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Contributing member of society

When I was about 13 years old, the city government ran a career camp for poor children. The program was free to attend, and I even think we got paid as part of a summer jobs program. It was the first time I was away from home. I stayed there for a week or two. My chosen profession was photography because it looked the most interesting. That was my first experience ever with photography. Although I never made a full career of it, photography has been with me from that moment until now.

At the camp, I also made my first friends. I was a loner in school. I don't think I had any friends at all. I spent most of my time in other worlds dreaming about elves, dragons, and wizards, so many kids saw me as an oddball. Being terrible at sports did not help my case either. I was always the last one chosen for teams, and sometimes the team captains would fight over who would have to take me. Being unique meant I was also very unpopular with girls because they wanted the jocks and the bad boys. My clothes were always a ragged mess of hand-me-downs. Proper diction was a top priority in our house. For my mother and grandmother, proper pronunciation was symbolic of eventually making it out of the ghetto. However, proper diction isolated me from my peers. In all-black low-income neighborhoods, proper diction was synonymous with whiteness. I was called painful names like Oreo, the chocolate cookie that's black on the outside and white on the inside. I didn't know how to unfix the way I talked, now was I interested in trying, so I remained isolated.

At the camp, the kids accepted me as I was. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was making friends. There was an older kid made of pure muscle. He didn't have an ounce of body fat. He used to do a trick where he would squeeze his left bicep with his right hand while flexing. It left an imprint of his fingers in his muscles that was gross and cool at the same time. I shared a room with the guy whose name I can't remember. I don't recall his face either, but I do remember spending nights talking with him for hours until one of us fell asleep. We did that every night. It was our ritual. It was significant for me because it was the longest that I had ever talked to anyone besides my brothers and sister.

In the photography corner, they gave us a camera and film to work with and taught us the basics of shutter speed, aperture, and how to use the light meter in the viewfinder. Ironically I never saw any of the photos I took because I had broken my glasses and was too poor to buy new ones. I had terrible eyesight back then. I could barely see a few feet in front of my face. So, all of the photos I took were blurry, but I didn't care. I loved the process of looking for things to photograph. I also loved the feeling of holding the camera in my hands. It's a sensation that I've never gotten tired of, even after many decades have passed.

When the camp ended, I remember feeling extremely sad because I would have to leave my new friends. I didn't want to go home. I wanted to stay there forever. I remember crying in the back seat of my mother's car. She looked confused and tried to figure out what was wrong. I never told her. I think it had to do with the fact that I had made real friends only to lose them a few short days later. It was an empty feeling and one I will never forget.

Despite leaving my friends behind, I never left photography behind. Summer programs like the career camp eventually faded away because the government no longer thought it was in the country's best interest to fund them. I wholeheartedly disagree. That program showed me my first glimpse of another world. It was one with endless possibilities and opportunities. Some would argue that the career camp was a waste of taxpayer money because photography didn't do much to make me a contributing member of society. Of course, those fools would be dead wrong.

Becoming a contributing member of society isn't as simple as flipping a switch. There is a whole collection of experiences and things learned that create the composite of who we become. Photography taught me to see the world from many perspectives. It taught me the value of persistence because the first shot is not always the best. Photography showed me how to solve problems as I tried to create the images I imagined using the knowledge I possessed. It became a tool for self-expression. I believe my experience at the summer camp was a tremendously powerful force that contributed to me eventually becoming a contributing member of society. If I were Mark Zuckerburg, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, I would fund many of these programs because they really help bring positive change in young people's lives.

The photo is a self portrait I took a few years ago.


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