Last night, almost 250 attendees celebrated the photography of more than 100 Bexar County youngsters during the 2013 Picture Your World Youth Photography Contest award ceremony. More than $1,000 was awarded to two division (age group) winners and four runners-up. Sherry Christensen is program manager for the Picture Your World (PYW) Photography Project, organized by the Green Space Alliance of South Texas.

RR: How does the Picture Your World (PYW) Project align with the Green Space Alliance of South Texas’ primary mission?

Sherry Christensen
Sherry Christensen. Courtesy photo.

Sherry Christensen: One aspect of Green Space Alliance (GSA) is education: To teach young people to preserve and protect their natural environment.  By working with kids outdoors, teaching them about what they are seeing in nature, and teaching them how to create a visual memory of what they see, we hope to instill in them a love of the outdoors and their natural environment.

RR: How did you personally become involved in the project? What has been the most rewarding part of managing this contest?

Christensen: I became involved in the project soon after I retired.  I had taught art for 35 years, most recently at Robert E. Lee High School.  The executive director of GSA at that time called me to ask if I’d be interested in heading up the program – my name had been given to her by several people.  (I had been very active in the arts education community, acting as president of San Antonio Arts Education, helping establish early Visual Arts Scholastic Events in our area, and starting the first AP art program in NEISD.)  I agreed to manage the program along with the contest.

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The contest itself is just one small part of the PYW program.  There are four parts:

  • The weekend workshops (open to everyone ages 8-18)
  • The elementary program (in-class workshops)
  • The competition.
  • Outreach to parks and recreation by providing the program during the summer to Medina River Natural Area as well as local libraries, and moving a display of the photos from one location to another during the year to promote awareness of PYW. Winning competition photos are regularly displayed at San Antonio Public Libraries during the summer and at REI during the school year.
First Place in the 8-12 Division: Julian Jaramillo, age 10, Gonzalez Elementary.
First place for 8-12 Division: Julian Jaramillo, age 10, Gonzalez Elementary.
Congrats, Julian Jaramillo!
Congrats, Julian Jaramillo!

One of the most rewarding aspects of this program is seeing parents and kids interacting at workshops.  Parents often bring their cameras and take photos along with their kiddos.  They often stop to compare photos with each other.  Some parents just walk along during the hike, watching and encouraging.  Often teenagers and parents will stop to interact with each other.  There are few opportunities these days for teenagers and their parents to participate in the same activity and enjoy each others company in the process.  It’s fun to watch it happen at PYW.

RR: How did the Picture Your World Contest come about?

Christensen: PYW was started in 2002.  It began as a very different animal, taking place over just a week and they all were still using film.  I’ve been with the program since the fall of 2007 and it’s changed in just that amount of time.  The contest has always been a part of it, though it took different forms at first.  Since 2007 it has been open to anyone in Bexar and the immediate surrounding counties.  Students submit digital images and winners are chosen and honored at an awards presentation and reception.

There are programs similar to PYW today, but at its inception, it was one of a kind and remains unique. We were the model for a program in San Miguel de Allende two years ago called Club FotoNatura.

First place for 13-18 Division: Daniel Calfin, age 15, Churchill HS.
First place for 13-18 Division: Daniel Chaffin, age 15, Churchill HS.
Excellent photo, Daniel Chaffin!
Excellent photo, Daniel Chaffin!

Anyone age eight to 18 can participate in either or both of our workshops and our photo competition. Contest requirements are that youth submit 3 quality photos depicting some aspect of nature.  Photos must be from a camera of at least six MG and be at a high resolution so that they can be printed as 10 by 13 inch images if they are chosen.  Photos cannot be of domestic or caged animals. This year, 116 students submitted three photos each.

RR: Photography, like most visual art, is a pretty subjective art form. It can be especially difficulty to “judge” the work of children. What was the scoring process like and the guiding philosophy behind it?

Christensen:  I taught art in a public secondary school for 35 years so I understand what you’re saying.  However, quality is often hard to define but easier to spot when looking at student work, whether it’s a photo or some sort of fine art piece.  Judges, usually three are selected, have always been professional photographers or art educators or both.

When looking at photos, the first criteria is focus.  This means two things 1) that the image is clear, sharp and (literally) in focus and 2) there is a definite subject in the photo.  Then we begin to look at other aspects of the photo: Direction and lines that the eye follows across the piece, contrast, use of space, variety of texture, rhythm and repetition of pattern.

RR: Are these kids all relatively experienced photographers or has this contest been an introduction for some to the art form?

Christensen: Many of the younger kids are pretty new to good photos.  One-on-one instruction takes place at the workshops.   Many of the older kids come with their own cameras and a good working knowledge of good photography.  Some of our workshop kids have been part of the program for as many as four years, coming to all of our workshops. (These workshops meet seven times a year at a natural location and are held on a Sunday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.  The workshops are open to anyone 8-18.)

We also work with two elementary schools, Gonzalez Elementary in EISD, and Franklin Elementary in SAISD.  Each school supplies three classes of 25 students each.  We set up workshop locations for them with a master naturalist, professional photographer, and myself.  We take them on a nature hike after some preliminary instruction in both the use of the cameras we supply and the principles of good photos.

Second place for 8-12 Division: Arianna Morawski.
Second place for 8-12 Division: Arianna Morawski, age 8, homeschool.

Afterwards, we do a short critique with them, looking at many of their photos with the group, and discussing the good points as well as some of the weak points of their photos.  We hold these three classes both in the fall and in the spring at natural areas.  This past year we partnered with Government Canyon and with Friedrich Natural Wilderness Park.

RR: What kind of feedback have you received from participating students and their parents?

Christensen: Parents are always complimentary.  Many of them wonder why they hadn’t heard of the program before.  They often bring others with them to the next workshop.  Our workshops host homeschooled children, 4H, Boy and Girl Scouts, and public school kiddos.  One set of parents, Mary Branson and her husband Joe Webb, have continued to support our program even after their son, who had participated for four years, had gone beyond the 18 year age limit.  They continue to come to most of the Sunday workshops, helping monitor the participants, taking photos for a memory video at the end of the year, and supplying snacks.  They have been invaluable.  Mary’s daughter, Kim Villarreal, an art teacher at Bradley MS, has come out to nearly every workshop for the past three years as well.  She helps give one-on-one instruction to the kiddos as well.  Gwen Rigdon, parent to four-year participant Douglas Rigdon, also has been a huge supporter and promoter of our program.

RR: What was the most difficult part of the process?

Christensen:  Getting out the word.  Where do you go, who do you talk to, how can you let people know that this wonderful program exists?

We have been extremely fortunate this year.  GSA has partnered with CPS Energy to make the weekend program possible.  They are also putting together an 18-month calendar that will highlight this year’s winning photos.  The calendar will be ready in July and can be purchased through GSA.

Valero Energy has partnered with GSA to provide the elementary program this year and two more years.  We are very grateful to both of these companies.  GSA is a nonprofit organization. Without them, PYW would not be possible.

Second place for 12-18 Division: Sarah Ramirez, age 13, Krueger MS.
Second place for 12-18 Division: Sarah Ramirez, age 13, Krueger MS.

This Years PYW Contest Winners:

8-12 Division

First: Julian Jaramillo, age 10, Gonzalez Elementary

Second: Arianna Morawski, age 8, homeschool

Third: Cody Ramirez, age 11, Franklin Elementary

12-18 Division

First: Daniel Calfin, age 15, Churchill HS

Second: Sarah Ramirez, age 13, Krueger MS

Third: Douglas Rigdon, age 13, homeschool

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San Antonio Report Staff

This article was assembled by various members of the San Antonio Report staff.