Kalamazoo's City Snaps 2021 was about 'Putting the camera in everyone’s hands'

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Kalamazoo's downtown parks boast new artwork these days, and it was created by some of the city’s youngest residents. The 150 youth who attended the City of Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation 2021 Summer Camps collectively shot over 4,000 photos—some of which were installed on outdoor vinyl in five different city parks. 

Second Wave Media sat down recently with Dream Scene Placemaking co-founder and project manager Annalee Roeder and Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School fourth-grader George Deshong to talk about the City Snaps 2021 summer camp project. 

Roeder told us she wanted “kids to be the center” of City Snaps 2021. That was the project's whole intention—inviting youth into a space that adults frequent on a daily basis, and providing them an outlet to share their perspectives. 

In this instance, the outlet was a 27 exposure, single-use, 35-millimeter film camera. Roeder says with a laugh that when she put in the order for 150 disposable cameras from New York-based Continental Photo, the company shortly reached out after to make sure there had not been a mistake. 

This is the second time Dream Scene has collaborated with the City of Kalamazoo to bring this kind of public art project to life. In 2019, Dream Scene and the City of Kalamazoo worked together on the first City Snaps Project. If you have traveled around Kalamazoo's downtown area in the last two years, you may have noticed that many of the curbside utility boxes are wrapped in photographs of the surrounding areas. Roeder says in many ways the 2019 project laid the framework for the summer camp photography project this year.

City Snaps pictures are exhibitied in five Kalamazoo City Parks.The 2019 City Snaps project showed Roeder and Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation that it was possible to do a large-scale project involving public art and have it manifest in a way that would stand up to the elements for multiple years after its creation. Roeder spoke candidly about how the 2021 project may not have happened had it not been for the Parks and Recreation office enlisting their own grant writer to help with getting the idea funded. It was an idea that came from Roeder’s mom giving her disposable cameras when she would visit her grandparents in California as a child. 

Even when the 2021 project was funded by an Irving S. Gilmore Grant with additional support from Kalamazoo's Foundation for Excellence, there were still obstacles to overcome. Dream Scene and Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation were given the task of teaching 150 Elementary and Middle School age children rudimentary photography, finding facilitators who were also photographers, and competing with the unique scheduling and safety challenges that were a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Roeder says that since the majority of the summer camps in 2021 took place outdoors the COVID-19 precautions did not restrict the young people’s ability to get more into their surroundings. 

Roeder’s interest in public art is greatly inspired by its ability to draw one into their environment. For example, Roeder and her husband Erik Vasilauskas, the other half of Dream Scene Placemaking, were astonished to see how much the young people learned simply by “putting the camera in everyone’s hands.” The kids learned more about the parks as landmarks, photography composition, and that their perspective is important. 

Camp counselors and project facilitators encouraged the campers to consider various aspects of the parks, landmarks, and art features when taking photographs, but beyond that, every aspect of the artwork belonged to the youth. 

Annalee Roeder and Erik Vasilauskas are the husband and wife team that lead Dream Scene Placemaking."I really liked taking photos of my friends, the statues, turtles, and fairy circles" at Mayors Riverfront Park, says George Deshong. He, along with the other youth, ages 5 to 15 years, could not wait to get their hands on the disposable cameras according to Roeder. 

"A lot of the mechanics of the camera were baffling to the young people," Roeder says, because the images do not appear immediately as they do on smartphones. Deshong was not phased by this though, he just "really looked forward to getting the pictures back" once they were developed.

One of the prompts that the facilitators gave the young people during the 2021 project was a photographic scavenger hunt. The photographers were told to find items such as the basketball hoop at LaCrone park, or the jungle gym and playground equipment at Mayor’s Riverfront Park. “A lot of the kids used the playground as a natural set to take photos of their friends,” said Roeder. 

The four parks where the installations are exhibited contain a lot of Kalamazoo’s history. When viewing the artwork at Mayors Riverfront Park, where Deshong’s group was stationed, it’s clear the young photographers were drawn to Mitchell Wilcox's sculpture, The Circular Ruin, and the large bridge over the Kalamazoo River, both located in the southeast area of the park. 

Deshong says he felt comfortable in Mayor’s Riverfront Park and that attending the City of Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Summer Camps previously had familiarized him with the space. While a lot of what Roeder said during her interview corresponded directly with the feedback from Deshong, one thing Roder and I as adults did not dwell on in our interview was the new friendships formed between the younger folks involved in the camp.

During the interview with Deshong, most of the answers given were fairly concise and to the point. But even through Zoom, it was easy to see the 9-year-old's face light up when his mother mentioned off-camera that he had met a friend during the 2021 City Snaps project. Deshong says that although both he and his new friend attend Parkwood Upjohn Elementary School, because they were in different grades, they most likely would not have met each other if it had not been for the summer camp photography project. 

The City Snaps 2021 project gave 150 youth the opportunity to take pictures of what caught their eye.Among the kids involved were several 14- and 15-year-olds from the All Things Possible Program, which helps near high school age folks in Kalamazoo acclimate to the ideas of leadership, nature, and career possibilities. The young people in this program did a reflection before and after they started the 2021 City Snaps photography project. They were asked one simple question, were they excited? 

Roeder says that many of the responses to the reflection came back as uninterested or apathetic, in the beginning. “By the end, the responses had all changed to excitement” to see the photographs they had taken and excitement at having done something new or realized a new talent or interest they had. 

Roeder speaks passionately about how a lot of children entered the program thinking they were not creative enough to be effective in the project but were able to see that their contribution was valuable by its completion. “There is so much power in the young people being able to see their work in public,” says Roeder. 

The City Snaps 2021 installations can be viewed 24 hours a day throughout the year in the form of photo collage banners on display at five City of Kalamazoo Parks and Recreation Summer Camp locations; LaCrone Park, Mayors Riverfront Park, Rockwell Park, Southside Park, and the Youth Development Center. Thanks to local graphic communications company Kal Blue, the photographic collages will keep their vibrancy for a very long time, and a lot of young people will get to see a representation of their incredibly important perspective in a world built for adults.


Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.