Getting their special message across

The show is the culmination of the past year’s efforts of at-risk children and youth with special needs who have produced some sparkling, intriguing and surprising works.

A photo of a man rides a bike across the Chord's Bridge, part of the Special Photography exhibition at Musrara Naggar School of Art (photo credit: COURTESY MUSRARA NAGGAR SCHOOL OF ART)
A photo of a man rides a bike across the Chord's Bridge, part of the Special Photography exhibition at Musrara Naggar School of Art
The juxtaposition of “special” and “photography” offers the promise of a unique approach to one of the visual art forms. That is certainly the case with the Special Photography exhibition currently up and running at the Musrara Naggar School of Art.
The show is the culmination of the past year’s efforts of at-risk children and youth with special needs who have produced some sparkling, intriguing and surprising works, under the patient and understanding aegis of Special Photography program head Rafi Wolach.
The young artists come from diverse social and ethnic strata, from all over the city. All told, some 70 students took part in the program, from five schools, including El-Salaam in east Jerusalem, Noam in Givat Shaul, and Neurim in Kiryat Hayovel.
The program has been around for over 20 years, and was conceived by art school head Avi Sabag and his wife. The latter works in special education, so it was a natural confluence for all concerned. Wolach has been on board for around 16 years and says the enterprise has had its ups and downs. “At its peak, we had 12 schools participating, with around another 10 or so groups from MANHI [Jerusalem Education Administration]. That was a lot for us,” says Wolach.
He says the students are kept busy throughout the school year: “We have approximately 20 sessions a year – it varies according to the budget available.” The expertise also oscillates. “Some of the kids start from scratch but this year I had a group I’d been working with for four years.”
It’s not just a matter of technical ability or experience. “We examine the character of the group in question,” Wolach explains.
“If we come to the conclusion that the members of the group could benefit from another year on the program, then we carry on with them.”
Wolach and his colleagues have their work cut out for them, and have to be able to accommodate the needs of a very diverse population. In additional to the emotional challenges involved, the students hail from Jewish and Arab schools, and from religious and secular backgrounds, all of which has to be factored into the way the program’s curriculum pans out. And it is not just about the kids. “If we find a school that takes a very active role in the program, then we tend to invest more in such a group,” notes Wolach.
The program coordinator, who is assisted by instructors Itay Nadav and Dorit Goldstein, is keenly aware of the therapeutic benefits offered by the art form, although he says the onus is very much on the participants to show their worth. “Photography is a powerful means of communication, but two hours a week with them is not enough. We need the schools to push things along, and to encourage the students to work on their photography.” That can involve pointing the staff members of the various schools in the right direction as well. “When we provide the students with training, without being aware of it we also train their teachers. We show them how photography can be used as a communicative tool.”
The base level of proficiency is also, naturally, a direct result of the age of the participant. “We have all ages on the program,” says Wolach. “We have 12th graders – and you have students after 12th grade, too, in special education and we also have eight-year olds. When you are eight years old it is mainly a matter of operating the camera mechanism, and having some fun.”
Wolach says that the program provides instruction on all stages of the photography process, from image capture to production of the visual end result. “We cover the whole shebang, including analog and digital, and video too.” But, while Wolach has his seasoned hands on the helm he allows his subordinates plenty of free rein. “Individual instructors can tailor their workshop as they see fit. There is one instructor, for example, who incorporates all kinds of disciplines in her course.
She uses different things, like music and dance.” That, says Wolach, leaves its imprint on the aesthetic bottom line. “If you look at the works her students produce, you see something different in them,” Wolach observes. “You see an amalgam of art and less just pure photography.”
The program, says the coordinator, is not about providing therapy per se. “That happens naturally in the course of things, but we don’t set out to treat the students.
It just happens. That is the power of photography. I don’t know if you can find this level of intensity in other areas of art. I am not talking about photography as a means of therapy. I am talking about what engages them, what they can take away with them and what is accessible to them.
For example, sculpting and painting demands mastery of skills.
Today, anyone can take a photograph.
These kids, who have problems communicating with other people, can convey their thoughts and feelings so easily, through photography.”
It is has been proven that visually impaired people often develop a keener a sense of smell and hearing.
Can a parallel be made in Wolach’s field of endeavor too? Do youngsters who have problems addressing the world around them, on a day-to-day basis, have a heightened feeling for the visual, and how to express their bottled- up inner feelings by creating images? “I have absolutely no doubt that is the case,” he declares. “Not for all of them, but some of them definitely have that knack. It’s like people with Asperger’s can retain certain information in great detail. So there is that aspect, that when you work with some special-needs kids you can suddenly discover unexpected talent. It can be in music or sport, and once in a while, you get someone with a special gift for photography. I had one like that last year. He asked me how to go about taking his bagrut [matriculation examination] in photography. I told him that in terms of the actual photography he’d have absolutely no problem. His challenge would be in showing his work, and the reactions he’d get to that, and how he’d be able to express himself with regard to the work of others.
Art has to be exhibited. That’s sometimes a problem for these kids.”
That said, some clearly have no problem displaying their work at the art school in Musrara, although there are some peripheral snags along the way in that department too. “Jewish parents of special-needs children often have a problem with showing their kids’ work,” Wolach notes.
“It’s as if they don’t want it to become some sort of freak show.
But Arab parents are much more open in that respect.”
Wolach is sensitive to the subject matter. “I have a special-needs child, and it pains me to see, at exhibition openings, that you don’t get full attendance of a child’s family members. They need encouragement.”
There is some stirring stuff to be seen in the exhibition, including one particularly striking shot of Jaffa Road. You’d be hard pressed to discern the emotional challenges of the photographer, or even to distinguish his work from that of a seasoned professional.
“That’s a wonderful picture,” says Wolach. “And there’s lots more.
There’s also a great video work of a kid who documented his trip between home and school. It is very satisfying to work with these children and youth, and to see them express themselves.”
The exhibition will run at the Musrara Naggar School of Art, Sundays to Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until September 20.
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