In this exclusive interview, Photo Start’s founder, David Lehman, shares the captivating tale of the organization’s inception, its foundational principles, and the unique approach to empowering young minds through photography. Explore the global impact and unexpected developments that have shaped Photo Start’s growth. Join us in envisioning the future as Photo Start continues to evolve, providing opportunities for students and making a lasting impact worldwide.
Inception and Inspiration
Can you share the story behind the inception of Photo Start?
The idea for Photo Start began when I was taking a lunch break from trading and came across an article on CNN.com. The article was about an organization in Nairobi, Kenya, that was using photography in their after-school programs, along with sports and dance. I got in touch with the head of the organization over Skype, and we spoke frequently for a period of time. While I was still living in the US, I helped develop some things for the organization. After a few weeks of speaking, I decided to visit Kenya to see what was happening there. I spent a couple of weeks teaching photography to the youth, and I fell in love with it.
What inspired you to start this organization?
The inspiration behind the organization came about during my time at law school. I was a member of the National Street Law program, where we went into schools and taught essential law in a fun and approachable way to young people who needed assistance. By teaching it in a fun and approachable way, we were able to teach very complex concepts. I took that idea and spun it off to create Photo Start. The idea is to use cameras as a means to teach individuals how to use spreadsheets, digital devices, how to type, and how to spell names correctly, among other things.
My passion for travel also inspired the start of this organization. I’ve traveled all my life and been all over the world. This is a way for me to really give back and create an impact.
I’ve been in the photography world for over 20 years, and a lot of my network is in that area. I was able to lean on friends and colleagues and create a program that is deliverable to anyone. I was a natural organizer.
What were the initial goals and founding principles of Photo Start when it started?
The initial goals and principles were to teach digital literacy, close the gap, create opportunities for young people, and make ourselves redundant in the process. Meaning that we turn the program over to the community when we’ve taught enough people who can then go on and teach it themselves. Sustainability was very important.
Did you envision the organization growing to the extent it has today, or has the journey been a series of unexpected developments?
Never thought we would be finishing our eighth year of programming – this was not something that was planned. Definitely a series of unexpected developments – an example would be before COVID-19, we always used to teach classes in person. However, during that time, we had to adapt and began doing Zoom and Hybrid classes. This actually expanded our footprint because we didn’t have to be in a particular place to teach a program. We’ve also expanded in the sense of our footprint in terms of the countries and the different places we operate.
Can you elaborate on the curriculum and approach used to empower young people through photography?
We’ve crafted a curriculum tailored for young individuals venturing into photography, whether they are beginners or possess some level of skill. Jeri Muchura, our dedicated Global Head of Programming, has invested significant effort in shaping our photography program. Likewise, Gaireyah Fredericks, our storytelling instructor, has poured considerable energy into developing an enriching curriculum for teaching the art of storytelling. Throughout our courses, we seamlessly integrate essential life skills. Our unique approach involves indirectly imparting skills; for instance, to access a camera, students must sign it out, input their names, and type – effectively incorporating typing skills. Our philosophy is akin to “hiding the broccoli in the macaroni and cheese.” We prioritize a deeper level of engagement; while taking photos is enjoyable, our focus is on fostering community involvement. Students collaborate, work together, and assume responsibilities, fostering social and emotional development in the process.
Photo Start is a global organization. Can you share some insights into how the organization expanded internationally? What considerations were taken into account when introducing the program in different regions?
The international expansion of our organization is rooted in my extensive experience with global travel. I’ve traveled internationally since my youth, and these journeys have been a significant part of both my personal and family life. I have cherished memories abroad from family trips to captivating destinations like China, South Africa, Egypt, Morocco, Cambodia, and more. While I’ve also traveled extensively on my own, the familial aspect is integral, and our organization is deeply rooted in the concept of family.
We have the flexibility to establish our organization in any location, leveraging either the existing assets of our partners or the donated equipment received from the public, who contribute by recycling second-hand electronics. Our journey began in Kenya and extended to South Africa due to my profound connection with Cape Town. The desire to make a lasting impact on this community fueled our expansion to Rwanda, Uganda, Iraq and Kurdistan, Bolivia, Malawi, and the United States, with the momentum coming from outreach, requests, referrals, and the commitment of our dedicated team.
Bolivia became another significant chapter in our story as a group of interns from there collaborated with us. They proactively established local programs, leading to remarkable growth. In other locations, capable individuals express their interest in running the program, demonstrating our ability to deliver it globally, given its digital nature and relatively low requirements for photography equipment.
When introducing our program to new regions, we adhere to a set of criteria. Our model involves finding a suitable partner, be it a non-profit or community-based organization recognized as an accredited partner in their country. Following a stringent screening process, if confirmed compatible with our program, the partner gains access to our curriculum, either with our provided teachers or by independently managing the program. Location, availability, and similar considerations are pivotal in our selection process.
How have partnerships and collaborations played a role in Photo Start’s growth? Are any notable collaborations significantly contributing to the organization’s success?
We almost exclusively use partnerships and collaborations to grow. We do not operate our own programs or buildings – we operate photo and storytelling programs in partnership with a local organization. We find the local organization or the local organization finds us. If they meet all of our criteria, we go to them in person, or their students use Zoom and meet our teachers.
We have some tremendous partnerships and collaborations. Over the past two or three years, we’ve forged a strong alliance with the City of San Francisco. This collaboration involves providing summer internships where students participate and receive compensation for their involvement in our classes. Additionally, our association with student interns in Bolivia has blossomed into a remarkable partnership. These former interns have seamlessly transitioned into valued team members, taking the initiative to run their own programs. Their impact extends far beyond their region, reaching communities beyond their immediate surroundings. Alongside these, we’ve also established private partnerships that have played a pivotal role in supporting and advancing our mission.
What do you find particularly inspiring when it comes to Photo Start?
What I find most inspiring is our Photo Start team. Our team is comprised of individuals who have been integral to our organization for years. They not only remain committed but also continually evolve alongside us. Witnessing former students transition into roles as teachers and trainers adds another layer of fulfillment. Beyond our internal dynamics, the profound impact we exert on the community stands out – the noticeable difference perceived by residents, parents, guardians, and educators alike. This collective recognition of the positive influence on young people is what holds the utmost significance for me.
What opportunities do you see on the horizon for Photo Start in terms of further expansion or impact?
We have earned recognition as subject matter experts in our field, acknowledged by the United Nations through the award of special consultative status. I envision our continuous growth on the horizon. With a substantial number of dedicated team members and trainers, we persist in training new educators who will venture into their communities, taking the lead in establishing and managing their own programs. Looking ahead, the trajectory for Photo Start and its local partners involves transitioning into logistical support organizations for programs rather than direct program operators. The ultimate objective is to render ourselves redundant, adopting a model where we enter a neighborhood, facilitate its development, transfer responsibilities, and provide remote support, enabling each community to stand independently.
Looking ahead, what is your vision for the future of Photo Start? Are there specific goals or initiatives you hope to achieve in the coming years?
Our aim is to extend programming opportunities to a broader student base. By imparting fundamental skills in digital photography, we seek to empower our students with enhanced prospects in various fields beyond photography. Additionally, we aspire to license and distribute our program, increasing its reach and bolstering our online presence to connect with a wider audience.
How can individuals or organizations support and contribute to the ongoing success of Photo Start?
Individuals and organizations can best support us by providing financial support and connections to entities offering grants or other forms of financial aid. Additionally, we welcome donations of equipment such as digital cameras, lenses, memory cards, iPads, and smartphones. We actively repurpose and recycle old equipment, turning neglected digital cameras into valuable tools for young people to acquire new skills, opportunities, and a refreshed outlook on life. Organizations can further assist by promoting our mission in their operational areas, facilitating our entry into communities, and leaving a lasting educational impact. People can also provide financial or manpower support in terms of expertise and time.
As we conclude this insightful journey into Photo Start’s narrative with its founder, David Lehman, we find ourselves inspired by the profound impact a simple idea can have on communities worldwide. The story – from inception to impact – underscores the transformative power of education, digital literacy, and the art of photography. As Photo Start continues to evolve and expand its reach, we invite you to be part of this incredible journey. Your support, whether through financial contributions, equipment donations, or simply spreading awareness, can play a pivotal role in shaping the future of Photo Start. Together, let us champion the cause of empowering young minds and fostering sustainable change.