Santa Clara University

Pictures Worth More Than 1,000 Words

John Beochan and Megan Raimondi
John Beouchan and SCU senior Megan Raimondi flip through a family album at Community Homeless Alliance Ministry in San Jose. In December 2006, Renee Billingslea's photography students collected photos in albums to give to the displaced families who had posed for pictures during the portrait day.

"My decision to work at Santa Clara University was greatly influenced by the mission of the University and its interest in community building, which includes community-based learning," says Renee Billingslea, an instructor of studio art. "I knew at some point I wanted to create a course that would include volunteering or connecting with our community."

Her course, Exploring Society through Photography, does just that. Her students learn not only photographic techniques, but also the ethics behind making an image, and about bringing awareness and change.

The students also worked at local homeless shelters to gain a better understanding of the people the shelters serve. These elements were preparation for a "portrait day" at Community Homeless Alliance Ministry shelter, coordinated with help from San Francisco's Sixth Street Photography Workshop. The students took portraits of families who live in this shelter; these photos were also part of an exhibit at the de Saisset Museum at SCU.

"Renee and I wanted to do something local to complement the [Sixth Street Photography] exhibition," says Karen Kienzle, curator at the de Saisset. "The exhibition—and the work of this important San Francisco-based organization—highlights the power of art to create real benefits in the community. The local student component does the same, but also reminds us that homelessness is all around us, even in our very backyard."

Each student selected three images that they would like included in the show. Billingslea and Kienzle made the final selection from those images.

"It provides so many wonderful benefits," Kienzle says. "The homeless community will be receiving professional quality portraits, the students were able to practice their art while serving the community and they'll have the resulting images displayed in a professional museum context, and the museum will showcase these images for the larger community. Win, win, win."

The program was highlighted in an article that ran in the Christian Science Monitor in November 2006. Leyna Roget, a senior, told the Monitor that she realized during this project how much she takes family photos for granted and wants visitors to the exhibit to think about homelessness in a new way. "People see homelessness as a strange kind of thing. You hope [this brings out] the happiness in the family interaction, the normalcy of it all," she says in the article, adding that she hopes it prompts questions about society.

"It seems that as individuals, we often feel helpless when it comes to our homeless population," Billingslea says. "What can we do? Because of the CBL component of this course, we have all learned that by giving time and talking with those living in shelters and on the streets, we break down barriers and learn that these folks aren't that much different than ourselves. We can work to empower each other through listening and talking."