Towards the bigger picture

Alicia Hansen founded NYC SALT in 2008 from a small photography class. Today, they guide students from their teen years through the early stages of their careers in the visual media fields and continue to inspire youth to unlock their creative potential.

Fari Sow: Can you start by telling me about how SALT came to life?

Alicia Hansen: I started SALT as a volunteer teaching a photography class to a class of eighth-grade boys in Washington Heights, which is the northern neighbourhood in Manhattan. And I had just finished a big project with National Geographic, with a photographer named Joe McNally, pioneering how digital technology would work for magazines in the early 2000s, and I thought that it would be a cool thing to teach kids, that there are some kids out there that would be interested in learning that. A friend set up the class with another nonprofit, and I just showed up every week and taught it as a way to volunteer and give back. And as I began to observe how much the students loved working with this new technology at the time and I was surprised they all showed up every week, I was challenged by a friend to write a business plan, I did and entered it into a couple of contests, and it was a finalist and I thought, this is a cool idea to start as a photo program. And people seemed to think so too. So, I just did it.

It was just something that evolved over the course of three years of working with these young people and using photography, to explore the city through a camera and to teach them how to observe the world around them through a different type of lens. And through that, give them a vocabulary to talk about art and to talk about, light and how they’re seeing light and how they’re seeing colour and how they’re seeing composition around them. And. It just has evolved over 16 years into a much larger program. And my background in photography mostly started out as a photojournalist and I came to New York as more of a lifestyle documentary photographer and worked have worked professionally for over twenty-five years. And so I’ve brought my level of expertise and the discipline of photography and visual communication to developing and designing a program for young people. As we think of our program, as is a pathway for a pipeline to higher education and careers in the arts. And so, the program has kind of evolved over the years, so many different ways, but to a place where we not only work with students to develop their creativity but also use it as a way to as a very practical means of gaining education and employment.

Fari Sow: You work with students in high school, but also in college, and then you follow up with them even after. It’s a lifelong program, not just an after-school one. What’s the approximate age range?

Alicia Hansen: We’ve just added an emerging artist program in the past two years so kids start with us at 14, or can start with us at 14. So 14 to about 26 is the age bracket that we serve.

Fari Sow: How is SALT today? What’s your scope? What’s your reach in that large bracket?

Alicia Hansen: We, like every other organization in the world right now, are coming out of the pandemic, where things have shifted in the past two years. But in terms of how we’ve changed or where we’re at now, I’d say we’re very similar to how we were pre-pandemic, but we’ve grown quite a bit. We’ve added a college mentorship as part of our program that’s been that’s in its first year of the pilot as well as the Emerging Artist program. And then as we move into the next school year, we’ve decided to expand our high school program and have the first year of the program be a series of 12-week workshops, as opposed to a full school year of programming, to give students more options in terms of the different genres of photography they could study, but also to keep it a bit shorter for those students that are just exploring their interests. And then we’ll use that first-year program to scout out students, scout out talent that will be in our full-year high school residency program, which is our core program that we’ve had since the very beginning. But in that program, we invest quite heavily in students’ college preparation, portfolio development and career exposure. It’s a bit more intensive for those students who are really serious about moving, moving forward with studying visual arts.

Fari Sow: So since the scope is 14 to 26, are there some students that you actually stay with all the way? What is the evolution that you can see in those students that stay with you for a long time?

Alicia Hansen: It’s many things. It’s that “A-ha!” moment of realizing, Oh wow, I can go into a career in the arts, I can do art full-time and make money, and people do that. I think there’s a level of confidence that gets built as students use a camera and make pictures and explore the world. And we do a lot of exhibits. With every single program, we have an exhibition or gallery show. And I think that just, seeing your work in print and up on a wall is a really big deal. Well, it’s a big difference. It still feels like that to see my work as well, but it’s a big deal for kids because it’s like, Wow, I did that and people are coming out to see it.

I think it’s the growth in their artistic talent, you know, generally, in the later part of the second year and for sure, the third year that they’re with us, that we really see portfolios start to become really excellent. And I do think it takes that repetition of going out and practicing every day and realizing that practice does pay off. And we see it in our students as their talent develops. And I think we also see in the way we look at photography as a foundation skill. And by no means do we expect our students to become photographers. But it’s a foundation that they can launch into a lot of different disciplines as they get to explore those a bit more in college or possibly in their first jobs. And so, kids that started out with us in photography and went through four years or five years of photography classes, I’m thinking of one of our our students, Devin Osorio, who has worked with you and did a notebook for AtWork, he started out in photography, went into textile design and or fibres in college and now is a painter and his work, as is being shown in galleries.

Fari Sow: Photography is already such a huge world to explore, but it’s great that they’re going beyond that, and going into more creative paths.

Alicia Hansen: Absolutely. And the emerging artist program is multidisciplinary. We have illustrators, graphic designers, and filmmakers. I think several of the students are dabbling in ceramics and also print-type design as well as photography. Devin is in that program as well, and he’s painting. And I think that young people now, versus when I was in school and first starting out, I mean, I picked my lane, and that was photography. And what I’m seeing among most of our young people is this very multidisciplinary mindset, which I think is really fabulous, that, they’re not just picking a lane and they’re looking at how they can use their creativity and artistic talent in other disciplines as well. And they’re very curious about that. And I think that’s really wonderful.

Fari Sow: Is this something that you try to foster consciously?

Alicia Hansen: Absolutely. It’s really about developing mindsets that are all about lifelong learning and curiosity and exploration and thinking of problem-solving, thinking about how they can be a part of their communities and the world and bring their artistic visions and what they want to say to life through a very visual mean.

Fari Sow: Do you only operate in New York, or do you expand it to other parts of the U.S., other countries?

Alicia Hansen: We are just in New York City as of now.

Fari Sow: Is that a prospect, to eventually expand?

Alicia Hansen: I would love to create a summer program where we bring our young people for an exchange. We bring our young people to other parts of the world to teach and lead workshops and give that broaden their worldview through travel and cultural exchange. I think that would be a fantastic add-on. That is a big wish at the moment, but definitely something that’s on my mind and I’m thinking about how we can be part of the international art world. You know, New York is so international already and most of our students are from other countries. I would like to see how I could bridge that more going forward so that we could be more of a partner or just share ideas with other cities.

Fari Sow: And in the big world that is New York, are there other organizations or foundations that would offer similar programs, and services as SALT? Or do you consider yourself unique in what you do in your local context?

Alicia Hansen: I think we’re unique in the sense that we focus on a very practical program Our programs are fully led and taught by other working artists. There’s longevity to our classes, and the standard trajectory of most of our students is to stay with us for a minimum of two and a half years. We look at skills and knowledge development, but also attitudes and a lot of 21st-century skills and how we can incorporate those soft skills and development within our youth. And there’s a very strong element of community within our program and thoughtfulness, and everything that we do comes back to the community. So I think that makes us a bit different as well because I think a lot of other programs are very, very much based on something like a darkroom class or something much more focused on discipline as opposed to looking at the whole picture.

And it’s so refreshing to see students exploring their creativity without having all these constraints that they know about already, that they shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t. And I think it leads to so much more creativity.

Fari Sow: As a teacher, what’s one thing you think is primordial to teach your students? And what is one thing you learned from them?

Alicia Hansen: I think self-advocating, and taking initiative, which both overlap, are really important. Gratitude is very important too.

I think if I can have those qualities in every single student that we taught, I would be so happy because self-advocacy helps students have more agency and helps them move forward and advocate for themselves and go after what they desire. And we see so much fear in young people, whether because they’re just unsure of how to do it or what to say or even what they want. But the students that I’ve really seen succeed have learned how to be amazing advocates for themselves. Gratitude, I just think there’s humbleness that comes with that, when you think about the things in your life that you’re really grateful for, it brings an attitude and a mindset that I think is essential for success and happiness and how you’re framing the world around you, especially when bad things happen. It revolves around your mental health and how you see the world and whether you’re negative most of the time about things or positive and how you make that choice.

And what have I learned? So many things… Resilience is what’s coming to mind, and I think this is something that historically happens when you’re teaching and within any discipline is that when you see when you introduce something new to students or something they haven’t learned before and you see them start to explore and that uninhibited about not knowing all the rules yet. And it’s so refreshing to see students exploring their creativity without having all these constraints that they know about already, that they shouldn’t do this or shouldn’t. And I think it leads to so much more creativity. Continuously, it’s inspiring to see students, explore in a very fearless and maybe innocent way, and to give them the tools and see how they come up with something new lighting scheme in the studio that produces like all these colourful effects and shadows, and it’s fantastic to see.

I’m thinking of two students, in particular, who’re both from Guinea and from the same college, and their families came over in high school, Malike Sidibe and Mamadi Doumbouya. Now, they’re young men in their early 20s and both very successful photographers, both actually working for the New York Times. And they had a studio in high school to just explore how to shoot portraits and fashion, and the images that they came up with were just so extraordinary. And it was just about having those tools available for them to experiment with. I think that is so essential for young people and for young artists to have that access to the right tools and technology, and sometimes that’s a huge barrier to entry for young people that can’t afford the lighting or the equipment or the computers or. And that’s what we’re here for.

Fari Sow: It’s great that you follow up with your students and you keep working with them well after their years at SALT, why is that important to you?

Alicia Hansen: I feel like I’ve been involved in an industry that has had such a strong culture of giving back to the younger generation, from the minute I entered the first photo department that I worked in, there was always such a culture within the department or among other photographers that I worked with of mentoring young people. My peers and I have always just been a part of this culture that we were mentored through. And it’s just something we have done and we encourage our young people as they grow up and get to a place to think about mentoring younger people than them. It’s really important to pass on the knowledge. And because of that, we get a lot of emails saying, Hey, I need an assistant for a job, a photoshoot or somebody on set next week. And so, I’ll either think of somebody specific that I think would be great for that job or will pass the information to them.

Fari Sow: Is there a focus on highlighting social issues in the local context of New York through your programs?

Alicia Hansen: Absolutely. I think that those types of projects happen more in the second and third year of the High School Program, and then our college program is really more about mentorship and internship and surviving college.

What we’ve seen is that they choose really chosen a definitive lane of what they care to talk about. For example, Devin’s work is really focused on the culture of the Dominican Republic and juxtaposing that with the culture that has been established by an immigrant community here in New York versus back in the Dominican Republic and his work.

The pandemic threw us off a little bit because it was harder to think of projects. It was harder for the young people to think outside their homes because the majority of them were not allowed out by their parents. So, there were photo projects for a year and a half that revolved around looking at themselves more and also photographing what they had available in the house and exploring light and things like that. But prior to, the pandemic, we generally should choose a theme every year for the advanced class and they would focus on doing stories that are important to them around that theme. One year, it was “You don’t have to yell to be heard”, and that was while Trump was still president. All the students chose themes around immigration, gender identity, sexuality and gentrification. There were also differently expressed. Visually, some of them were much more conceptual, and then some of them were very documentary-like.

It just depends on the way that, before a student can tell a fantastic story, they’ve got to have a certain mastery of the technical and creative skill sets that it takes to make a good picture because they could have the best story idea in the whole world, but if they don’t know how to execute it with a camera, then their voice is going to fall flat. And so, in that first year, we really do focus on teaching students how to see and use the tech technology so that with that proficiency, they can tell great stories and make great pictures.

Fari Sow: So it’s about amplifying their voices or giving them the means to be heard.

Alicia Hansen: Yes, but I think you must learn how to use the technology first. I’ve seen so many, not necessarily from our students, but someone whom people think they’re photographers and they try to say something really important that needs to be said, but they just can’t make that work out.

Fari Sow: I think that’s relevant to most art forms. We all have the creativity and we all have the ideas, but executing is always tricky.

Alicia Hansen: It’s terribly hard, but practice makes perfect. I remember that very moment, the realization after shooting for such a long time thinking, Oh wow, I just shot that picture, and I have no idea how I made my settings, but they worked. And it was just, at the time, it’s the moment where it just all fits together. And if you’re playing the piano you’re not thinking on which keys your fingers are, they are just doing the work because they’re so used to where things are and it just it’s something that clicks and it becomes almost subconscious because you’ve been doing it so long. Cultivating your creativity always makes the process easier, so that it becomes a part of yourself.

In 2020, NYC SALT was one of the first organizations to receive the Moleskine Foundation’s Creativity Pioneers Fund, becoming part of the Creativity Pioneers network.

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Moleskine Foundation

Moleskine Foundation

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The Moleskine Foundation is a non-profit organization that believes that Creativity and Quality Education are key to producing positive change in society.