When you look at an animal, a landscape or an everyday object like a chair or a hose, what do you see? A group of youths in Buffalo has a unique answer. They see an opportunity. These are the students who participate in Kids With Cameras: Through Their Eyes, a one-of-a-kind program with the goal of giving underprivileged teens and tweens the chance to interact with cameras in a way few people ever do. Over 15 weeks, the participants get to meet professional photographers and journalists who give them an inside view to a potential career.

Toni Benjamin, executive director at XCEL Leadership Center in North Buffalo, is the group’s artistic director and coordinator. She has high hopes for what the program can accomplish.

“The vision and the dream is that these young people will learn to respond to images,” Benjamin said. “We say that a picture speaks a thousand words, but just imagine a hundred words plus a picture, the story that you could tell. That’s what we’re trying to go after.”

Kids With Cameras is the only program of its kind in the area that allows young people to really engage with photography in a professional setting, and word has certainly gotten around.

Though the program was originally designed for youths in Buffalo, people from far and wide have flocked to the city to participate. One family drives from Canada every Friday to attend the workshops. Making the trek over the border each week are Mariah and James O’Donnell, ages 13 and 10, and their mother, Chrissie.

Chrissie O’Donnell explains her motivation for putting her kids in the program. “It seemed like it would be great for them to learn about photography at a young age, and be recognized for their work, too. I’ve always wanted to be a photographer, so I would have loved that when I was younger.”

The participating students will have their work showcased in a grand gala July 26. The kids in the program will run the event, finding a venue, selecting which pieces will be exhibited and making decisions about matting.

The program is organized so that the first nine weeks are focused on photography, and the remaining weeks are about journalism. From the weeks focused on photography, each student will get to display 15 of their pictures, and prints of these pictures will be on sale when the Kids With Cameras website is launched following the grand gala. As an added bonus, students will own the copyright to their images. The finished products from the journalism portion of the program are in the form of journal entries and books that they hope will be published and also put on sale. The gala will give them a truly authentic experience, because being a photographer or journalist is not just about the art. Without also having the skills of a businessman or woman, turning your passion into your job can be a long, rocky road.

Another important aspect of the 15 workshops that make up Kids With Cameras is the professionals that come in to work with the students. These are people who have successfully made a living doing what they love, the people that the youths in the program aspire to be like. Many of the professionals are from the arts departments at area colleges. Other professionals are from the CEPA Gallery, and a few of the photographers that will be coming to the workshops may have taken photos that you have seen somewhere else: Facebook. Social networking has opened up new horizons for photographers to showcase their work without people having to drive to a gallery.

Benjamin talks eagerly and excitedly about what led to the inclusion of professionals in her program.

“I’m part of a group called Help Portrait, another nonprofit organization, and the whole design there is that professional photographers would converge on one city at one time and change people’s lives with professional photos. Hair and makeup, the whole nine yards,” she said. “And some of those photographers have availed themselves to do Kids With Cameras as well.” This means that the kids will be exposed to professionals of all types, including a lighting photographer, a motion photographer and a wedding photographer.

Despite the importance of photography and journalism, many schools do not offer photography or journalism classes, leaving creative kids who may not be musically inclined searching for an outlet. O’Donnell affirmed this. “They don’t have [classes] like that. No, there’s nothing like that that I’ve heard of, even little programs. So I thought, photography, I’ve got to get them in there!”

Several of the students casually remarked that the lectures were their favorite part of the workshops. This is a surprising detail, considering the attention span of the average teen. One of the older students, Tishanti Williams, 16, a junior at McKinley High School, explained her reasoning. “I love [the lectures]. You really learn things. The way the photographers teach isn’t like school where somebody’s just talking at you, they do it in a way you can understand.”

Anyone who attends any portion of the lecture can see that this is true.

The kids are encouraged to stand up and move around, actively participating. They are enthusiastic and smiling, brimming with energy and curiosity. The professional photographer who runs the lecture is engaging and well-spoken, full of valuable tidbits of information, such as the origins of the words associated with photography.

Though there is a startling range of ages among the participants, from 9 to 17 years old, there is a noticeable lack of “cliques” among the students. Everyone is friendly and welcoming, united by their love of the art.

The kids have access to professional Canon cameras that they put to good use in the second half of the workshop. When the lecture ends, the students pick up their cameras and memory cards and go take pictures based on what they just learned. They capture stunning images in the building and around the neighborhood, finding beauty in the dullest of objects. As the workshops progress, the kids will go on field trips and start capturing professional-looking photos around the city.

This is the first year of Kids With Cameras, and Benjamin is determined to give each participant the best experience possible. She said that it is her goal to “make sure they know about a viable, sustainable job that could become their income. Your passion and what you do to raise money can be the same. What a joy that would be, to take something that they love, maybe a hobby, and hone their skill enough that it can become a profession.”

With phones and iPods equipped with high-definition cameras, anyone can become a photographer these days. Just take a quick glance at Instagram and you can see that many people are making good use of this new technology. Anybody and everybody can become an amateur photographer. This has added another layer of difficulty for those who are trying to make a living off of their ability to capture images. But Kids With Cameras goes far beyond what you can do with a smartphone. Capturing lighting and motion, angles and depth – not to mention the kind of hard-earned professional knowledge that is invaluable to any aspiring photographer – this program puts these youths several steps ahead of their peers.

Kids With Cameras has the potential to change the way young people look at the world around them, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Nora Wolcott is a sophomore at Williamsville South High School.