camera clubs or courses..."

Recalling that time, Mack said she thought how terrific it would be if she could get community people who loved photography to teach an informal, low-impact, course that would enable people with retardation and Down syndrome to learn how to take better pictures.

First she called the folks at a local camera store and asked if they had a bulletin board listing area camera clubs. They did, and gave her the number of the North Bethesda Camera Club. That, in turn, led to club president Ross Emerson, a retired National Geographic cartographer and part-time senior softball player.

"Call Joe," Emerson told Mack.

"Joe" was Joe Razza, a retired magazine editor, who, Mack now says with a laugh, "probably has a hard time saying no to anyone."

He is a beefy, bearded guy with a gravelly voice who probably would have made a pretty good Santa Claus if Santa came from Brooklyn. Razza told Mack that he had taught photography to elementary school kids, high schoolers – even elderly folks – but never had taught the disabled. He was game to try, though, and put together what turned into a six-week course in basic photography that was an immediate hit.

The success of the first course convinced Mack to see the program continue in some form. With continuing support from other members of the North Bethesda Camera Club, Joe and his colleagues turned the initial course into an ongoing camera club that would meet every month.

Thus was born the Phabulous Photographers, now one of more than a dozen programs offered by Potomac Community Resources to better integrate people with disabilities into their community.

I had my first exposure to this singular group of shooters a few weeks ago. Initially, I thought I might just sit in, take a few notes as Joe and his fellow photographers taught. But one thing led to another, as often happens when I deal with Joe, and so I wound up being the main attraction one evening, giving an abbreviated version of my location lighting slide show.

What apprehension I may have felt about getting too technical, or boring my audience, evaporated in the first five minutes. Rarely have I lectured to a more receptive, or kinder, crowd. I was delighted, too, to see the photographs that the club members brought with them, for critique and review. The work ran the gamut from panorama landscapes to Polaroid close-ups. What anyone lacked in technical expertise he or she made up for with enthusiasm. And it certainly made me feel good to have my own work greeted with comments like "that's so cool," or "awesome!"

Our crowd that night numbered about 20 amateur photographers, not counting accompanying family or caregivers. Besides Joe, the North Bethesda Camera Club volunteers included Ross Emerson, Joel Hoffman, Ron Dietrich, Judy Switt and Cecil Torrico. And everyone participated, taking part in the often-boisterous give and take about what made a particular photo work or not.

The Phabulous Photographers are predominantly young adults, and Joe and his colleagues have gone to some lengths to make the monthly hour-long meetings interesting. Once a pet shop owner brought a few exotic animals to be photographed. "Then one time," Joe recalled, "we went to the Nature Center [a wildlife rehabilitation refuge] and a person took out the damaged birds. We shot hawks and owls."

NBCC members have brought in their own photographic lights and backdrops in order to teach a still life class. There also were hints on how to make better portraits.

Monthly assignments to program participants can be as straightforward as photographing "texture" or as challenging as making a picture story of a common event like preparing and serving dinner.

The folks in the NBCC "have been such a godsend," Julia Mack noted with feeling. With the help of their new volunteer teachers, people in the Phabulous Photographers program "literally view the world through a whole new set of lenses."

For his part, Joe Razza echoes many who volunteer, noting that he and his friends get out much more than they put in.

And the community appreciates it. Last year, Joe and the North Bethesda Camera Club were presented the annual Patricia Sullivan Award for volunteer community service at the Potomac Community Resources fifth annual dinner. Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan presented the award and Maryland state Sen. Jean Roesser presented a Senate resolution honoring the club for its work with PCR.

At this writing, services such as this, for photographers with disabilities, appear to be rare. I only can say from my own rewarding, if limited, experience that the model of Phabulous Photographers is one that can and should be copied all over the country.

For more information, contact Julia Mack, Potomac Community Resources, 9200 Kentsdale Drive, Potomac, Md. 20854. Tel: 301-365-0561. E-mail: pcrhello@earthlink.net

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
North Bethesda Camera Club photographer Cecil Torrico, left, offers his expertise to student during meeting of Phabulous Photographers in Potomac, Md.

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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