Robinson Center ‘Photoformers’ use photography to document history

Author: Gene Stowe, for NDWorks

“Photoformers” at the Robinson Community Learning Center worked with Jacquee Dickey (back row, third from right) to create portrait photos and document the lives of residents of South Bend’s Northeast Neighborhood

When the Robinson Community Learning Center asked Jacquee Dickey to update the set of portrait photographs she made for the center’s hallway a decade ago, Dickey developed an alternative angle: She’d teach photography to children at the center, and they’d shoot a gallery of neighbors with their stories.

A dozen children ages 8 to 16 in the Robinson “Photoformers” club spent last year working with Dickey and AmeriCorps member Lu Ella Webster to master the skills and make the Northeast Neighborhood contacts for the project. They unveiled the resulting “This Little Light of Mine” exhibit to an enthusiastic crowd of family and friends on Jan. 25.

“It’s always been part of our mission to serve the Northeast Neighborhood,” says center manager Jennifer Knapp Beudert. “I think the work that the Photoformers have done this year really has embodied that mission. They’ve learned about photography. They learned how to use the camera.

“They’ve also learned about photography as a way of documenting history. They used those skills to go out into the neighborhood and learn about the residents. It was really, really wonderful. For them to go out into the neighborhood, that’s what this was all about.”

Thanks to the Photoformers, Knapp Beudert says, she learned that the neighborhood once occupied by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians had been bought by Notre Dame founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., who sold lots for $25—mostly in exchange for labor or chickens—to Irish Catholic immigrants who built Sorinsville.

“The neighborhood’s changed quite a bit since then, and it continues to evolve and change,” she says.

Photoformers, who visited the Center for History, the Natatorium and the Snite Museum to learn about photography as a way to record history, gathered stories and wrote poems about the 23 residents they photographed. Some read their poems at the event, where they presented a copy of the collection to Center for History executive director Randy Ray.

The project was neighbor Heath Yenna’s first contact with the center. Yenna, an artist, was nominated as one of the featured neighbors and came to see the result at the opening, where each participant received a copy of his or her portrait.

“They just set a time and came to my house one day,” he says. “I’ve never been here, but I’ve lived down the street on and off for years.”

Photoformer Catherine Bickel, who took his picture, also wrote a poem that she read at the event, describing the encounter: “His art, and everything I saw around him expressing what comes from the soul, from the heart.”

The students, with cameras on loan from the Perley Primary Fine Arts Academy, practiced first by taking each other’s pictures, exhibited at Woodnote Gallery and ND Downtown. The Community Foundation of St. Joseph County’s ArtsEverywhere initiative and the Dan and MaryAnn Rogers Cross Cultural Fund from the ND Center for Social Concerns helped support the project.