Press: 2015

June 3, 2015

On April 27, the day the anger over Freddie Gray’s death in police custody reached fever pitch, the mainstream media zeroed in on the burned buildings, looting, and violent standoffs between police and the people of West Baltimore. Outlets like CNN and Fox News dubbed the protesters — many of whom were young students just released from school — thugs, as tension escalated.

Eighteen-year-old high school student Amir Price was eager to capture the chaos and offer a counter-narrative. When a friend invited the D.C. native to tag along on an expedition to watch the protests unfold, Price was able to photograph the civil unrest and highlight the importance of youth activism, in one fell swoop.

When the pair reached the city, the two drove in the direction of a cloud of smoke, ending up at the intersection of North and Pennsylvania Avenues. There, Price saw a line of police facing a crowd of young people. Some high school students were running in and out of the CVS that became a symbol of the day’s riots.

“It was pretty scary,” he told ThinkProgress. “As soon as we got out of the car we saw a couple people walking down the street and someone literally said to us ‘be careful with your equipment, watch your back.’ It was scary but it was for a good cause: to see what was going on first hand and that that’s what’s actually being shown.”

At one point, he said, officers completely surrounded a man and moved the crowd so that nobody could see what was happening. Price was able to climb a nearby banister to watch what was going on, and witnessed officers arresting and dragging the bloodied man on the ground.

“I tried to capture everything that happened. It’s interesting to look at the footage I have. Some of it was what the news was portraying, but a lot of it is what they aren’t portraying,” he said. Few outlets mentioned the clergy who prayed over police officers and assisted them with crowd control. Youth who looted buildings were portrayed as criminals, whereas the children (including one 9-year-old boy) prevented from going home by law enforcement were overlooked.

Clergy and protesters kneel down before police. Many people joined in prayer.

Clergy and protesters kneel down before police. Many people joined in prayer.


Price is one of many students involved with Critical Exposure, a DC-based community organization that emphasizes “photography and advocacy to make real change.” Every year, participating high school students develop campaigns to improve their schools through visual story-telling. Their photographs are hung in public venues to expose what’s happening in the education system, and the larger communities they belong to.

During the launch of the organization’s ‘No Filter’ exhibit to showcase student photography from the past year, Price’s work was on full display, as was the work of his peers. Photos captured the disciplinary system in schools, Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, the push for school uniforms, and deteriorating school conditions. All of the students highlighted issues that were important to them, but policing in the education system was one of the year’s main themes.

“None of these students’ stories or voices have been enhanced or distorted, and that is a very rare thing. If you have listened to what the media, public officials, or others who try to speak for youth have to say, you know that it’s a very different narrative,” said co-founder and Executive Director Adam Levner at the exhibit. “When we speak for youth, we filter their voices no matter what their intentions are. As the students have made quite clear, they are more than capable of speaking for themselves.”

D.C. is one of many cities with a big law enforcement presence in schools. Students walk through metal detectors every day, and are routinely (and sometimes forcefully) confronted by security guards. The same students are criminalized outside of school grounds, thanks to city-widejumpouts. Police officers in unmarked cars routinely “jump out” of their vehicles and aggressively search young people of color — often with guns drawn. D.C. Lawyers for Youth (DCLY) estimates juvenile justice spending for one young person is four times more than money spent on a public middle school student in the city.

“Current events have made very clear the need for this work,” Levner said. “We can recognize that if we’d been listening to young people all along, we would’ve avoided these tragedies in the first place. Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.”

Young people didn’t find out that they were being treated poorly by police from CNN. CNN could’ve asked them any time.

As Baltimore protests erupted, many activists pointed to the dismal situation facing young people of color as a reason Freddie Gray’s death resonated with so many residents. For instance, the unemployment rate among young adults in Baltimore stands at 37 percent, while the city’s general unemployment rate sits at 8.9 percent. That, along with underfunded schools and few community resources has left young people with little to do. For people living in rundown neighborhoods, all of these factors contributed youth outrage, which reached a boiling point on April 27. Indeed, the combination of poverty and frustrations with the status quo has inspired many students to join grassroots activist networks across the country.

Police square off against Baltimore demonstrators.

Police square off against Baltimore demonstrators.


Although one of Critical Exposure’s goals is to provide a platform for youth to educate the public and push for systemic change, teachers have learned a good deal from their students as well. Akil Kennedy, a world history teacher at Luke Moore Academy told event attendees, “In going out and taking pictures of their lives and taking pictures of the schools, [they] helped me learn a lot more about the lives of my students and what they go through everyday. That’s something that’s extremely valuable as a teacher…learning the things that stir them up [and] motivate them, and using those things to move them forward.”

In fact, those who participate in the program are redefining school curricula. According to Kennedy, schools follow strict schedules, leaving little time to learn about students outside of the classroom. One of the key components of national curricula is the ability to read and write, which can lead to a rigid style of teaching and learning. By integrating photography and providing the opportunity to develop campaigns and see them through, students are actively changing the main pillars of education.

Amir Price stands in front of his Black Lives Matter exhibit at Critical Exposure's 'No Filter' event.

Amir Price stands in front of his Black Lives Matter exhibit at Critical Exposure’s ‘No Filter’ event.


“The really big push right now [is] literacy, but we only think of one literacy, and that’s text-based literacy,” Kennedy said. “There’s also media literacy, which is all around us every day, whether it’s on your phone, computer, television. You look at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — my students are on it all the time, taking pictures of themselves, documenting their lives. Students want that creativity; that’s what Critical Exposure gives them a chance to do.”

For Amir and his peers, that creativity fuels a greater purpose. “I want to achieve social justice. I want to make sure that all sides are being shown, and that the people have a voice,” he said. That same spirit is behind youth engagement in cities across the country, from Ferguson to Baltimore and D.C.

July 3, 2015

Many students across the US must undergo security screening before entering their schools each day - including placing their bags in x-ray machines and walking through metal detectors.

Security guards, police officers or both are often working on the premises.

A Washington DC after-school programme called Critical Exposure brought a group of students together to discuss how this impacts their education.

Over the past year they photographed symbols of security in their schools, and met school officials to voice their concerns.

Police say security is necessary to keep students safe - particularly in areas with gang-related activities.

This video is the first in the BBC series Summer in the City, which will speak to young people across the US about the issues affecting their communities.

Produced by Lynsea Garrison and David Botti

May, 2015

On May 20, 2015, PEPCO’s Edison Gallery was absolutely packed with people who had come to see Critical Exposure’s annual show.  According to Adam Levner, founder and executive director, over 400 people attended NO FILTER, the annual exhibit of youth photography for social change.

An intense security check, designed to share students’ every day experience entering school, did not deter attendance.  The students, trained by Critical Exposure in advocacy and activism, decided that they wanted others to know what it feels like to walk through a metal detector and have a security guard wave a wand over you.  People were abuzz, talking about this experience.

“We’re trying to create the next generation of youth activists,” Adam Levner said. “We’re glad people were so engaged and impacted by what the students has to share.”

For nearly ten years, Critical Exposure has been teaching youth photography and advocacy skills, so that they can tell their stories – in new and creative ways – and create change.

Critical Exposure partners with Washington, DC, high schools.  Their partners for the 2014-2015 school year included Coolidge Senior High School, Luke C. Moore Academy, Next Step Public Charter School, and the Washington Metropolitan High School.

Akil Kennedy, an instructor at the Luke C. Moore Academy, said that it’s easier for some high school kids to take a photo and talk about the photo than to tell an adult what’s on their minds.  For some youth, photography is a catalyst for dialogue about issues in their world.  It also becomes a tool for challenging – and changing – the dominant narrative on a variety of topics.

One student said, “I learned how to actually tell my story through photography.  I can take a photo of something that’s bothering me.” Critical Exposure students talk – as a group – about things that affect them, and decide – as a group – what they will work on. They then look for allies who can help with the issue, and learn to advocate on their own behalf to authorities. The end result is some meaningful change in students’ lives.

This past year, topics included resource disparities and school facilities, school uniforms, and a range of other issues.  At their own initiative, several current and former students attended rallies against police brutality, taking photographs to document the movement: Black Lives Matter.  In the aftermath of the riots, one Critical Exposure fellow and two alums traveled to Baltimore to photograph and videotape events.  The result was an amazing social media campaign and an extremely moving portion of NO FILTER.

“We’re excited about the quality of the student’s work and the depth of what they had to share,” Adam Levner said.