A SHIRTLESS boy on the hood of a car hugs his baby brother. Two girls lean against a wall splattered with graffiti. A family in an alley poses near a dumpster.

These are all part of a collection of images captured by the quick-trigger fingers of homeless children whose works are now being shown at the Washington Project for the Arts.

The exhibit consists of dozens of black and white photographs depicting shelter life in the Washington area. America's homeless have been viewed through camera lenses for years, but never quite like this.

It's a culmination of a project called "Shooting Back," which photographer Jim Hubbard began nearly two years ago to discover how homeless children perceive their world.

He handed a group of kids cameras at weekly workshops and then let them roam for pictures. The result is a documentary of homelessness that would be difficult for an outsider to achieve. Some of the shots are accidental, some spontaneous, while others are detailed portraits of homeless families.

The show varies from cheerful snapshots of childhood to the bleak reality of transient lives. There are children with hula hoops and basketballs, children diving into pools, holding trophies, flexing muscles and sniffing flowers. But along with that playful innocence are more disturbing images.

In one photograph, a child in a playground jumps on a battered mattress as if it were a trampoline. Other images include a girl swinging from a railroad box car and a boy exploring train tracks in the snow.

In some cases, the children have just aimed their cameras at whatever caught their eye: a tattered suitcase stuffed with shoes, the charred remnants of a hotel room fire, a rat lying dead next to a Yoo-Hoo bottle, a shattered window, even the rear end of a police officer.

Professional photographers coached the children all through the project, but simply placing the camera in the kids' hands brought a unique perspective to the subjects. Some of the photographs are shot from odd angles and strange positions. One 11-year-old boy climbed a swingset and hung from his feet to snap a picture.

Feats like that distinguish the children's show from the works of adult documentary photographers, whose work is also displayed in the gallery. At the show's opening, Hubbard pointed to a girl's face buried in her mother's thighs. It's an intimate image, an example of what the professionals often can't get when photographing shelter life. "This is what we as adults would like to achieve," Hubbard said.

SHOOTING BACK: Photography by and About the Homeless -- Through Nov. 3 at the Washington Project for the Arts, 400 Seventh St. NW. 347-4813. Open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Friday and 11 to 5 Saturday. Call ahead for wheelchair access.