Photo club led by Cat Schick offers the homeless a way to express themselves
On an unusually warm February day in Calgary, Karim has joined Cat Schick, a fine-art photographer with nearly three decades of experience, for a photo walk.
For a few hours, they stroll through the downtown east side taking pictures.
Karim, who is presently homeless, carries a walking cane in one hand and an old red backpack in the other.
“Photography was my passion back in Africa,” he says, referring to his homeland, Tanzania.
“I wanted to get into it, but I never got a chance to.”
Shortly after the walk has begun, the digital point-and-shoot that Schick has offered him to use stops working. Schick shuffles through her bag of used cameras and quickly offers him a new one.
“I find it a bit frustrating to just be able to lend the camera to the client for an hour and then [tell them] they have to give it back,” she says of her self-funded stash. “I want them to be able to keep the cameras and use them between workshops.
“I want them to be able to go out and take pictures, and then we would talk about them at the next meeting, and talk about technique and composition.”
Schick says that a group of artists on the This Is My City team are working on organizing and finding support in the city so that programs like the photo club can get the support it would need to thrive.
This Is My City began as a municipally-funded multi-discipline art program in 2009, which offered the city’s most “ignored, shunned, looked down upon” groups an opportunity to learn the arts.
After the funding for the initiative was cut in “early 2010,” Cat and the This Is My City crew — a group of 12 artists — decided to continue their work, bringing art to the homeless, and have become what Schick calls a “homeless, homeless organization.”
Part of her work has been to reignite the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre’s photo club — offering members of the homeless community a chance to learn about photographic “technique and composition” through practice.
For Karim, the club means much more than art for art’s sake — he sees photography as a way of “moving up in the world,” and perhaps even a means of making a living in the future.
“But even if I don’t make money,” he says, “I like taking photographs. I want to know what is photographic, and now (the opportunity) has popped up.”
For the next couple of hours, Karim and Schick search the cityscape for lights, angles and people to take snapshots of. Schick shares tips and other photographic secrets from her wealth of experience as a veteran photographer.
As lunchtime at the Calgary Drop-In and Rehab Centre approaches, Schick and Karim part ways behind the black bars of the shelters back entrance, and make plans to meet again soon for another lesson.
Art: a way for the homeless to heal
David Burke, volunteer and special initiatives coordinator for the Alpha House detox and shelter, says that when Schick worked with his clients while the This Is My City project still had ample funding, her lesson plans helped with much more than art skills.
“In terms of addiction, any type of expression is a good thing,” he says after bumping into Schick at a noisy east side coffee house. “People have to get out their feelings. They have to break through denial. Art can be a safe way to do that.
“Especially when you are in a shelter environment.
“We miss working with (Schick),” he says. “It really worked for people.”
Schick’s hope for the This Is My City project to keep going remains strong.
“For the future, we hope to see long-term, consistent programming in all of the [homeless] agencies,” she says.
“A long-term goal would be to have a location — somewhere in downtown where people, marginalized or not, could come to have space to be creative, teach and learn, and build community.”
Arts tend to be low on the priority for non-profit homeless funding. Schick says that she disagrees with the notion that art is simply a luxury.
“I would argue that arts is extremely necessary for everyone’s mental health,” she says.
For more information on the This Is My City project and events, check out their blog: tmccalgary.wordpress.com.