Eight students sat holding cameras.
They first learned the basics: the camera parts, how to focus, how to zoom. They were told how to adjust lighting and instructed how to take the perfect snapshot.
This may sound like your average photography class, but there’s a difference. The students were all senior citizens, many of whom struggle with English. This class at the Latino Hispanic American Community Center (LHACC) offered them a unique way to get out of their houses for a few hours, to socialize and to learn something new.
“They learn about their own abilities,” said Executive Director Gloria Vazquez Merrick. “And they could take pride in the beautiful work they were creating.”
The idea for a photography class came to her during a weekend outing with her grandson at Wildwood Park. There, she met photographer Charlie Smith, who was teaching a youth class at the “Nature Day” program.
Smith, a program manager for camera company Canon, donates his time to teach through Canon’s youth program, “Photography for Kids.”
“Canon funds it 100 percent,” Smith said. “That includes loaning cameras, prints, and we have props from other programs.”
Vazquez Merrick pitched him the idea of expanding the program by holding classes for her seniors, which he agreed to do.
For six weeks, classes ran every Wednesday morning at LHACC, which is located on Derry Street on Allison Hill in Harrisburg.
On the day of the first class, two students sat at each six-foot table with backdrops, cameras and an array of props for their own photo shoots.
“It looked like Hollywood in here,” Vazquez Merrick said.
She wondered how the seniors would do with real cameras, given that many struggled with the basics of their own cell phone cameras. But they immersed themselves in the class, showing what they were capable of.
“For first-timers, they were pretty advanced for not having that type of skill or interest before,” Smith said. “Many don’t realize how hard photography is.”
Student Lydia Vasquez helped translate for the class.
“Our teacher was wonderful, so patient,” she said. “He explained to you step-by-step.”
It helped that, as a photographer, Smith is so visual, which allowed him to read his students’ faces to make sure they understood.
The students seemed excited to handle such expensive equipment, boosting pride in their abilities, Vazquez Merrick said.
“There was the feeling that someone thought enough of them to teach them how to use a camera,” she said. “So, they could take pictures that had meaning for them.”
The class was a welcome break for the seniors, who could take time from their everyday burdens, aches and pains. For an entire morning, they were able to think outside themselves, focusing on capturing pictures that brought out their personalities. They frequently called Vazquez Merrick over to show off their work.
“Their pictures were taking them back to their roots—meaningful images, like maracas and flowers,” she said. “It was beautiful to see them evolve over six weeks.”
Student Ramon Martes took many kinds of pictures. His favorite was a still life of a water droplet trickling over flower petals.
“I saw the motion of the water and when to take the picture at the right moment,” he said, leaning his photo forward to showcase it along with his certificate.
Vazquez Merrick said that, for some students, this was the first time they received any kind of diploma. They later built a slideshow for the seniors and held a graduation ceremony.
“I have my certificate and picture on my wall in my living room,” said Carmen Melendez. “People see them first thing when they walk in my house.”
She said that she has received many compliments on her art and her accomplishment.
“Now, I am saving money to buy my own camera,” she said.
Smith said he also was impressed with their images.
“Once they selected their photo at the end, they realized they got a great shot,” he said.
Smith also showed the students how to mat their photos, which were publicly shown at LHACC during last year’s Gallery Walk.
“Their photos were the focal point of our exhibit—such a conversation piece,” Vazquez Merrick said. “They were so proud their photos were picked.”
Contributing their art to the community empowered the seniors, enhancing their wellbeing and quality of life, Vazquez Merrick said.
“Seeing all those things come together for them was my favorite part of the class,” she said.
Smith said that he also enjoyed his experience with the seniors.
“I was impressed with how Gloria organized this,” he said. “The program brought together a social environment. They have such a strong and supportive community center.”
For more information on the Latino Hispanic American Community Center, visit lhacc.org.