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Learning through lenses

By Dong-Phuong Nguyen

Two lawn chairs designed with the American flag sat behind a gate with vertical bars.

Sixteen-year-old Ramon Rosado looked through the lens of his digital camera and began snapping pictures.

"The lawn chairs represent America and the bars represent the boundaries post the terrorist attacks," Ramon said. "America is behind bars."

The view of the world through the eyes of urban children was the focus Wednesday of a new program designed to familiarize youths with photography.

With the help of donated equipment from Nikon and expert leadership from David Handschuh, a New York Daily News photographer, and Doug White, a photographer and graduate student at the University of South Florida, six children got a chance recently to document their world.

The students' pictures were displayed Wednesday during a Tampa Housing Authority meeting, drawing raves about the kids and the program, called Focus on Mentoring.

"I wish I could take pictures like that," said Jerome Ryans, executive director for the Tampa Housing Authority, his eyes taking in matted images mounted on a wall at the Audley Evans Youth Center. "All of my pictures come out crooked."

The youths, who range in age from 11 to 16, were selected by the Housing Authority based on their grades, interest level and behavior.

For 10 Saturdays they went on field trips, digital cameras around their necks. Each session yielded about 90 images per child. A dog in a pirate costume. Dads hugging sons and daughters. Squealing kids in a pool of bubbles. A little boy grinning in the street.

The experience transformed Ramon from a wannabe actor to a wannabe photojournalist.

At the program's end, the Robinson High School ninth-grader begged his parents to buy him a camera. But not the kind he used to use.

"There are (digital camera) programs I didn't know," Ramon said. "Now I know how to use it, how to focus."

Ramon found himself talking to people he normally wouldn't approach and capturing the images of subjects whom he may have ignored in the past.

"It might not look like anything but you can make it into a story," Ramon said. "When you take pictures, you can see how good life is."

Ramon said if he were a photographer today, he would want to be in Afghanistan.

"That's a risk, but you have to take it if you want to take good pictures," he said.

Handschuh, the Daily News photographer, is no stranger to risks. He was injured while shooting the attack on the World Trade Center. Handschuh, 42, has had three surgeries to repair his legs and knees, which were damaged by falling debris.

While he isn't shooting for the Daily News right now, he does a lot of traveling, speaking to photojournalism groups.

It was a chance meeting on an airplane that brought Handschuh and the program to Tampa.

Handschuh was talking to an employee for Planergy International about his desire to make photography more available to children and teenagers. Mary Fox, director of public housing programs for Planergy, wanted to help.

Planergy International is currently working with the Tampa Housing Authority to cut energy costs. Fox called Handschuh about approaching Tampa officials and the program took off.

Because of the success of the mentoring program, other kids bitten by the shutterbug will now have to apply.

"It was fun," said Brittany Brown, 13. "I've been telling all of my friends."   

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