Through the lens of a camera, Dion Johnson found his voice. His photos scream. They laugh. They cry. They also freed the 13-year-old, who has seen much of life's ugliness, to do the same.

His black and white photographs, taken during the last 18 months, are part of a new exhibit at the Washington Project for the Arts called "Shooting Back: Photography By and About the Homeless." The exhibit runs through Nov. 3.

The show of works by 50 homeless children grew out of an outreach program involving dozens of professional photographers who teach shelter children photography. Dion was one of the first recruits, joining when his family lived at the Capitol City Inn.

"He's become more outspoken," said his mother, Vanessa. "He's doing better in school. He reads a lot more. I know he's going to kill me for saying this, but he doesn't suck his fingers as much now."

He still is reserved and cautious. "I think Dion's quiet demeanor is a way of surviving, of protecting himself, said his mentor, Lloyd Wolf, a freelance photographer.

Dion nods and shakes his head to most questions. Then he blurts out serious sentences from somewhere deep inside, fed, perhaps, by images he saw in the shelter: fights, drug deals, children who died in a fire.

Photography? "It's better than selling drugs and getting killed," Dion said.

His photos in the project's exhibit are candid snapshots of people at the shelter: A child looking through a scratched and dirty window; friends hanging out in the parking lot; two young girls poised against a graffiti-riddled wall.

Those are his people pictures. Lately, he has turned his Nikon on nature. "He brings in spiders and watches to see what kinds of webs they make," his mother said.

"If I don't mess with them they won't mess with me," he said.

In a way, Dion was inspiration for the "Shooting Back" project. Jim Hubbard, a former United Press International photographer who has photographed the homeless for eight years, said he was in Dion's room at Capitol City Inn when he dreamed up the idea.

Dion's mother "got out a stack of family photos taken by Dion. I could see that Dion was really proud of the pictures, and his mother was proud of him," Hubbard recalled.

So each Saturday, Hubbard organized volunteer photographers to go into shelters in the District and Alexandria to teach. The nonprofit effort grew, and Hubbard opened a center for the project in a row house in Northwest Washington.

The professionals lend the young photographers equipment and offer them tips, but the children choose their own subjects.

"As a kid, {Dion} may see what I may not even notice. He climbed to the top of a swing set to photograph down on the kids swinging," Wolf said. "His work is honest . . . . He isn't like an adult who searches for a particular picture."

These days, Dion's voice is laced with pride and hope. He is eager to show a cardboard box full of his work to a reporter. "I want to go to college and come back to Shooting Back and teach other kids," he said.

He and his mother now live in a row house on Carrollsburg Place in Southwest Washington. It is their second home since leaving the shelter a year ago. Their first, two doors away, was damaged in a fire.

About once a week, Dion and Wolf, a former high school teacher, go out on shooting sessions.

"If I don't call him in a week, he calls me," Wolf said. "He changed my mind about the stereotype of the kid in a shelter. The first time I explained the camera, I said, 'Do you want the easy stuff first or the hard stuff?' He said, 'Let's start with the hard stuff.' "

And when Dion's mother couldn't pay her bills one month, "He didn't ask for money, he asked me, 'Can you get me work?' "

Wolf said working with Dion has enhanced his own perspective. "I like his pictures. He sees things I wouldn't see."

But there are also things Dion will not photograph. "He wants to leave the bad stuff behind, shut it out and move on," Wolf said. "He isn't interested in the guys on the corner with their liquor bottles. I asked him to photograph his old house after the fire. He said, 'No. It's too sad.' "