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'Our Lens, Our Voice' seeks to address youth criminal justice through art

Headshot of poet Soteria Shepperson, one of the two leaders of the "Our Lens, Our Voice" photography and poetry project. Photo courtesy of Shepperson.

Two artists created a photography and poetry project called "Our Lens, Our Voice" to reframe the narratives of justice-impacted youth in Orange County. 

Beginning Oct. 1, the project will take 10 applicants aged 14 to 17 to reframe their stories through a series of photos and spoken word. The project is presented by the Orange County Arts Commission and Criminal Justice Resource Department, with support from the Fund for Southern Communities. 

Soteria Shepperson, a poet and the manager of coffee shop Johnny’s Gone Fishing, and Emily Baxter, a photographer and the founding director of We Are All Criminals, will be leading the project.

Working with Baxter and Shepperson, the group will receive polaroid cameras and a roll of film with the intention to shoot meaningful images or self-portraits of themselves throughout October. The teens will also create a form of spoken word either in print or audio. 

At the end of the month, after three sessions, Baxter and Shepperson said they plan to display photos of the participants with their work throughout the halls of the Orange County Courthouse.

“So much of what happens to people in the criminal justice systems is a flattening of narrative, and often dehumanization and defamation of character,” Baxter said. “But spoken word for Soteria, and photography for me, we both believe are two incredibly powerful ways of singing identity back into the body.” 

After reading a Smithsonian Magazine article on New York diversion programs offering low-level offenders art classes instead of court, Caitlin Fenhagen, the director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, said she decided Orange County could use a similar program.

“The experience for these people who were on probation was eye-opening, so I started thinking, ‘You know, we’ve got to do something like this here,’” Fenhagen said. 

So Fenhagen approached Orange County Arts Commission Director Katie Murray, and the two assembled a team to execute their idea.

Fenhagen and Murray said they hope to build more diversion projects like "Our Lens, Our Voice" in the future — but for now, the directors are letting Baxter and Shepperson take the reins of the October event.  

“For about two-and-a-half years, I did speaking at the (Orange County) men's prison,” Shepperson said. “I just used poetry to really connect with the guys on a different level, which really changed my life.”

Beyond "Our Lens, Our Voice," Shepperson presents other projects through her "artivism" and community outreach platform, I Am Soteria.

Shepperson, who is also the daughter of a formerly incarcerated person, said she understands the importance of lessons in alternative emotional expression. Three years ago, she said her therapist introduced her to the emotion wheel, which allowed her to express her emotions in a way she hadn’t been able to before. 

She said she hopes to do the same for the teenagers participating in "Our Lens, Our Voice." 

“I didn’t have the language for my emotions when I was growing up,” Shepperson said. “I want to give them language for what they're feeling to help them sort through the emotions of whatever pictures they decide to take.”

Baxter said diversion programs like "Our Lens, Our Voice" are important to causes of her own, like We Are All Criminals — an organization focused on interviewing those who haven’t been incarcerated, but have committed a crime and gotten away with it.

“I've worked in the criminal legal system for several years now and I've seen firsthand the effects that being told you're a criminal has on someone who’s at a point in their life when figuring out where they fit into the world,” Baxter said.

Shepperson, Baxter, Fenhagen and Murray said they are eagerly awaiting Oct. 1 for the start of the program.  

“I have seen it time and time again where a child finds their voice through the arts and their entire world changes,” Murray said. “I don't think that the impact of artistic expression can be understated.”

Application details for the program can be found at the arts commission website


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