Spilling out from a lesson at Caffe Dolce, the student photographers set out to document Jay Street in Schenectady. The snapping of shutters and the voices of photographers calling, “Can I take your picture?” quickly fill the tiny street.
The eight students are clients in Schenectady County Association of Retarded Citizens'Maple Ridge and Princetown day treatment programs, and their teachers are Martin Benjamin,
Union professor of photography; Manisha Tinani, a senior chemistry major; and Noelle Pirnie, a junior social sciences major.
Benjamin began working with the ARC over a year ago, and this spring began teaching a
class of ARC clients. Teaching assistants Pirnie and Tinani — who process film, contact
sheets and prints made by developmentally disabled members of the class — are using the
experience to make photographs of their own as part of an internship for credit.
Armed with 35 mm cameras, black and white film (provided by a $1,000 grant from Ilford
Corp. of Paramus, N.J.) and some instructions, the ARC students set off each class to take
pictures at their schools or on field trips to places such as Jay Street, Jumpin' Jack's
or Union College. They also bring their cameras home over the week — taking pictures of
family, friends, staff members — and return to class with more pictures to be developed.
At the start of each class, Tinani and Pirnie return and discuss prints made during a
previous class. “They're always excited,” Benjamin says of the ARC students.
“They love getting their pictures back.”
The students often have different ideas of what are good photos, Pirnie explains. What
they think are bad pictures, are often their best, most interesting work. “Sometimes
they have some really good accidents,” says Benjamin.
Pirnie, who has been working with Benjamin since the start of the project, noticed a
change in her work as time went on and she got to know the clients. “I was a little
uneasy at first,” she says. “What were first portraits of the 'mentally
disabled' have turned into just portraits, and you can see that by looking at my
Tinani, of Selkirk, N.Y., volunteered for the Albany ARC while she was in high school,
and enjoys teaching and working with the participants. “It's a lot of work,” she
says. “But it's also fun and exciting.”
For Benjamin, who has been teaching for 26 years, the experience has been
“different and amazing” from teaching undergraduates, in part, he says, because
the ARC students “have no fear and they present themselves exactly as they are. Each
class is exhilarating.”
Plans are to display photos by the students and their teachers in a campus show next