2016 marks the twenty third anniversary of the pioneering photography mentoring program First Exposures, and the third year since the organization separated from San Francisco Camerawork. Roula Seikaly spoke with First Exposures Director Erik Auerbach and Program Associate C.A. Greenlee about the origin of the program, the profound nature of mentor/mentee relationships, and how a non-profit continues to grow without diluting the powerful programming it offers. We've interspersed some of our favorite images from select students in the program since 2015.
Roula Seikaly: Erik, you've been associated with First Exposures (FX) for how long?
Erik Auerbach: I started as a volunteer mentor in 2004. After a year, the woman - Whitney Grace - who was running the program at that point was moving away right around the same time Marnie Gillette (former director, San Francisco Camerawork) passed away. I had my own business at the time, but I was really into what the program was doing and wanted to do whatever I could to help out. Whitney asked me if I was interested in taking over as a part time job, and that was back when SF Camerawork (SFCW) was on Folsom Street. The part time job pretty steadily evolved into a full time job, and then after six years of running a business and having a full time job at FX, I decided to close the business and focus on FX.
RS: What was your business?
EA: I ran a custom color lab, printing color prints for primarily artists and some commercial work. As the world went more digital and my lab didn't go digital, most of our clients were artists toward the end, which wasn't all that sustainable. No matter who they were, and we worked with some great artists, it just wasn't sustainable. FX was becoming way more interesting for me.
RS: C.A., how did you come to this program?
C.A. Greenlee: I've been working with youth for some time, in San Francisco and in the south where I'm from. I just earned my MFA and was looking around for what was next, and I saw an opening at FX, so I followed up on it.
EA: C.A. joining us was a great fit because a lot of the mutual connections at places where C.A. had worked before in a teaching and youth advising capacity, including Southern Exposure and Creativity Explored, created a lot of overlap in community. She was a perfect match for us.
RS: Who founded FX in 1993?
EA: The program was started originally at the Eye Gallery, which was a non-profit photo gallery in the South of Market (SoMA) neighborhood on Mission Street. The gallery was one of the early victims of SoMA's financial transition. It was a community darkroom and exhibition space, kind of like Rayko, much smaller but also a non-profit. It was somewhere between Rayko and SFCW, and very much artist run. They hosted an exhibition called Shooting Back, which was a project out of Washington DC by a group of photographers and photojournalists that worked primarily with homeless youth. They would go out and take these kids shooting. That became an exhibition and ultimately a series of books. Jim Hubbard brought the project to San Francisco and a group of photographers working out of Eye Gallery expressed interest in doing something similar. Photographer Lynette Molnar lead the effort in San Francisco along with other collaborators including Sarah Kremer and Stuart Kogod.
The program started, very seat of the pants style with community support, in 1993. By 1995-96, Eye Gallery was closing down due to rising rental costs. Sarah and Lynette and a few other people approached Marnie at SFCW and asked if the gallery would be interested in taking on an education program. Marnie basically took over the program and folded FX administrative duties into the gallery's preparator position. Until I was hired, SFCW didn't have a full-time staff person who was dedicated to education.
RS: That flows nicely into the next question, which is how did FX attract mentors at the beginning of the program and how does it attract mentors now? Has the process changed in 23 years?
EA: We've gone back through original mentor applications lately, and we now see that program admins are or were terrible hoarders. One of my goals is to get an intern to start scanning all that material and free up storage and other physical space in the office. The process was originally more volunteer based. When I started in 2004, we had mentor trainings already in place that included a social services component. Initially, mentors were recruited from the community around and through Eye Gallery. A lot of recruitment, then and now, happened through regional art schools. When I started, we had listings with Volunteer Match. Since then, we've placed ads with Idealist, and we benefit from a lot of support from Rayko. Ann Jastrab is a big supporter, and whenever we need mentors, she needles the community she works with to help us.
The program has grown a lot, too. When I started, there were maybe 12 kids and 12 mentors. We now have 30-32 kids during the academic kids and 30 kids in the summer program, and there's very little overlap between the academic year and summer programs. Our summer program has a group mentoring program, which we initiated three years ago, and which differs from the academic program that places mentors and mentees on a one-to-one basis. So, it's 30-32 full time mentors that come through a variety of sources. We also have a contingent of roughly 15 part time mentors who are predominantly previous mentors who can't commit full time but serve as additional helpers. The model for the summer program is that we work at a 2:5 ratio, so that's two adults for every five kids. Each class basically has six mentors. C.A. leads the summer session classes that meet on Monday and Wednesday during the day, and our new instructor Brian Z. Shapiro leads the evening sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's much harder to find volunteers over the summer. The beauty is that we have evening volunteers who work during the day and then come to us after. They're students and freelancers and even retired artists. It's a great mix.
RS: It sounds like there is quite a bit of juggling in terms of mentor schedules and availability.
EA: Exactly, and because everyone is volunteering, we don't want to bear heavily on good will. That said, we also have a need for consistency and continuity for students. In other words, if someone is committing to being here, we need them to be here. That's central to relationship building. Over the years, the resources have been consistent, it's just that now we need a lot more.
We're constantly trying to find new resources, to get more people of color involved in particular. I would say 98% of our mentees are people of color, but maybe 10-20% of our mentors are people of color. That's always been the case, and it's not for lack of trying. This summer, our theme is 'Dialogues on Race' and we're partnering with Make Art with Purpose, which is an organization out of Texas that we've worked with before to create billboards. We had our first workshop on race last week, and we came right out and said 'all the staff is white.' What it comes down to is that we as white adults are never going to know the same things these kids are going to know. We talked a bit about white privilege in the first meeting and what we've seen over the years and how that disconnect can be awkward for mentees and how we can start to overcome that through dialogue.
RS: What does an "average" FX class include? Is it a combination of technical instruction, photo history, critical and aesthetic analysis, and shooting?
EA: An average day can vary depending on which class and the time of the year and depth of our project. But, here's a rough idea based on the beginning of the year, or even these first weeks of summer.
We always try to break things up so it's never too tech intensive or presentation heavy in one go, so we tend to do a lecture or demo for 20-30 minutes and then break it up with an activity to get the blood moving. We will do basic "how to" demos on camera use, film processing, photoshop mixed with going out and shooting or discussions. We'll do basic photo history presentations and lectures on aesthetics as well. The idea is to never spend too much time doing just one thing so they don't get bored or feel it's too "school-like." We like to keep things fun while they learn.
RS: Do mentors attend every class? How do partake in class instruction, if at all?
EA: Yes, we ask for them to commit to coming each week they are matched. We understand that they are volunteers, and respect that so we do allow for a couple of absences as needed, but really, if they aren't around too much, or miss too much, then it's harder for the relationships to flourish and the consistency is important to that.
The mentors are asked if there's anything in particular they would like to present, but few rarely do. We count on the mentors to provide the direct learning when needed, so it's not all coming from the front of the room. So, the instructor does the demonstration, sets the tone, and lets the mentor/mentee pairs do the rest.
RS: How are students referred to you?
EA: Students come to us through a variety of referrals including school systems and a handful of social services programs we've worked with over the years. Some caseworkers know us really well and will make direct referrals. Interestingly, over the summer, we've had an exceptional number of referrals from Huckleberry House. We work with Seneca, Tenderloin After School Program, Mission Family Center and as time has gone on, we've had to do less and less recruiting. I try to concentrate on certain downtown schools, and that effort is helped by faculty who know us. It shifts generally. This summer, we've had a lot of kids coming through social services than we did last summer. Our priority are the social service referrals, and I'm always grateful that they know about us and keep an eye out for kids who might be excited by the program and who probably won't encounter arts instruction in school.
RS: We've talked around the subject of funding for non-profits such as FX in San Francisco and nationwide. It can be so competitive, and all of the organizations are worthy of attention and support. The dwindling number of resources - public and private - bears directly on the program's survival. How has FX attracted and maintained donor interest?
EA: I think, for our individual supporters and the few foundations we deal with, I think what makes us unique or makes us stand out from other organizations and programs is the mentor aspect. So, we're not just a photo/arts education program. We're not just an after school program. In our first summer program, we had so many kids calling it 'photo camp', which it's not, but that's how it was presented to them.
My big emphasis has been on the mentoring component. It can be confusing for funders, because people think of mentoring often times as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and for lack of a better description I'll sometimes use that model and add "with photography." The way our program is structured, we have instructors who present the themes and guidelines, set the tone, and generally keep things rolling smoothly. From there, it comes down to the mentors to provide specific support and guidance to mentees. For an instructor to maintain consistency in a class of 15 students is hard, and having mentors makes up for that in the best way possible. All of our supporters, particularly the long-time supporters, see that and have seen the direct results of those relationships can provide. We've had mentor/mentee pairs for up to seven years, and several that were five or six years, just based on when the student starts. Mentors have been known to attend mentee family events, which speaks to the fact that our mentors are providing a lot more than photo instruction.
When FX separated from SFCW, a lot of our funding shifted. We are now supported by the Department of Children, Youth, and their Families (DCYF), which is something we weren't able to apply for previously. FX is still associated with and confused with Camerawork from time to time, but we're working through that. Thankfully, we're finishing up our third year of support through DCYF and we're on track for two more years and we're starting to talk with them already about additional funding streams beyond the next two years particularly for summer program funding. Surprisingly, for a government agency, they contacted us about additional funding, not the other way around. We'll see what that leads to, but we're optimistic.
RS: It speaks to the efficacy of the program that DCYF is approaching you.
EA: Absolutely. They see what we do, and know that we're successful. It helps immensely that we have a great advisory board. We have a handful of reliable donors who contribute both high and lower dollar amounts, we have an annual fundraiser that includes a silent auction of mentor and mentee work. We exceeded our goal this year, which was fantastic. We sold all of the donated work. So, yeah, there's a lot of support and a lot of good will directed our way. We've established a good name for ourselves in the community. The biggest challenge, though, is foundation support. That's shifted a lot. When we were part of Camerawork, we received much more foundation support. Because FX is a unique model, a lot of times people just don't get it. Or they look at the number of kids we serve and balk at 31 kids served in the year and another 30 over the summer, when other programs serve 200 kids. It's a matter of convincing them of the depth of the program and all that it offers. The fact that we now have kids who participated in the program who come back as adults to volunteer as mentors is really key.
RS: That's a stunning accomplishment! The depth of interaction is so profound that it leads to years-long connections between mentors and mentees. It seems that the long-term returns really outweigh the initial input, so to speak.
EA: Exactly. To me, that's the biggest accomplishment. We have former students contact us regularly, just to stay in say hello. To me, that's the stuff that means so much. I feel like if we can have that effect on so many kids over time, that deep connection, we've done a good thing. And getting funders to see and understand that is key.
RS: What would you like to accomplish with the program in the next 5-10 years?
EA: There's a Google grant that we've applied for twice and will continue to apply for that I refer to as 'pie in the sky'. It's a three-year grant, and orgs can apply for 100, 250, or $500,000 that is open-ended in how it's used. For me, it's important that we keep the growth organic and not try to grow to fast. Our advisory board is reluctant to offer something and then take it away, and that includes salary levels and operating costs. We don't want to offer a program that we can't sustain.
One of the thing that has come up over time is expanding to a national level. We're slowly starting to have conversations about what it would look like to have FX in Portland, New York, or Los Angeles and how that would look. We have to consider funding, of course. I had a conversation with the director of 826 Valencia a few years back and asked her about how they grew a national program, and she advised us against doing what they did. They went big, and it was a rough learning experience.
The question for us is how do we maintain the program and sustain the success we've had so far without overextending ourselves. It's at the micro level right now, such as do we try to start a program in the East Bay? Some kids can't afford to take BART to San Francisco, so there's that to consider. We - C.A. and me and others on staff - have been brainstorming what would be the natural next steps for us. Do we work with students at a more advanced level, and if so, how do we make that happen in terms of instruction and studio space and mentors? Do we extend our program to work with transitional-aged youth, and by that I mean kids who are transitioning out of foster care and/or fall into the age range 16-25 years of age. There was a program - Foster Arts - that engaged kids coming out of those programs that folded recently. We start to consider if FX is the program to step in and assume that role, and how we could do that. The goal is not diluting what we do. That's a big problem that many programs face. They grow, and then what's delivered is less effective than it was before. We've survived because we kept things lean and mean, and having a strong support network and staff. I don't ever want to be in the position of having to take something away.
C.A. Greenlee’s art practice is interdisciplinary, immersive, and research-based. She is rooted in the practices and philosophies of photography but also makes use of other mediums such as performance, drawing, video, sculpture, bookmaking and, most recently, reenactment. As a photography instructor, she hopes to inspire her students to strengthen their observation skills, speak with confidence about their work, and develop their own sustainable methods for making. Her goal is to provide an atmosphere that students can thrive in. She received her MFA from California College of Art and holds a BFA from Watkins College of Art, Design, and Film.
Erik Auerbach has managed First Exposures’ curriculum development, mentor coordination, community liaisons, and exhibitions since 2005. His photographic work has been exhibited and published nationally, and he has taught photography at the Academy of Art University, and served as a guest instructor at UC Extension and the San Francisco Art Institute. Erik holds a BFA from San Francisco State University.
Roula Seikaly is a writer and independent curator based in San Francisco. Her writing is featured on platforms including Saint Lucy, Strange Fire Collective, Temporary Art Review, SF Camerawork, and KQED Arts. She has curated exhibitions at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Triple Base Gallery, and SOMArts.