A Photographer’s Eye Is Changing The Social Service System
By Michele Deane, Founder of eleveight. Edited by Julia Dopp
During the fall of 2016, a longtime friend of mine had me give a presentation of my tech company, eleveight, to a small group of his friends who were doing goodwill work in the world. As I scanned the room and answered questions after my presentation, Kerry David locked eyes with me and said, “You have to meet my friends at COMMON.” I had no idea at the time that what she was speaking of was the network of like-minded business professionals that I had been searching for.
While growing up in Southern California, I enjoyed many aspects of the beach lifestyle. I was one of those kids who wasn’t afraid to keep swimming in the ocean after being pulled out to sea in a riptide, or to keep jumping off skateboard ramps with the boys despite banging up my knees and elbows. I was also one of those children who learned to manipulate the code on my Texas Instruments video game console so that the games would speak to me by name and reference quotes from films such as War Games (“Shall we play a game?”).
While I was a clever kid, I almost didn’t graduate from high school after I failed a semester of English class my senior year. I didn’t fail because I lacked the skills. I failed because of the resentment and anger that built up after I learned that misfiled and poorly interpreted behavioral assessment reports from my parents divorce had been misinforming my teachers since I was 8 years old. A series of false impressions about my mental stability had sprung up as a result and impacted the way my teachers treated me, a realization that hit me like a ton of bricks when it finally came to light. This difference in treatment had culminated in my school not inviting me to take the SAT test, without which I wasn’t eligible to transfer to a university like many of my friends had. Even though I ultimately scraped by and graduated, I felt frustrated and lost, and had little confidence in what the future might hold for me.
I did gain confidence through my studies in photography and film. Throughout high school, I’d spent much of my time in the photography darkroom processing my 35mm film and making prints. I carried my Pentax 35mm SLR camera on me everywhere I went. While many of my teachers saw me as a problematic student, my photography teacher, Mr. Benoit, was my unequivocal ally. A bit of an eccentric person himself, I guess he empathized with the behavioral assessment paperwork he had to fill out about me every quarter. When he’d find me working in the darkroom when I was supposed to be in other classes he’d unfailingly look the other way, leaving me to my own devices in my little hideaway. I cared about his opinion, enough to solicit his critiques and even question him when he’d sometimes return other students’ work without returning mine. When that happened, he’d always reassure me by saying he’d simply forgotten my project at home, and that I shouldn’t worry about it because I got an A anyway.
Then one day Mr. Benoit gave me a flyer to the Laguna Sawdust Art Festival in South Orange County and said, “You can pick up your photo assignment here. Oh, and by the way, you won.”
He had been secretly submitting my work to the festival for months. His patience and thoughtfulness helped me start to believe that I really might have a talent worth cultivating, which was a bright spot in an otherwise discouraging high school experience. When I felt undermined by the effects of a reputation that I didn’t earn (or even knew existed!), winning that show gave me a sense of direction. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have had the motivation to come to terms with the setbacks I’d encountered, let alone find the energy to pursue something like photography that really inspired me.
While I have a huge admiration for traditional film photographers like Brassai, Edward Weston and Herb Ritts, the unlimited possibilities of what computers and code could do always fascinated me. I gravitated towards assistantships in that space throughout my 20s, which led to a mixed bag of experiences. I worked with some amazingly talented commercial photographers, and got to contribute to a few major projects for television networks and large film distribution companies, learning a lot in the process. I also found myself working in digital post-production, helping to rewrite algorithms so that they’d accurately capture the varying qualities of different film stocks. While that might sound impressive, and while the work itself was often interesting and gratifying, about 50% of the content I worked on was pornography. In short, I got really good at color-correcting skin tones.
Although I was happy to have work in my field, it wore on me to see so many young people selling their souls in an attempt to “make it in Hollywood,” on and off-screen. I’d go to events and music concerts and recognize some of the people who were in the videos I’d worked on, and more often than not they didn’t look happy. Instead, they looked like people who were trying to live the Hollywood dream, while struggling to eat and pay rent. It was hard to watch, especially when it was obvious that many of them had talent, and just didn’t have the support or coaching they needed to succeed. It was something I could relate to, and it was hard to avoid feeling disenchanted with the industry when I was consistently witnessing how harsh it could be.
I found a meaningful outlet when I started volunteering with inner-city teens, many of whom were growing up in low-income, gang and crime-ridden neighborhoods. With my digital cameras and Macintosh computer outfitted with Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Final Cut Pro, I designed some team building activities for a group of teens in the Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, and showed them how to shoot and edit short documentary videos of us working through these activities. We also built a website where we posted photos and short essays about the things we learned about ourselves, inadvertently creating a sort of miniature online reality show that became our group’s marketing material. When we finished our first project, I remember one of the kids enthusiastically saying, “What are we going to do next, Miss?” It was then that I realized I couldn’t leave them. Through the eyes of these young people, my career and digital equipment looked more magical than ever.
The tech tools I used were seen as “cool toys” back then, and it was wonderful to be able to share what had made me so passionate about film in the first place with teens who (like me) often struggled to graduate from high school. We started with a group of less than 20 teens in the late ’90s, whose goal was to raise $3,000 for a camping trip. Little did we know that our modest endeavour would turn into a mentoring program that would raise $4M dollars over the years for our nonprofit and touch the lives of 10,000 inner-city students over the next decade, many of whom were able to receive scholarships, study abroad, and even pursue master’s and doctoral degrees, and purchase property for the nonprofit as a result. When I started, I had no idea just how much these experiences would change my life and my outlook on what was possible.
Pursuing my love for photography has led me to many places I wouldn’t have anticipated. This is one of them. By working to make film and its opportunities more accessible to inner-city teens, I repeatedly came face-to-face with the sheer number of seemingly mundane administrative details, forms and tasks that nevertheless had the dangerous power to make or break us, the kinds of consequences I’d encountered firsthand decades before. Out of those experiences, combined with the necessity of administering many complex government grants and producing public events on behalf of the program, eleveight was born. Some of the people who will help launch eleveight are former participants, people who have kept in touch over the years and now have careers in social work. It feels right that they and the many young people they work with be among the first to utilize it.
There are countless opportunities in our schools, municipalities, corporations and individual relationships that get lost everyday due to miscommunication, misfiled paperwork and (too often) pride, assumptions, and embarrassment. Eleveight securely organizes and tracks the paperwork, allows information to be shared between select organizations and individuals confidentially, and connects its users with scholarships, jobs and opportunities that match their interests. This ultimately means that eleveight can give us more opportunities to engage authentically as humans, rather than leaving us feeling isolated and stuck while searching for options on our own.
Looking back at all that, COMMON feels rather reciprocal and serendipitous. It’s good to be here.
Visit the eleveight website: http://eleveight.co/
Email Michele: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Michele on Twitter: @MicheleDeane
Michele on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/micheledeane/
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Follow us on Twitter @commonworks
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Follow us on Twitter @commonworks
Write us at: firstname.lastname@example.org