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The Storyteller's Voice: An Intensive Documentary Photography Project

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At 1 p.m. each Sunday afternoon during the month of March, 14 adults eagerly gathered at Venice Arts' Center for Media & Learning on Lincoln Boulevard to await the start of The Storyteller's Voice. This month-long intensive workshop kicked off Venice Arts' free 18-month documentary project, the Community Story Lab, which expands access for underserved adults to photography, filmmaking, and media arts as tools for engaged community storytelling. Each participant arrived with a different level of experience -- some are trained as photographers, some shoot for fun, and others have never picked up a camera. Everyone was actively engaged and devoted, as though they had been waiting years for an opportunity like this to open up.

Renowned documentary photographer and Guggenheim Fellow Sara Terry is leading the workshop, infusing each class with insights from her decades of experience shooting post-conflict photographs, self-portraiture, and landscapes. She is a tenacious instructor, devoted to getting the best photograph out of each photographer, and to pushing each and everyone to find their "visual voice" through the use of composition, lighting, blur, movement, and time. After establishing a safe space for speaking truthfully, participants shared their own stories, struggles, and successes alongside weekly assignments. The theme for the first week, self-portraits, kicked the month into a deeply personal realm, imbuing the team with a great sense of camaraderie and trust.

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The following weeks expanded into storytelling through investigations of the emotions of a photograph, and how to convey the unseen and the unfelt. Participants were given poems as prompts and were then sent into their worlds to shoot. When to click the shutter? When a squirrel makes eye contact. Where to take a photograph? Between two mirrored sculptures. Each photographer returned with a unique take, creating a dynamic collection of work, a conversation amongst themselves as photographers. The fourth assignment sent the participants on a rocket ship to outer space -- if we only had 24 hours left on this earth, what single photograph would we take with us to remind us, or allow us to forget, the complexity of our lives?

Now, the investigation into the personal community that has been created in The Storyteller's Voice is expanding outward towards and with others. We will continue to investigate what it means to be a photographer, to document our communities, and how we can all participate in the making and shaping of our own stories. From here on out, the prompts will be shared online, so that you, the KCET community, can share your own stories and images and participate in this exercise in community storytelling. The intensive documentary project and online forum will be complemented by Monthly Drop-In Labs at Venice Arts, open to the public, where you -- the community -- can learn a variety of media arts storytelling skills and techniques. The results of our work this year will culminate in a high-profile exhibition in April 2015, during Month of Photography Los Angeles.

As a program assistant, I am continually touched by the creativity, inspiration, and drive that each participant brings to each workshop. I am in awe of what was produced -- both photographs and artistic bonds -- and look forward to what comes in the next year.

Venice Arts' Community Story Lab project is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

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