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First Exposures: SF Nonprofit Teaches Teens Photography as a New Lens on Life

The one-to-one mentorship program focuses on kids and teens who might not have other opportunities to explore the arts, and aims to build relationships that extend far beyond photography

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What to Know

  • Founded in 1993, First Exposures uses photography as common ground to pair kids and teens with mentors for what are often long-lasting relationships
  • First Exposures went all-remote and all-online when the coronavirus pandemic began, resulting in a gallery exhibition called "From the Inside Out," featuring photos that students created during the stay-at-home orders
  • As in-person learning returns, First Exposures is getting a new home in San Francisco's Mission District, and building a new darkroom there to continue teaching the art of analog photography

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, flurries of excitement echoed from an ordinary-looking Victorian house on a quiet street in San Francisco's Mission District.

Inside what was once the garage, a brightly-lit art gallery bustled with teens, adults and a few dogs, with the hum of conversation occasionally punctuated by squeals of joy followed by long, warm hugs.

"It's like a mini reunion," Erik Auerbach said in the midst of the hubbub. "I'm seeing people here that I haven't seen in person in over 16 months."

two teen girls hug in an art gallery
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
The opening of "From the Inside Out" at San Francisco's an.ä.log gallery was First Exposures' first in-person event in almost a year and a half.

Auerbach is the director of First Exposures, the San Francisco-based nonprofit whose exhibition, "From the Inside Out," was opening that day in the clean and cozy an.ä.log gallery. It was the organization's first in-person event since the coronavirus pandemic forced San Francisco schools and businesses to close their doors in March, 2020.

"We asked them, 'What is it like to feel stuck inside? What is it like not to see your friends?'" Auerbach explained. The art exhibition, he said, was "really just a chance to express what the pandemic's felt like for them, through their eyes."

Photos displayed on the gallery's walls ranged from abstract to very concrete and familiar, and many carried a sense of confinement and loneliness, said the gallery's curator, Don Ross.

"Solitude," Ross summed it up. "And kind of looking inward."

two people look at a photograph in a gallery that depicts a hand resting on the window sill of a house or apartment.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
"From the Inside Out" is a collection of photographs made by students during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, expressing what it felt like to be stuck inside.

18-year-old Delilah Ponton exhibited a large black-and-white photograph of an overturned trash can in a yard full of overgrown grass. She said she enjoyed hearing from numerous gallery visitors who felt the image perfectly symbolized the frazzled chaos of the past year. It also represented an artistic victory for her: overcoming a lack of inspiration.

"I can't go hang out with my friends and take pictures of them, so I had to take pictures of my surroundings, which I'd already seen before, and felt like I couldn't get anything out of it," she said.

a framed photo on a wall depicts a garbage can lying on its side in a yard full of overgrown grass
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Delilah Ponton exhibited this photo of a garbage can overturned in a yard full of overgrown grass, which she said represents what life was like in 2020.

Sometimes, the push to be creative comes entirely from within, but in this case, Delilah had some help from her First Exposures mentor, Alex Fulks.

"The photography is what starts the mentor relationship — it gives us common ground and something to build on, and then it just grows from there," Fulks said. "Before the pandemic, we would do a lot of photo walks, so we would be able to sort of spot and create images together. ... Sometimes it looks like that, and sometimes it looks like texting each other memes."

Standing outside the gallery that day, Fulks was giving Delilah advice on how to prepare for her California driver's license test.

"There's a lot of other youth photography programs around the country, around the world, but to our knowledge, we are actually the only one that does one-to-one mentoring like we do," Auerbach said.

a teen photographs another teen in a portrait studio
Courtesy: First Exposures
First Exposures holds photography classes on Saturdays, and in that group setting, mentees are paired with mentors they naturally click with.

Students and mentors meet in groups at first, he explained, and the program uses a gradual and organic process to match up students with the mentors they really click with. In the case of 18-year-old Ty'ler Banks and her mentor Jose Portillo, that pairing has stayed strong for five years, right up through Ty'ler's high school graduation.

"I just love the person I'm becoming, and that I'll continue to grow to be, and I think Jose has really encouraged that," she said. "I never had that type of adult in my life."

a man and a teen girl pose for a picture with smiles on their faces
Courtesy: Jose Portillo
Jose Portillo and his mentee Ty'ler Banks posed for this photo on their first day working together when Ty'ler was 13.

Ty'ler is heading off to college at The New School in New York City, where she plans to study photography and explore her interest in photographing fashion professionally. Her mom had a feeling early on that photography was something special for her.

"Her mom was like, 'You know, this is the longest she's ever done a hobby,'" Portillo recalled. "She goes, 'I think this one's really sticking!'"

Like many First Exposures mentors, Portillo and Fulks aren't currently professional photographers. Both have worked in the worlds of art and design, and have a lifelong passion for photography that they enjoy sharing. Auerbach said First Exposures estimates that mentors each devote about 120 hours per year to working with their mentees, and both Fulks and Portillo said it's been a rewarding experience that's helped them stay in touch with their own love of making images.

teen girl photographs a flower as a bearded man holds it still for her
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Mentors and mentees often work one-on-one, like Ty'ler Banks and her mentor Jose Portillo, seen here on a photo walk after our interview.

"When I met Ty'ler, that's when I got a nice camera," Portillo said. "Because I was starting to do more photography, and I really learned as she was learning as well."

Ty'ler was quick to point out that Portillo was definitely the expert when it came to shooting film and printing in the darkroom. First Exposures continues to offer film and darkroom photography classes alongside the digital ones, and Auerbach said interest in those classes has steadily increased over the years.

"There's something really magical that happens in here," Auerbach said of the serendipitous interactions and learning that take place over the steel sinks of the spacious black and white darkroom. "Forcing people to slow down is a good thing. And to give a young person that opportunity to slow down is not something that typically happens."

students crowd around a darkroom sink under orange light
Courtesy: First Exposures.
First Exposures' film and darkroom classes have steadily gained popularity. They were put on pause due to the pandemic, but plans to resume them are already in the works.

Standing in front of a row of photo enlargers in the cavernous brick building that was once the RayKo Photo Center, Auerbach explained that the kids and teens who are the focus of First Exposures' mission can sometimes have even less of an opportunity to slow down than their peers.

"There's never good words to refer to this," he said. "The terms that we can kind of live with are words like under-resourced, or underserved youth. Young people who have that passion and that ambition, and don't have those opportunities."

Auerbach said with changes in Bay Area public school curriculums over time that have left fewer and fewer opportunities for kids and teens to explore the arts, First Exposures is most interested in providing those opportunities to young people who can't get them elsewhere. Now, the program will continue to do that from a brand new home in San Francisco's Mission District.

"For the very first time ever, we have a space that is just ours," Auerbach said, standing in the middle of the unfinished building that will soon house a brand new darkroom and classroom space.

tiny planet photo of an outdoor gazebo with a mid-rise building next to it
Courtesy: Jose Portillo & Ty'ler Banks
Seen here in a "tiny planet" photo that Ty'ler Banks and Jose Portillo took with an IQUI 360 camera, First Exposures' new building includes a park where outdoor classes can be held.

First Exposures will actually share some of its space with another nonprofit, Youth Speaks, that engages young people in writing, speaking and poetry slams. Auerbach expects the organizations to become fast friends.

"We're kind of thinking about it as a hub for youth storytelling, whether it's the spoken word or image making," he said.

Ty'ler isn't the only graduating mentee who wants to keep photography in her life.

Silhouette of a person with big, curly hair
Courtesy: Ty'ler Banks
Ty'ler Banks said this image was the beginning of her exploration of how standards of beauty play out in the Black community — a theme she continues to explore in her artwork.

"First Exposures is amazing," Delilah said. "It definitely changed my life for the better. I feel like they've made me think about having a career in photography, instead of just, 'Oh, what am I gonna do with my life.'"

Delilah's two older brothers have always been artistic, but her mom said it wasn't until Delilah found photography that she began to see herself as an artist too.

"You have to find your niche, and it's sometimes hard to do that — and sometimes it just finds you," Kelly Robinson said. "And I think that's what happened with First Exposures. It just found Delilah."

First Exposures is currently accepting applications for new mentors, and new mentees ages 11-18, on its website.

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