Interview with Jason Reed, co-founder of the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project

The following interview is with photographer Jason Reed, co-founder of the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project. When Jason contacted me I was impressed/proud/relieved that his project existed. Practically running a mini United Nations, he mentors Native American and Latino youth plus refugees from Iraq, Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and Tanzania as students.

The Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project blog has great photographs with recent updates on the program's events - check out the Video Snippets from Day 2 of the Newcomers Refugee Program, San Antonio, TX. With no sound and in color, it's a raw, modern day version of a silent film which has the same intimate feeling as stills. Follow the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project on Facebook.

D&B: Where are you from? Where do you live now?

JR: I grew up in San Angelo, Texas, which is a medium-sized farming and ranching city in the central-west part of the state. After living in Illinois and New Mexico for grad school and a term in AmeriCorps, I now live in San Marcos, Texas and where I teach at Texas State University-San Marcos.

D&B: How did you come to know the kids in the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project?

JR: There are a number of different programs in the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project, such as Mi Voz, which takes place in the border town of Presidio, Texas and Newcomers, which takes place with global refugee youth now living in San Antonio, Texas. Each of the programs has begun with a connection to a public school teacher, often developed through my friend, colleague, and the co-founder of the Project, Ryan Sprott. Ryan taught high school in rural West Texas for many years and is now a doctoral student at the University of Texas-San Antonio.

Through Ryan’s work in education, we have developed many contacts with teachers looking to extend opportunities to their students outside of what most public schools offer. We work hand in hand with teachers, often outside of school buildings and school days, with the teachers, relying on them to identify students who would both benefit from and contribute to the Project the most.

We see it is as a grassroots collaboration with public educators, where they are providing the students and access and we are providing the tools and some new avenues to share their stories.

D&B: How many other projects like yours that you know of exist in Texas?

JR: There are actually quite a few programs in Texas that provide arts access to youth. These are mostly run by non-profit arts organizations as well as the many museums that have arts education departments.

However, I do not know of any other projects in Texas that focus specifically on young people telling their own personal, familial, and cultural stories through documentary means. And because we are based out of Texas State University-San Marcos, I believe we are rare in terms of both connecting young people to higher education and the creation of a public archive for all of the student work.

©Habiba Waliyow, Newcomers Refugee Youth Program, San Antonio, Texas 2009
©Habiba Waliyow, Newcomers Refugee Youth Program, San Antonio, Texas 2009

D&B: What made you want to give a voice to a subset of the US population that is typically silent because of what some might call their "illegal" or disadvantaged status?

JR: It is important to clarify with whom we work. We work with a diverse group of students from many backgrounds such as Sudanese, Native American, Latino, Burmese, Anglo, Iraqi, Filipino, Rwandan and many other backgrounds who live in the US/Mexico borderland region. For example, the Newcomers students are part of one of the largest refugee resettlement cities in the U.S. and represent students from many different ethnicities. The Mi Voz students live along the Texas-Mexico border and have unique experience of living, traveling, experiencing, and being influenced between two countries on a daily basis. In terms of citizenship, our students have a cultural citizenship that is definitely more expansive than most of us who do not live in a border community and/or have emigrated from one country to another.

We believe the students’ diverse backgrounds and perspectives bring a power and vitality to the dialogue of American life. While it is well documented that many of the student groups with whom we work have traditionally been under and/or misrepresented by traditional mediums and that the telling and dissemination of their stories have often been left in the hands of outsiders, it is crucial to strike out language that imposes deficits on the students—we do not approach our programs with the mindset of working with “illegal” or “disadvantaged” youth.

Through our close workings with such talented and insightful students, we have often been humbled and have delightfully had many of our own misconceptions stripped away. Seeing the students’ abilities, backgrounds, and insight has left no room for us to see the youth as “disadvantaged,” and, not only is viewing students as “disadvantaged” falsely limiting to the students, such an approach is limiting to the observers of their work.

We avoid the notion that we are helping or empowering the youth, but rather we see it as the young people are, in so many ways, empowering us to see the world in a more realistic and complete way.

The essential goal of the project is to provide excellent tools and resources (cameras, art supplies, professional mentors) for young people in order that they may tell their own stories – personal, familial, and cultural – in their own way. This approach, one of encompassing participatory documentation, will provide a much richer, complex and more complete understanding of the region.

Certainly, we understand that traditional models of documentary work are valid, and an outsider’s perspective on a place, people, or situation can be important. But we MUST have a large presence of people with an inside perspective who tell and share their own stories. If not, if it is only outsiders, then we are doomed to see and hear the same conventionally biased and inherently flawed stories over and over. With a sole focus on traditional approaches, we are missing vital voices, and it is the incorporation of these traditionally missing voices that is a driving force of the Project.

D&B: How is the Borderland Youth Documentary Arts Project funded?

JR: Currently, we are funded through grants, community and personal donations, and, because we are still young, our own pockets. We never want money to prevent us from working with young people so we do work hard to make our programs run efficiently and on as little funding as is necessary to achieve our objectives. In the near future we plan on creating a series of limited edition artists books and signed prints that raise funds for further programming.

©Starla Gros-Ventre, Two Worlds Native American Youth Program, Albuquerque, New Mexico 2008
©Starla Gros-Ventre, Two Worlds Native American Youth Program, Albuquerque, New Mexico 2008

D&B: You work with teenage youth - describe what's unique about their photographic vision.

JR: The most unique thing about a young person’s photographic vision is their freedom. By this I mean that the youth we work with do not have specific aspirations to show work in a gallery, sell their prints, or have a book of photographs published. And they are not creating work to get into art school or for a grade in a class. But rather, they are taking photographs to tell their personal familial and cultural stories - free of the baggage many of us carry as photographers. It is really a joy to see them photograph with no expectations and only because they want to show us something special in their lives.

D&B: What kind of exposure are you looking for? How will you share their work with the world?

JR: Exposure of the work is a really significant aspect of the Project. Our major objective is to use creative mediums such as photography and creative writing as a means to add the personal, familial and cultural stories and perspectives of these young students to the collective archive of American life.

In order to achieve such, we must share the resulting work with as many people as possible through web exposure, exhibitions, publications, documentary films, presentations, and the building of a public archive where the work can be carefully protected for future generations. These youth voices are truly significant and cannot be overlooked if we are to more completely understand our complex world.

It is our goal to provide the students with tools to create and opportunities to share.

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