How one photography program enriched Syracuse city schools

The PAL Project taught inner-city students photography and how to express themselves through creative writing. This is the PAL classroom at the Nancy Cantor Warehouse. Photo by Casey Russell.

When Jazmin Bell was a student at Fowler High School from 2009–2013, she wore her hair in a short ponytail. She was strong and lean, a tomboy with a pole vaulter’s muscular build. Her stomping, proud gait and raspy voice commanded respect. She didn’t like to open up about how she grew up in a New York City homeless shelter. She had trouble writing and reading. She used to get into shouting matches with her guy friends, then sit with them in the lunchroom the next day. She sometimes skipped class, and when she got mad she stormed out so she wouldn’t unleash her anger on everyone. But her photography teacher Stephen Mahan nicknamed her “The Great Jazmin Bell.”

Every weekend, Mahan gave her a camera. She’d come in on Monday with thousands of photos: Friday nights drinking and smoking blunts, Sunday mornings dancing and singing at church. Mahan started using her best shots to teach future students, and she came back to guest lecture for him. She left the PAL Program feeling inspired.

“My hands and eyes could do more than I thought they could; I’m more than what I thought I was,” she said in 2010.

Mahan kept students’ past projects in his classroom at the Warehouse. Photo by Casey Russell.

Bell was one of hundreds of Syracuse City School District students who participated in the Photography And Literacy (PAL) Project. Under Mahan’s guidance, Syracuse University students could take the PAL course offered through the Department of Transmedia in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. They developed photography and literacy projects in Syracuse schools, fostering creative expression for kids who may not have had artistic opportunities otherwise. Since 2010, PAL taught students how to use DSLR cameras and Adobe PhotoShop. It asked them to read “Fences” by August Wilson and “Push” by Sapphire. Nestled under the Coalition of Museum and Art Centers, PAL collaborated with organizations across the city.

Mahan, the Renaissance Man and leader, had piercing blue eyes and kept a fedora or a snapback on his close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. His older brother Mickey said his coiffe used to curl up into an afro that would have made Jimi Hendrix jealous.

In Mahan’s own words, PAL aimed to “bring the critical thinking, reading and writing skills of the city school students to the grade level, deepen their engagement with school and the community, and help them achieve in other classes.” He frequently surpassed those academic and social goals, and his genuine interest in his students earned the project high distinction. “People were amazed at the sophistication of the work coming from that age student,” said Mary Lee Hodgens, associate director at Light Work. “He got to know the kids and treated them with a lot of respect and they would really open up for him. He’d get all kinds of students taking and making images and creating this stuff. It was pretty special.”

Mahan died in a motorcycle accident on July 26 of this year. He was 61. Six months and a day after his passing, he received a posthumous Unsung Hero Award at SU’s annual Martin Luther King Day Celebration. As the largest college campus event honoring MLK, the celebration focuses on diversity and social impact in the Syracuse community. The Unsung Hero Awards honor people who “have made a positive difference in the lives of others, but who are not widely recognized for their efforts,” Bea Gonzalez, SU’s vice president for community engagement, said at the event. “He did make a positive difference in the lives of hundreds if not thousands of kids,” said Mary Lynn Mahan, Mahan’s wife of 28 years. “It wasn’t like he was out to save the world. He gave them a voice. He became a part of their worlds, he didn’t try to pull them into his world. I can’t describe what a remarkable, fun, audacious individual he was.”

Many of the kids who participated in the PAL Project weren’t writing what you’d expect in an adolescent’s diary. They weren’t writing about young love, fighting with parents, or getting bad grades. They wrote about not knowing who or where their parents were, about friends and relatives getting killed. They wrote about what their lives were like growing up in Syracuse, the 13th poorest city in America. Mahan frequented Fowler before it closed in 2017, where 83 percent of students were economically disadvantaged and only 50 percent of seniors graduated. He also worked with Edward Smith Pre-K-8 School, where 61 percent of students are eligible for free lunches. He came into these schools and showed students photography techniques. He kick-started their creative juices with fill-in-the-blank writing prompts. They overlaid their prose on self-portraits, often PhotoShopped with colorful, artistic effects.

PAL student work. From left, images by: Aniah Grant, Davion Grainger, Qaadir W. Betts. Courtesy of Light Work.

Part of PAL’s magic came from Mahan’s dedication to his students’ success. He helped one Fowler student, Muke Heri, find a scholarship. Heri went on to play football at Cayuga Community College. His generosity never felt like self-promotion in disguise. “If the kid didn’t tell you and if one of us didn’t tell you, you’d never know that it happened,” said Lutwin, who collaborated with Mahan while teaching English at Fowler. When Heri expressed interest in becoming a police officer, Mahan encouraged him. He became an officer on July 9, 17 days before Mahan’s death. He never got the chance to tell him.

PAL served as a safe space for the students to express what was going on in their lives. Several times a week, Mahan invited students to his classroom at The Nancy Cantor Warehouse, where they could use iMacs, read books, take photos, twiddle around in PhotoShop, and be kids. He’d feed them and drive them home around seven or eight o’clock at night. They used to spend their Friday nights at school working in Lutwin’s room. “We had kids go on to become doctors, cops, teachers, filmmakers,” Lutwin said. “We had kids in the program get murdered. We had kids in the program become murderers. We had kids witness and participate in unspeakable acts of violence and all the while this venue was wide open for them to share their pain.”

One event in fall 2008 underscored the reality PAL’s students faced every day. Cherron Patterson, an 18-year-old PAL student, brought her daughter Imani Jennings to a student gallery reception, which usually attracted SU administrators and the Syracuse school superintendent. Imani ran around Link Gallery, talking to every adult she saw. She strummed strings on one of the five guitars Mahan kept at the Warehouse. Weeks later, Patterson and her 15-year-old boyfriend Anthony Weakfall were charged with negligent homicide and second-degree murder respectively for Imani’s death. Weakfall hit the 20-month-old with metal rods and a cable cord when she had a potty-training accident. Patterson was sentenced to 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison and Weakfall was sentenced to 13 years. Both pleaded guilty.

Patterson and Weakfall couldn’t afford to hire a babysitter. They both went to Fowler, and Lutwin was Patterson’s English teacher. She had a 93-point average in his class. Lutwin thinks the only reason Patterson opened up about being a teen mom was because of PAL’s non-judgmental atmosphere. They saw a girl in a tough situation, he said, trying to make the best of it. Perhaps they didn’t realize the extent of the situation.

Stephen Mahan. Photo by Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of Light Work.

Another part of PAL’s magic came from Mahan’s own experiences as a kid. Growing up in Geneva, N.Y., he and his brothers earned a reputation for mischief. They often organized neighborhood mess arounds and always goofed off at school. A prank introduced Mahan to one of many art forms he would explore throughout his life.

Interesting characters populated his colorful childhood neighborhood. One of them was a man named Rex Tracy. Kids used to make up fanciful stories about what he did while isolating himself in his apartment, but they knew their real-life Boo Radley loved photography. Fourteen-year-old Mahan and his older brother Mickey told Tracy how they also loved photography. Tracy invited them into his darkroom. He led them up the stairs and into a room in his apartment lit only by a deep red safelight. He instructed the boys to not turn on the incandescent light. Mahan flipped the switch and he and Mickey ran like hell.

Mahan attended a Catholic school until he was 15. As the creative class clown, he struggled with the constrictive Catholic school model. He transferred to a public high school after his freshman year. His teachers stereotyped him as a troublemaking kid, never mind his intelligence. As an adult, Mahan was diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). His wife Mary Lynn thinks he likely had a reading learning disorder as well. “He used that to his advantage, because he never changed. He could easily relate to these kids. And he was just fricken’ cool, naturally, and the kids loved that and they were drawn to it,” she said.

Mahan teaches some students at one city high school. Courtesy of Light Work.

Mahan and Mary Lynn originally developed PAL together in the late ’90s and early ’00s. He met her in the Light Work community darkrooms and they dated for 13 months before getting engaged. They discovered Wendy Ewald, who won a MacArthur Fellowship for teaching photography and literacy to children, and decided to expand on her work. When Mary Lynn taught art at Ed Smith elementary school, she asked Hodgens at Light Work if they could bring over a class of sixth graders. She and Mahan wanted to teach them to use the darkrooms. PAL continued to grow. Mahan taught PAL as an adjunct at SU for a while. He began working with Jeff Hoone Light Work’s executive director, to secure university funding for the program. In 2010, Mahan got his classroom at the Warehouse and started teaching TRM 310/610: Photography and Literacy Project.

On top of his own resources, Mahan exposed his students to the work Light Work exhibitioned. He continued bringing them to the darkrooms like the old days. He organized Q&A sessions with Light Work’s world-class resident artists. Two years ago, Mahan invited half-a-dozen seventh and eighth grade boys from the Southwest Community Center to speak with artist Todd Gray. Gray was Michael Jackson’s personal photographer for ten years. Light Work organized an exhibition of his work, “A Place That Looks Like Home,” where he collaged photos from his personal archive into images that explored class, gender, race and colonialism. Serious art photography in sleek black frames lined the walls of the bright white room. Hodgens expected shyness from the boys. After all, she said, even art-appreciating adults sometimes avoid asking questions. But the boys engaged with Gray. They asked why certain images were black and white, or why he chose to use green in that particular image. They explored the process of making art with him.

Despite all PAL’s valuable work, Doug Dubois, the Chair of the Transmedia Department, said that because it’s not a graduation requirement and since its meeting space is 2 miles from Main Campus at the Warehouse, PAL struggled to maintain visibility on campus. But when students took the course, they wanted to take it more than once. While reading course evaluations, Dubois has not once read anything negative. Most PAL students said it was the best class they’d taken. The department was working to deeper embed PAL into the VPA curriculum before Mahan’s death.

Part of that was by Mahan’s own design. He wanted to fly under the radar for two reasons. One, he knew that if he attracted too much attention, Mary Lynn said, outsiders would notice and start sticking their hands in his project and messing things up. When Chancellor Kent Syverud replaced Nancy Cantor, he shifted focus from her community-based academic initiatives under “Scholarship in Action” to infrastructure changes. He spent $6 million building the Einhorn Family Walk, colloquially known as The Promenade, in the summer of 2016. The massive, glorified sidewalk stretches from College Place to Irving Ave. and, along with the rest of his “Campus Framework” plan, has attracted negative attention from SU faculty. Mahan was worried that PAL’s funding might be cut under Syverud’s leadership.

Two, he was never the type to talk about himself. One example comes with the Unsung Hero Award Mahan won on January 27. Mary Lynn said he would have humbly accepted the award and used it as a platform to celebrate his students’ accomplishments rather than his own. His older daughter Riley said he would have felt a little weird about it for that same reason.

PAL student work. From left, images by: David Peters, Quintin Shanes, Masai White. Courtesy of Light Work.

At Mahan’s funeral in August, friends and family from all facets of his life shared stories of the man who never boasted about his accomplishments. He was a world-class white-water raft guide, a mixologist, a blues musician. He was a photographer whose work appeared in National Geographic Travel and won prestigious grants from Light Work. His older daughter Riley gave a speech and sang “River” by indie R&B singer Leon Bridges. She and her dad made music together and they both loved Bridges.

As Mahan’s brother Mickey walked to his car after the service with their youngest brother, Joseph “Go,” a man he didn’t know walked up to him. The man admired Mickey’s eloquent speech. Mickey said “thank you” and asked how he knew Mahan. The man never met him — he only read about him from the obituary Mickey wrote in The Post-Standard newspaper.

To his family and to his students, “he had no fear and he thought everything was possible,” Mary Lynn said. “He just did it, and he kept coming back, and that’s what mattered to the kids.”

Mahan’s classroom at the Warehouse was part art room, part English room. Photo by Casey Russell.

Four months later, Light Work associates stumble through eight years of artwork and books in Mahan’s classroom. Half-completed fill-in-the-blank worksheets sit in front of chairs at the long table in the center of the room, waiting for kids to finish. Mahan’s calendar, with all its penciled-in appointments, is still flipped to April 2018. Stacks of composition notebooks stand on a table next to paint-crusted sinks. Old cans hold pencils, markers, paintbrushes. Shelves of books and magazines mark the center of the room. Mahan’s glasses still sit on his desk; an amplifier and a guitar stand are underneath.

February 9, 2019: This story has been updated with additional reporting.