What happens when you put cameras into the hands of the most marginalized members of our community?

The Hart House Camera Club has put their cameras to good use, lending their equipment and expertise to an exciting initiative proposed by third-year Sociology and English major, Jennifer Simpson.

As a counsellor at Dowling Residence, a transitional home for men who have experienced mental illness and extreme poverty, Jennifer wanted to give her residents an opportunity to go out into the community and express themselves through art.

With support from the Good-Ideas Fund, that initiative has culminated with Visions, a powerful Talking Walls Photography Exhibition that amplifies the voices in our community that so often go unheard. 

Tell us about this collaboration between the Hart House Camera Club and the Dowling Residence.

I have been working at Dowling Community Service Residence as a counsellor for two and a half years now. During that time, I’ve become close to the men who live there and found that participating in activities—whether it’s baking, going for a walk, or playing cards—boosts morale and bonding. Many of the people at the house have free time and, if there’s nothing to do, can become easily bored.

The idea for this project came about one afternoon while we brainstormed fun activities they may be interested in. The idea with the photography was to provide these men with the opportunity and equipment necessary for artistic expression, equipment they would otherwise not have had access to. We spent two days walking around Parkdale, Roncesvalles and High Park, capturing images which resonated in some way with the residents.

Some students volunteered their time and joined us on the walk, helping the residents with the various camera settings and the basics of photographic composition. The Hart House Camera Club was a natural ally and assisted by helping to organize the event by providing equipment and lots of helpful advice.

What kind of photographs or points of view can audiences expect from the exhibit?

The photographs are an interesting blend of street style photography and beautiful nature shots. Some interesting perspectives are seen in many of the photographs. I was very pleasantly surprised by how many of the shots show an appreciation for natural beauty. There are some great shots that were taken at the High Park petting zoo. Many photographs focused on fences and rails, which I found particularly interesting, as some of the residents have experienced incarceration in the past.

Can you describe your experience? What part of the process was most rewarding?

I hadn’t realized quite how much work putting together an exhibit would be, but am really grateful to have been given the opportunity to do so. Going forward, I feel much more confident that I can complete more projects like this in the future. It would not have been possible without the generous grants received from the Good Ideas Fund at Hart House and the Centre for Community Partnerships’ Community Engaged Initiative Grant. Much assistance also came from Hart House Camera Club advisor, Rick Palidwor, as well as the student volunteers.

The most rewarding part of this process was seeing how happy the residents were on the days we were out taking photographs. Seeing them out of their comfort zone, trying something new and talking to the volunteers was great. They were very appreciative and told me many times that they enjoyed the experience.

When they saw their photographs printed, framed, and hanging on the Talking Walls, they were very proud of themselves, which was one of the main goals of this project. It was lovely to see them so happy.

Was there anything about it that surprised you?

I was surprised that this project appealed to several other people. Initially it was meant to be a small project that then turned into a proper exhibition with funding and a nice reception at Hart House. I applied for the first grant, not necessarily expecting to get it, and was happily surprised that others were also invested in creating a greater sense of community engagement.