Nearly two dozen teenage immigrants and refugees — who have never used a camera before an award-winning American photojournalist taught them how — will be sharing photographs from their communities at Toronto's Aga Khan Museum next weekend.
"This is transformative for these students," said Fredric "Fred" Roberts, founder of the international photography workshop.
"They never see the world the same way again."
The Fredric Roberts Photography Workshops is a week-long program for underprivileged high school students. It has been taking groups of 20 youths — 10 girls and 10 boys — from around the world for the last six years and molding them into photojournalists.
"Photography is just the medium," Roberts said.
"This is an exercise really in self-expression, self-confidence, success and they live this dream out."
Roberts says the effects on students are lasting, as the program stays in ongoing contact with the participants..
"We don't just come in like a travelling circus and have a one week workshop and leave and never come back," he said.
Instead, students receive professional equipment — digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras — photo editing software and access to a private Facebook page where they're able to connect with a network of classmates and mentors from around the world.
"It's really a program of empowerment," Roberts explained.
"We go to places where girls are often marginalized and we want them to have an asset when we leave, and they do. They feel strong in a way they've never felt strong before."
While the program typically teaches teens in developing countries — the workshop originated in Udaipur, India —Roberts moved it to Toronto last March. He reached out to 20 shutterbugs in the city's Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park neighbourhoods.
The youths are immigrants or refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, Roberts told CBC Toronto on Monday.
"They interestingly are going to tell photojournalistic stories about the integration of immigrants into Canada, and how they integrate and how they assimilate into society," he said.
"It's a story about pluralism and that is emblematic of how we work in all countries."
'I learned how to express my feelings'
Fakhruddin Khudayar, 18, participated in the last workshop. Now the Afghanistan native is mentoring a new cohort of youths between the ages of 13 and 16.
"I learned how to express my feelings and tell the meaning in the picture," he said.
While Khudayar was taught how to hold a camera, how to manually manipulate shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and principles of composition, he says the course changed the way he sees the world.
"For example, I take a picture of my grandparents with grandchildren, that means family love and togetherness, so I learned those kinds of things," he asserted.
Yana Mikhailava is also a returning student who noted she wasn't exactly sure what to expect when the program started, but learned it's about so much more than photography.
"It's not about photography as an art but more as a way to tell a story," explained Mikhailava.
The workshop challenged her to explore her community by telling stories of its people and different organizations, she added.
'It's about them fulfilling their dream'
The pair's growth is why the Aga Khan Museum says it partnered with Roberts in the beginning.
"We're teaching these kids to actually become storytellers, to use the photography as a way they can then start talking about the people that they meet and to understand the backgrounds," said Henry Kim, director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum.
The students' transformations are what inspire Roberts.
"For me, it's about seeing the outcomes," he said. "We don't care if the kids become photographers, or painters, or doctors, or lawyers, or environmentalists, or teachers.
"It's about them fulfilling their dream going forward, being successful."
The student's work will be on display at the Aga Khan Museum on Saturday and Sunday.