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.