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Prints of Youth : Gifted Students Photograph the World Through Children’s Eyes

Photography gives children power, Winifred Meiser believes. “To a child, posing peers, parents and other adults for pictures offers a real sense of individual control,” said the Van Nuys free-lance photographer.

Meiser is founder of “Through Children’s Eyes,” a nonprofit organization that teaches gifted and talented children ages 9 to 12 the rudiments of photography. Some of the intriguing results are on display through May 27 at the Encino-Tarzana branch library in Tarzana.

Photos in the exhibit, including a few in black and white, show a uniquely youthful perception of the world. Among the enlarged pictures are children boarding a bus, children playing flutes, ducks on a lake, a butterfly on a leaf, a dog catching a Frisbee, a beat-up stop sign, a truck and a goat.

The program began one day in 1982 when a friend of Meiser’s, a local elementary school teacher of gifted children, asked her to speak to a class about photography. Meiser, wanting the class to be hands-on rather than “just another talk,” asked camera companies to donate equipment.

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“I was totally naive about the business end of doing something like this,” she explained. “I was doing it ad-lib, and it worked very well.” Cameras and materials for the first projects were supplied by Vivitar, Nikon, Fuji Photo, Fox Photo Labs, Illford and others.

Other photography programs followed, including several in the Valley. In 1983, Van Nuys Elementary School had a turn, and, last summer, students at Napa Street Elementary School in Northridge participated. Meiser is excited about the next program, planned for this summer, which will be filmed for KCET’s Video Log.

“The point of the class is to help the children be aware and to notice things in their environment,” said Meiser, “not to turn them into expert photographers.” Once a person has spent time behind a lens, thinking about composition, she said, he or she will see things in a different way.

“My husband says I go around with a millimeter eye,” she said, laughing.

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Another side effect of the sessions is an increase in self-esteem. “They learn confidence when they go out and use the camera,” she said, “when they have to ask people to pose a certain way, when they make decisions about what kind of exposure they want. And they are always thrilled to see their own work on display.”

Meiser, 40, is from Port Glasgow, Scotland, and still speaks with an accent. She is married and has a 22-year-old daughter. Meiser said she puts “25 hours a day” into Through Children’s Eyes, working out of her home office.

Emphasis on ‘Ripple Effect’

Besides her magazine assignments, she has contributed to “Women in Work” (NewSage Press, 1986), and has had her work displayed in the Los Angeles World Trade Center, Convention Center and UCLA. She has donated many hours of photographic effort on behalf of the American Business Women’s Assn., and the West Valley chapter named her Woman of the Year in 1986.

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When discussing Through Children’s Eyes, Meiser emphasizes the “ripple effect.” Benefits accrue not only to the five or so youngsters directly involved, but to other children in the school, even to the surrounding community. The whole class or school gets involved with viewing the photos, answering questions and writing essays and poems about them. Copies of photos are given to children to make photo collages.

Through Children’s Eyes keeps the negatives when each program is complete. Exhibits have been held at locations large and small, including banks, pizza parlors, PhotoShow International at the Los Angeles Convention Center, the Mid Valley YMCA, Northridge Fashion Center, Los Angeles Children’s Museum, Los Angeles City Hall Tower Room and the San Fernando Valley Fair.

Meiser has received requests for information from all over the country, and she estimates that at least 200 schools are waiting for their turn to participate. Therefore, fund raising is a top priority.

“What makes it work,” said Meiser, “is community involvement. Businesses of all sizes have contributed funds and services, from The Darkroom Processing Labs and Fox Photo Labs in Northridge to Triola’s Wall Street Pizza in Panorama City and Canoga Park.”

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Bert Eifer, president of Associated Photographers International in Woodland Hills, the largest association of photographers in the world, serves as vice president of Through Children’s Eyes. When he first saw an exhibit of the project’s photographs, he said, “I was astounded that what I was looking at was done by kids. The quality of the work, the eye of these kids was incredible. It took me a flash to see how this could lift the esteem of kids with good minds who come from poor neighborhoods.”

A small grant has been applied for, and plans include office space and a permanent gallery open to the public. Meiser would like to see the programs generate a book on children’s photography, including children’s writings from a cross-section of American cities.

Most of the children chosen to participate in Through Children’s Eyes have been from low-income families. Among the requirements for participation are that students be enrolled in a gifted or talented program at school.

The public schools involved provide an instructor, transportation and a chaperone for field trips and schedule at least one non-competitive exhibition of the children’s work.

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In return, the school is provided cameras, film, developing costs and exhibition enlargements. The organization now has only four cameras (Vivitar XV-5s and Nikon EMs) because three were stolen from the office last year. Vivitar has arranged to replace the stolen cameras.

‘Really Bright Kids’

The children meet either as part of their regular gifted class, before or after school or in the summer for 12 three-hour classes, including about nine field trips. Optimum class size is five.

Some instructors are college students who get individual study credit for their participation. Rose Trumar, 65, of Van Nuys, an advanced photography student at CSUN, volunteered to teach the program at Napa Street Elementary School.

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“They were really bright kids,” said Trumar. “The first day we went to the beach and they went hog wild. Thirty-six pictures of their friends. We had them printed the next day and talked about what was good and what they wanted to do next time. They learned instantly.”

Asked how he felt about his participation in the program and having his parents see his photos, Tunc Yazici, 11, said he was “proud.”

Through Children’s Eyes exhibit may be viewed through May 27 in the children’s department at the branch library, 18231 Ventura Blvd. Library hours are Monday through Thursday, 1 to 8 p.m.; Friday, 1 to 5:30 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Perry is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

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