Like many people around the world in 2015, Robert Boudreau was overcome with emotion with the single image of young Syrian Alan Kurdi.
“I decided there has got to be something I can do to help immigrants in the community,” said Robert, the former director of Peterborough’s SPARK Photo Festival and a long-time volunteer with the New Canadians Centre (NCC). He began to inquire about the possibilities of a photography program for newcomers to help them tell their stories.
With much excitement and anticipation, in July 2016, NCC partnered with the SPARK Photo Festival to launch the first level of a newcomer photography program.
The first group was focused on children. Each child, ranging in ages eight to 13, was loaned a camera and invited back each month to share their photographs and receive some instruction on photography skills. After a successful set of classes and a beautiful gallery of photos on exhibit at the 2017 SPARK Photo Festival, NCC decided to continue their pilot program with a group of high school participants.
Starting in July of 2017, a dozen students between the ages of 14 and 18 came together for workshops and photography fun. Once again, the students thrived, and their artwork hung proudly at the SPARK Photo Festival in April 2018.
In the last iteration of the project, the newcomer adults and seniors level found 10 participants pouring their hearts into their cameras. Unfortunately, this group had their planned exhibit in April 2020 interrupted by COVID-19.
One of the biggest priorities of this project was providing newcomers with the opportunity to explore Peterborough through their unique lens. Participants from each level were taken on photography field trips.
Douaa Falah from the youth level remembers these trips with fondness.
“Through this program, I made friends that I talk to even now,” Douaa says. “As we went out as a group to take photos in different places, it helped me to discover more of Peterborough.”
As they continued to look for opportunities to introduce participants to the city, Robert connected participants with a local photography supplier. Participants were encouraged to go in and get free prints, allowing participants to engage with the store employees and tell them about their work.
As participants captured their world, each age group came together monthly to share with friends and instructors, learn new skills, and ultimately put their work on display in local galleries. Robert and the team adapted the workshops to suit the needs and ages of the participants.
For Yaris Hernandez Ravelo and the adult class, that meant a deep dive into the intricacies of the camera.
“What I liked the most about the photography project was that I learned the main settings for the camera like ISO, aperture, et cetera,” Yaris recalls. “I always wondered how those work.”
The opportunity to preview their work at the ReFrame Film Festival was an eye-opening and unforgettable experience for the children and youth.
“Children got to come up on the stage at ReFrame and introduce themselves,” says Robert. “They were able to see that the community was behind them. The comments we received from the public were people being amazed that children could do these things. That was a huge boost to the self-esteem of the children and teenagers.”
Hearing that overwhelming support from their community was a beautiful highlight for so many of the participants. For Zeina Mahfouz from the children’s group, her favourite part was “Showing my photos in a gallery where people can see them and give me their opinion.”
Robert truly believes in the value of photography for personal expression.
“Some people write a journal. I tell stories through photographs.”
Each participant is proudly still using their new camera skills to tell their narrative.
“Now I am using these skills whenever I want to take a beautiful picture of my family and friends so that we could save nice memories,” Zeina says.
Douaa decided to pursue her newfound joy through school.
“After the program, I bought a camera and took photography classes in school.”
While Yaris isn’t able to take as many photos because of work, she still enjoys the occasional “relaxing and exciting time looking for ideas.”
From eight to 80-year-olds and beyond, NCC’s photography project — in collaboration with SPARK — has truly provided newcomers with the opportunity to explore their new city, connect with their community, make lifetime connections and build their creative self-esteem at their own pace.
“I totally think NCC should have this program again in the future,” says Douaa. “It’s a really good program and so many of my friends ask me if they can get in.”
The photographs from each iteration of this project are permanently on display on the New Canadians Centre’s walls and are also available in a virtual exhibit at nccpeterborough.ca/inspiring-newcomers-to-discover-canada-through-photography/.
These projects have been made possible through the generous support of many individuals, donors, and organizations, including:
- City of Peterborough, with thanks to Victoria Hamilton and the late Becky Rogers
- Government of Ontario
- Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough
- Robert Boudreau, Randall Romano, Crystal Hebert, Linda Cardona, Erin Burke of SPARK Photo Festival
- Josh Resar, Peterborough Photo Service
- Kim Cranfield and Katie Watt, Publican House
- Mike Bolan, Documentary Filmmaker
- Simon Bell, Focus on Nature Guelph
- Dan Boudreau, Reau-Bot Productions
- ReFrame Film Festival
- Brant Basics
This story has been published in partnership with the New Canadians Centre.