The power of a portrait: bringing free school pictures to inner-city students

This post was originally published on PICR, but disappeared after the company restructured. I have shared it here because it’s a story that should be seen.

When she was a child, Nicole Bozickovich took her school photos for granted. Most kids did. They’d show up on a particular day, wait in line, sit down, wait for a flash to go off, and then continue about their days. But when the 23-year-old college graduate landed a job teaching art at STEAM Academy of Akron, she found out that the majority of students planned to opt out of annual school photos due to the cost.

Bozickovich got her start in teaching while a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she studied photography. While there, she enrolled in a somewhat experimental course, titled “Putting Artists in the Classroom.” The elective aimed to provide CIA students with teaching experience by placing them in the classrooms of schools that couldn’t otherwise afford art teachers. Bozickovich fell in love with it.

“I realized my place was helping inner-city kids,” she said. She went on to repeat the course four times.

Her passion for helping children culminated with her thesis project at CIA. It was a photo series that documented everyday objects that had been used in cases of child abuse. The project revealed how a seemingly innocuous object can be something sinister from another’s perspective, and drew awareness to the issues of child abuse.

After graduating in 2014, Bozickovich’s student teaching experience brought her to STEAM Academy, a charter school serving inner-city kids from kindergarten through sixth grade. Although she had studied as a photographer for many years, it was here where Bozickovich would come to learn the true power of a photograph.

In her second grade class, very few of her students were able to afford school pictures. To the kids whose families couldn’t afford them, a school portrait wasn’t something to be taken for granted. It was a privilege.

Sitting in her car in a parking lot last Saturday, Bozickovich, now 24, took a few moments between errands to share her story with PICR over Skype. It must have been the hundredth time she’d told it, but she was no less excited to talk about it. She spoke quickly and eagerly, but completely, with an eloquence that belied her age.

Fueled both by a passion for helping people and her own youthful exuberance, she decided to take things into her own hands. It was just her first year as a full-time teacher, but she had a degree in photography, so why not photograph the students, herself?

Of course, to be done correctly, school portraits need more than just a camera. Lights, backgrounds — these were things Bozickovich didn’t have immediate access to. She knew she had to look beyond STEAM Academy for help. On a whim, she reached out to the head of the photography department at Cleveland Institute of Art, Nancy McEntee, to see if her alma mater would be willing to loan any photo equipment. To her delight, CIA didn’t just agree to provide equipment, it also decided to send over four current students to assist with the project.

Bozickovich was blown away with CIA’s generosity, but the real work was just beginning. It was now on her to plan and organize every aspect of the shoot. The first step was simply getting the word out. She wrote a letter to the parents, explaining the project and how pictures would be free for everyone. She sent the letter home with students, confident that parents would be thrilled with the news.

For some parents, however, the news was simply too good to be true. After receiving the letter, one mother paid a visit to the school to speak with Bozickovich, wondering, where’s the catch? Surely, she would have to pay for something — a minimum print order, a delivery fee, something.

Bozickovich reassured her that, no, she didn’t owe a dime — everything would be provided for free. The woman’s wary concern immediately turned to relief and joy. As Bozickovich remembered it, “She told me, ‘This is helping me so much. You don’t even understand.’” It was a moment of realization for Bozickovich, a reveal of the full importance of her project. “That really brought everything into perspective for me,” she said.

The next step was figuring out the logistics. She created the schedule, assigned responsibilities to the volunteers, and made sure the right equipment was in the right place at the right time.

“That was a little scary for me, because I put so much trust into [my volunteers],” Bozickovich told Akron Life in an interview. “If we miss something, I don’t know what we’re going do. There’s no backup!”

Despite all of her worries, the day went off without a hitch. Bozickovich and her team photographed 150 portraits of students, an additional seven class photos, and portraits of faculty and staff. Most of the kids had never seen the type of professional photography equipment CIA had donated, making it all the more impressive.

Whatever the stress, it was worth it. Turns out, that silly school photo that so many privileged students take for granted was actually far from silly. For students at STEAM Academy of Akron, that picture became a point of pride. “It’s something simple that helped the community and boosted children’s confidence,” Bozickovich said.

It was a day she will never forget. Nor will she forget the excitement in the faces of her students when they came in to get their pictures taken. Parents, freed of the burden of having to pay for photos, put extra time and care into preparing their children for the big day. Bozickovich remembers one particular student, a boy in kindergarten, who showed up in a suit. Another, a girl, arrived with freshly styled hair, proclaiming excitedly, “I got to get my hair done!”

Taking the photos was only half the battle, though. Delivering them presented another challenge. “I knew it was important to provide physical prints, since not all the students would have a computer at home to view the photos,” Bozickovich said. She again turned to CIA for help.

“I asked for one 8×10, two 5x7s, and four wallets for each student. CIA donated everything.”

Of her partnership with CIA, Bozickovich said she is “beyond thankful” that the school put its trust in her. And CIA isn’t the only one. Other businesses stepped up to offer support, including local print company, Jakprints, who heard about the project after it was complete. The company reached out to Bozickovich to ask if there was any way it could be of service.

“At that time, everything was already taken care of,” Bozickovich said. But then she remembered something: students at the STEAM Academy had never been offered yearbooks, as it had always been assumed too few would have class pictures. She brought this up with Jakprints, and the company was more than happy to help. It produced a 28-page, full-color yearbook that was delivered for free to all 150 students, just in time for the final week of school.

The event was an incredible success, well-received by students, parents, and the greater community. Jakprints CEO, Nick DeTomosso, said it was “about as meaningful of a project we come across.” CIA’s Nancy McEntee lauded the project for demonstrating the value of photography to the Institute’s students, commenting in a blog post that they “learned using their unique artistic skills for the benefit of others is extremely fulfilling.”

Riding high on her success, Bozickovich knew she had to do the project again next year. But just repeating the previous event simply wasn’t enough. She wanted to do more, but also knew that growing the program would not be easy.

Fortunately, Bozickovich’s work caught the attention of media outlets in the Cleveland area, which helped bolster support for the project. “The public is aware and wants to get more involved,” she said.

She’s now in the process of forming a nonprofit organization which will help her provide free photography services to additional charter schools. She plans to add a new school each year, so as to grow the program steadily without overwhelming herself or impacting her ability to continue to teach.

When asked about the challenge in setting up a nonprofit, Bozickovich confirmed it was no easy task. Fortunately, through her contacts at CIA, she’s been able to move relatively quickly through the process. She was also able to take advantage of several resources Cleveland has to provide assistance to those working in the arts.

In detailing her plans for the organization, Bozickovich was still a little in shock about the whole idea. “Oh my god, I’m 24 years old and about to own my own nonprofit!” she said.

Thankfully, she’s not alone in this endeavor. CIA will be offering internships to photography students who volunteer to shoot school portraits through Bozickovich’s as-yet-unnamed organization. This will help provide the staffing she needs to offer photography services to more schools.

With school out for summer, Bozickovich continues to work as a freelance photographer, shooting mostly weddings and bar mitzvahs. She also leads a youth intro to photography class as part of CIA’s summer continuing education program, where she has the not-so-easy job of teaching Adobe Photoshop to fourth through sixth graders.

Every spare thought, however, remains focused on her nonprofit and the upcoming school year at STEAM Academy.

While the program could expand in the future, for now, Bozickovich wants to stay focused on the greater Cleveland area, working to support local inner-city students and families. She cites NBA star LeBron James, who grew up in Akron, as a major source of inspiration. “Clearly, he is huge here,” she said. “He’s provided so much to change the community for the better.”

Bozickovich may not have LeBron James’ fame — nor his money — but she shares his dedication to community. She has successfully woven together her passions for photography and teaching into one simple, yet powerful goal: “I want every kid to know that they’re important enough to get their photo taken,” she said. “Even if they can’t afford it.”

Nicole Bozickovich can be reached at clevelandoutreach@gmail.com.

One thought on “The power of a portrait: bringing free school pictures to inner-city students

  1. I forwarded this on to Teresa Langness, the head of Full Circle Learning and the Climate Change summer camp. Here was her response.

    Dear Rene,

    Thank you for this story. It made me cry. It will be wonderful to have Daven at the camp! And thank you for the lovely soup and wonderful afternoon.–and especially for your love and prayers for the programs.

    Much love, Teresa

    Love you, Mom

    Like

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