Teens view their world ‘In a New Light’

January 14, 2011

My Mother's Teardrop. Photo: Dakota, age 14.

By Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org

“If you think about it, a lot of successful artists had troubled youths,” said Ben Thwaits of Spooner. He teaches at Northwest Passage, a residential mental health treatment center for teenagers. Last week, we talked by phone about an inspiring youth project he developed with his wife Branda, a National Park Service Ranger.

Funded by an America’s Best Idea grant,  “In a New Light” connects boys enrolled at Northwest Passage to the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway through photography. The project relies on the combined powers of art and nature to help restore a sense of dignity and wholeness to troubled teens’ lives.

Thwaits told me that a student who winds up in his all-male class may have faced any number of roadblocks to a healthy childhood—problems like substance abuse, harmful relationships or developmental disorders. Some have had truancy issues and haven’t attended school for years. But along the St. Croix River and behind the camera lens, Thwaits’ students thrive. When I asked why, he surmised:

Photography involves the quest to find the emotional essence of a subject, and it can take photographers a long time to get into that way of thinking. But whatever their challenges, a lot of these boys are truly emotionally brilliant, and they have so much pent-up emotional energy. They operate on gut instincts and often make emotion-based decisions. This project gives them an outlet for their emotional, expressive, creative sides.

A video filmed for the project by Black Ice Productions shows a few of the boys in action:

A nature-based treatment facility, Northwest Passage takes advantage of its close proximity to the St. Croix Riverway to administer its programming. However, the program traditionally has used the adventure model—hiking, canoeing, camping—to incorporate nature into its curricula. “In a New Light” approaches nature therapy from a new angle, so to speak. According to Thwaits:

With this project, we’re really immersing ourselves in this beautiful and wild place in a quiet and introspective manner … I could almost see the boys’ brains slowing down; I could see them focusing. These are some of the most severe cases of ADHD that you’ll see in a teenaged boy, and yet they’ll spend hours and hours on end looking at a bird, a flower or a frog.

The "In a New Light" exhibition is on view at Wisconsin's State Capitol Building through January 22. Photo: Ben Thwaits.

An exhibition of the students’ work has already traveled from St. Croix Falls to Wausau,  and is on view now through January 22 at the  State Capitol Rotunda in Madison. Each photograph includes commentary, or in some cases poetry, from the boys themselves.

Student photographers participated in artist receptions at two of the exhibitions, events that Thwaits called “magic, truly pivotal moments in the boys’ lives.” At one reception a student was overheard saying, “That’s the first time in my life I’ve ever gotten an adrenaline rush from doing something good.”

Thwaits  credits a whole community of partners with the project’s success. The Wisconsin Arts Board, Black Iris Gallery and Custom Framing, the previously mentioned Black Ice Outdoor Productions and others made significant contributions, he said.


Those unable to take in the exhibition in Madison will have two more opportunities: the show travels to Cable in February and returns again to Spooner in March. A project website also showcases the boys’ work. And below, one more example of a photograph you’ll find in the exhibition—this one from 16-year-old Chuck.

Just a Teenager 

I’m just a teenager.
A teenager tryin’ to make it.
A teenager tryin’ to get there.
A teenager tryin’ to move on.
A teenager tryin’ to break free.
I’m just a teenager
that doesn’t want to fall through the cracks.

–Chuck, age 16