Stedman Gallery Photography Exhibition Showcases Camden Youth

By Tom McLaughlin

In early 2014, Den Sweeney visited the Community Adolescents Striving for Achievement (CASA) Camden program for the first time.

A former educator who taught grades kindergarten through high school, he was excited to help the program, run under the auspices of Guadalupe Family Services, fulfill its mission of providing a safe, empowering, and enriching environment for Camden youth.

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Jose

But as he settled in to help the teens with their homework, he overheard them discussing a Rolling Stone article depicting their home city as nothing more than a hapless haven of drugs, violence, and dead-end streets.

“The kids were like, ‘Den, it’s five o’clock on a Friday and we’re in here studying,’ recalls Sweeney, a Philadelphia resident. “‘Why didn’t they do a story on us?’”

So Sweeney, who also enjoys a second career as a professional freelance photographer, replied, “‘Well, why don’t you tell your own story? I can help you do that.’”

The resulting collaboration is a poignant photography and essay exhibition, titled “Look Again: The Young People of Camden,” on display through Aug. 12 in the Stedman Gallery at Rutgers University–Camden.

The exhibition, which is free of charge and open to the public, features the portraits of 38 Camden teenagers in the CASA program – photographed with expert precision by Sweeney – accompanied by the teens’ essays, documenting their hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

“It is my hope that this exhibition shows this community and those outside of it that there is incredible hope within our young people here in Camden,” says Tim Gallagher, CASA assistant director. “It is my hope that this exhibition also encourages other teens in the city to stay motivated and know that they too can achieve success with hard work and determination.”

Each of the participating adolescents is photographed in a location that is meaningful to her or him in some way, culminating in a stunning, expressive series of images, each as unique as the youth themselves.

“I said, ‘This is your chance, this is your story. You pick your spot,’” recalls Sweeney. “‘You share what you want to share.’”

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Cali

In one image, Arlette stands proud, determined, and ready in front of Rutgers Law School, evoking her dream of pursuing a law career.

On the opposite wall, Yedi stands somberly in front of the tree where her father, a U.S. military veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, lost control of his motorcycle and was killed.

In another, oversized photograph, Darwin poses seemingly larger than life on the Walter K. Gordon Theater stage at Rutgers–Camden, evincing his passion to become a professional dancer. In the accompanying essay, Darwin talks about walking into the performance space and being transformed.

In a nearby photo, Kalanni kneels down at the gravesite of her brother, who died of a drug overdose a year earlier. In her essay, she shares her yearning to make her brother proud.

“These are incredible, inspiring young people,” says Sweeney, scanning the images. “In a world where so many people are looking for excuses or reasons that they can’t achieve, these adolescents are taking the negatives in their lives and making positives out of them.”

As Sweeney explains, he crystallized the youths’ portraits using the same tried-and-true professional techniques that he has used to capture images of award-winning musicians, actresses, and actors. A team of assistants, which often included fellow CASA teens, set up studio lights on location, making the adolescents – rather fittingly – “as a bright as the sky.”

Just as importantly, says Sweeney, he believes in engaging any subject whom he photographs – getting lost in simple conversations that move beyond nerves and uncertainty to reveal raw emotion in its many forms.

“I’ll say, ‘Let’s forget about what we are doing – and in the end, we are going to have some epic pictures,’” says Sweeney, the former head coach of Temple University’s men’s ice hockey program.

The photographer adds that, on some days, it was admittedly tough listening to some of the challenges that these young people have endured.

“However, you can see how they have gained strength through these challenges and are achieving great things,” says Sweeney. “It has been a blessing to meet them, hear their stories, and become their friends.”

“I love the reaction that people have when they see this show,” Sweeney continues. “Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Wow, this isn’t what I thought of Camden. There are some incredibly talented, wonderful young people living here.’”

Stedman Gallery summer hours are Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, contact Nancy Maguire at (856) 225-6245.

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