Photo Therapy: A New Education?

Cultivating conviction and self-belief, Nina Robinson discusses ‘Youth Voices’ – a program aimed at emboldening the lockdown stories of promising young photographers

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

In 2015, Nina Robinson headed up a ground-breaking course at the William Hodson Community Center. Engaging with a group of New York retirees, she encouraged them to create images that best represented their internal struggles and inner thoughts. The ensuing results not only proved beneficial – they instilled a new-found sense of confidence in the senior participants, fostering a sense of catharsis that deeply affected Nina. Expressing what could not be articulated through mere words, images were able to communicate what conversation could not. “My camera has always been my healing tool,” she explains. “Whether that’s centered around myself or the program I’m involved in, I feel like it’s the common denominator in everything I do. My approach as both instructor and mentor is shaped by that need to externalize.”

An award-winning photographer, Nina has produced first-rate work in editorial and commercial spheres throughout a long and decorated career. In recent years, she’s been imparting her expertise within various educational frameworks. Recognizing that her methodology had the potential for wider circulation, she elected to implement her William Hodson approach with a similarly reticent demographic. During lockdown, Nina began instructing Bostonian teenagers via Zoom and in-person, utilizing photography as a means of generating self-assurance amongst her students. As youngsters found themselves disconnected from the usual activities of adolescence, ‘Youth Voices’ was a haven – an avowal that enjoyment didn’t have to disappear, even in dismal circumstances.

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

“It all started in the neighborhood of Roxbury. Gary Knight, who’s a photographer and fellow mentor, had an idea to partner up with the Teen Center at the YMCA. He reached out and asked if I’d like to be involved. He’d been keen on my work for a while, so we created this nine-month program together. We focused it on the idea that photography could be used as a tool for empowerment.” Along with two other practicing professionals, Nina partnered with the VII Academy, a non-profit organization. From here, she contacted Fujifilm in search of sponsorship. Unique and distinct, Nina’s plans tapped into a core tenet of our philosophy. “They were gracious enough to donate 25 cameras. It was still very much in the embryonic stages, but the whole thing was slowly developing – a very exciting time.”

Castigating old-school disciplinarians and dreary, uninspired classrooms, Nina’s view on education is a compassionate, self-effacing one. Appealing to the pastimes of her students, personal engagement wasn’t just a means of instruction. It was a way of incentivizing curiosity, and maximizing contribution. “It comes down to being relatable. Asking questions is so important. Engaging with what they like and feel passionately about – that’s the way in. It’s all about your intent as a mentor. You need to properly connect with the people you teach – you can’t be egotistical. It’s completely unproductive, and students will detach. They won’t be interested in learning anymore.” More than anything, Nina understands the value of a great educator, and the indelible effect it can have. If bad teachers can dissuade and deter, great ones can inspire and stimulate. “I can hardly remember any of the teachers I had at my first art school, except one. That whole institution felt so clinical and bland because of the educators I encountered,” she recalls. “I stopped going when I realized that my favorite teacher conducted classes at the City College of San Francisco for a fraction of the price. I’m still connected to some of those teachers. They helped me recognize what I like and what I gravitate towards, which in turn shaped my individuality and style. I had this one teacher named Katy Perry,” she chuckles. “Being in her class was great. She helped me open up. While I was there, I realized the importance of imperfection – she also had this great approach to what she dubbed ‘happy accidents’. That was the first time I let go of the idea of flawlessness. I stepped outside of my box, and it was really liberating. Katy played a huge role in my creative transformation.”

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Though clearly educational, the ultimate aim of Nina’s course wasn’t to robotically familiarize students with hardware technicalities and camera mechanics. A more humane focus formed the heart of her project. “I relate everything to personal experience. You’ll never come to me with technical questions. I have absolutely zero interest in teaching people how to be industrially perfect when creating images,” Nina notes. “I teach how to feel and experience moments, and how to best translate them into photographs.” Exploring the more emotive elements of her students’ work, Nina set out to establish some classroom camaraderie. “Being open about myself and my background helped. I found myself recounting stories from when I was the same age, discussing how scared and self-conscious I was. Sharing those struggles opened everyone up and made the process relatable and intimate. You can’t expect to become a success without failing and learning lessons. Rushing that process gets you nowhere.” Once a baseline trust was formed, confiding in one another became easier, and instilling confidence was the paramount concern. “The goal wasn’t to build or shape the next big photojournalist. The aim was simple – build a sense of self-reliance. Getting the students speaking, understanding, and sharing images was what mattered most.”

Immersion and involvement were perhaps the most important facets of Nina’s process. By losing themselves in the learning material, students loosened up and forgot about their misgivings. As anxieties became unimportant, self-consciousness faded. For Nina, it was the heady absorption of this creative process that promoted a sense of escapism. “When you’re caught up in something new, you’re unafraid. You’re not overthinking. You’re able to articulate what you like, and what you don’t. Education isn’t didactic in that context. It’s just fun,” she explains. “When the students were able to explain and justify their creative choices, I felt that was a massive breakthrough. I wanted them to have conviction in what they didn’t like, especially if it differed from my perspective. Yes, I’m a professional, but my opinion isn’t gospel. If they’re comfortable challenging my outlook, it means they’ll be able to retain their convictions, and apply that confidence elsewhere in their lives.”

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Dealing with a large assortment of individuals, Nina’s group produced varied and diverse photographs, united by the shared experience of lockdown. “There were definitely some similarities, and also students who were completely self-assured in what they wanted to create. Others possessed a more silent confidence. Sometimes you couldn’t read them, then they’d produce this amazing work. It was like… where did this come from? You never know how people are going to process and interpret the information you provide.” Created in the midst of a taxing situation, many of these stories were focused on the strenuousness of that period, or created as a result of it. As so many can attest, mental health was invariably tested. Because of these sensitivities, Nina ensured she approached each story with care and attention. “Some of my students were more disenfranchised, some weren’t. I was prepared for that eventuality. Depending on how deep some of these discussions would run, I would have counsellors sit-in on my classes. Obviously, I’m not clinically trained to address some issues. I had somebody accompany me throughout the entirety of the process, which I really appreciated. It allowed me to exclusively focus on the art and photographic aspects of the course.” An invaluable form of support, this contingency plan served as Nina’s back-up, providing her with emotional reinforcement, should she need it. “I like to check in on my students and make sure they’re OK. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re still firmly caught in this pandemic. It’s been tough on all of us. Taking photographs in the middle of a national lockdown isn’t easy… you’re somewhat limited by what you can shoot! That being said, we overcame those problems and, ultimately, it was a beautiful program – and an even better experience.”

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson

Supervising the personal and professional growth of her students, Nina Robinson’s latest project validates the work of a vastly underappreciated profession. The significance can’t be overstated: this is where passions are formed and molded. It all begins with a great teacher.

Discover more about Youth Voices here.

Photo 2021 © Nina Robinson