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June 4, 2002 

Ready, aim, click

Armed with cameras and a licence into cyberspace, kids across the country are breaking down geographical barriers and building visual portals into their lives in a way that hasn't been done before.

It's simple, really. When you take a photograph, add the Internet, multiply the audience and subtract feelings of isolation, you're left with the Student Cross Canada Photography Exhibit.

It's an equation that Toronto photographer Martha Henrickson, 60, came up with last year when she launched the Web site. It gives teenagers a voice through the visual medium of photography and an opportunity to share snapshots of their lives.

The photos are mostly of rural communities that dot the country's landscape from sea to sea, as seen through the eyes of teenagers. Sheets of ice cascading down mountainsides and skateboarders frozen in mid-air during gravity-defying feats reveal the sombre natural beauty that surrounds them and the typical teenage antics they engage in.

The idea first came to Henrickson two years ago, while she was travelling by train through Ontario's backwoods. There she was, looking out the window onto an idyllic landscape slumbering beneath a blanket of snow, when a snowmobile whizzed by, shattering the peaceful image and rousing her from her thoughts. Suddenly, she thought of the many lives that stirred beyond the horizon, inside each building and behind every curtain.

"You pass through so many small communities when you're on the train and I thought of all the young people living out there who might feel isolated and were looking for ways to express themselves with others across the country."

After numerous attempts, Henrickson finally got Kodak Canada to supply 500 disposable cameras and e-mailed invitations to museums, libraries and schools everywhere. The process is simple. Contact her through the Web site, she sends you a 27-exposure camera, you take pics, mail back the camera, she pays for the developing, picks a few prints to put online and then returns the original photos and negatives to you.

She hasn't had participants from Manitoba, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories or the Yukon, but she's hopeful they'll eventually respond, making the Web site a veritable cross-Canada exhibit.

There's no cost to the student, so there's no excuse. Henrickson picks up the tab for all the shipping and processing. She admits she lost count of how much she was spending as soon as the costs started to mount. But she can't resist, she's driven to keep covering them, making her a patron of her own art.

"My hope is to allow access to each community, enabling young people to communicate with each other through their vision of the beauty of their communities all across Canada," she writes in an invitation on her Web site, to which 300 have responded.

"I hope they connect," she sighs. "That's the big question. Do they really look at what others in the country are doing?"

The answer, it seems, is a resounding yes.

"I thought it'd be interesting to see what other people's communities were like and how they saw it through their own eyes," says Andrea Valade, 19, of Sudbury, who first heard of the project last year through the local library.

"That's the part that I enjoyed the most, was looking at other people's photos and being able to share with them how I see my community."

And what she shared weren't images of dark smokestacks piercing the skyline most often associated with Sudbury, home of the giant Inco mine and the Big Nickel they were breathtaking snapshots of the beauty and colour of the city.

For Valade, an avid photographer who's now studying photography at Ryerson University in Toronto, the most challenging part was shooting with a disposable camera. "It was tough because I couldn't control any settings, so the photos I took were the raw thing what it looked like to the eye, there was no manipulation."

For sleepy-eyed teens in homeroom, morning announcements are a blaring wake-up call. But for Stephanie Conway, news of a photographic Web site seeking submissions pushed her deeper into dreaming about a career as a photographer of rock bands.

"My dream is to work for Rolling Stone magazine or Spin," says the 18-year-old from Newfoundland. "I love the emotions that come through when musicians play it's emotional and intense. But I also love taking scenic pictures."

Because her school wasn't involved with the project, Conway took the initiative to contact Henrickson, who then became a sort of mentor to the budding photographer. It was an experience that cemented Conway's ambitions and a connection that opened up a world of possibilities.

"The Web site really got me into taking photos. It was a good launching ground and it was exciting to think that they'd appear on the Worldwide Web.

"Taking pictures is a way to express myself," says the dyed-red spiky-haired teen from the small town of Paradise, where "everyone looks like a clone."

"Some people express themselves when they go out with their friends and party, some express themselves through their clothing, I do it through my pictures."

For Winnie Ng, 16, of Penetanguishene, capturing the beauty of her town and containing it to just one roll of film was tough. So she planned each shot with precision before clicking, not wanting to waste even one frame.

"Every street, tree, rock, has a history that contributes to the community," she wrote in a note accompanying her photos.

"It was exciting," she recalls about the project that her Grade 10 art class participated in last year.

"It got me interested in something I might want to pursue," she says, adding she's still not sure what she'll study at university.

"I really learned a lot about photography," says the soft-spoken teenager, whose prior experience was limited to a point and shoot approach, taking pictures at family gatherings and goofing around with friends. "I learned about setting, composition and how light projects to create certain moods."

Across the country in Chase, B.C., Dalana Waterston, 19, felt the same frustration as Ng in trying to capture the tranquility of her small fishing and logging village, confining it to a frame and trying to convince the world of its splendour. Nonetheless, it was one of the coolest class projects she's ever worked on.

"I wanted to capture the fact that just because we're small, doesn't mean we're not beautiful," she says. "It's cool to think that people are acknowledging that we're here, that people want to know about us because they usually just pass through on their way to other tourist spots," she says with a sigh.

Fusing teenagers with art and the Internet seemed like a perfect blend, recalls high school teacher Grant McLaughlin about being approached with the idea last year.

"Kids today are more savvy with the Internet, so it seemed like a good match. Every year more and more kids use the Internet as a resource. It's the direction we're moving in even in art," says McLaughlin, a teacher at Central Collegiate Secondary School in Moose Jaw, Sask.

Thanks to the Internet, today's teens have a greater connection to the world and thanks to this project, they're sharing a tiny slice of it called Moose Jaw.

"It was a way to connect them with other kids across the country, to see what others were doing and where they were living," he says. "They were quite enthusiastic and excited that their pictures would be on the Net."

One student, 17-year-old Sheena Edmiston, says capturing the beauty of her town was an impossible feat, since there's nothing aesthetic about it.

"I don't like it here, so I took pictures of what was interesting." That was a week-long challenge that confined Edmiston to the family's farm, where an interest surfaced in surroundings she had always considered mundane. Bales of hay stacked so high they looked like the leaning tower of Pisa, dry yellow fields that stretched out to the horizon where they met with a dismal grey sky, and a lone basketball net that hung motionless on the side of an old, weather-beaten barn, all suddenly came alive, peaking her curiosity and rousing her attention.

Even though she didn't connect to the "beauty" of Moose Jaw, she was connecting with something more important herself.

It's a sentiment succinctly captured by another Saskatchewan girl.

"I am me, I have eyes and senses," the student wrote to Henrickson in a letter that accompanied her photographs. "They see in pictures and snapshots of life. I am only 15, yet I have stored a million snapshots in my brain. This is my life caught on camera. I looked at my backyard in the same light as usual, but saw it in a different one."