“Basically what every teen wants is to take pictures of themselves,” he jokes.
But by the end of the year, photography would mean much more to Rivera, who went on to see his work exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as one of the winners of the New York City Department of Education’s P.S. Art competition.
“I couldn’t have done it without Mr. Lopez,” Rivera says.
Raphael Lopez has a decade’s worth of similar testimonials under his belt. A travel photographer turned Spanish teacher, Lopez founded the photography program at Truman HS in 2005 in response to a need for more creative arts programming at the school.
“Lots of these kids feel much more comfortable expressing themselves through art than they do with writing,” Lopez says. “Photography has become such a powerful tool for young minds to communicate their most personal and intimate conversations.”
In Lopez’s class, students spend half the semester in the classroom, learning about the history and art of photography by analyzing photographs and studying technique.
On a recent Tuesday morning, students focused their attention on a well-known photograph of a migrant woman and her children, taken during the Great Depression by photographer Dorothea Lange. Lopez encouraged students to think about the photograph from a historical standpoint as well as a visual one.
“I want to know what you’re thinking, not just what you’re seeing,” he said. “What do you think she’s thinking as she’s being photographed?”
“She’s thinking about how she’s going to feed her kids,” offered one student. “This image has a point. You can tell why it was taken.”His goal, Lopez says, is for each student to be able to walk into a gallery or museum and feel comfortable analyzing a piece of artwork.
“There’s a flexibility that allows you to engage an image and explain it in your own terms,” he says.
Lopez’s students also research great 20th-century photographers and present their work to the class, with the discussion often pivoting from the visual effects of the photographs to the techniques behind them.
“It doesn’t even look like a photograph, it looks like a painting,” said one student. “How does he make it look like that?”
Lopez responded eagerly — not to answer the question but to turn it back to his students.
“What kind of aperture do you think he used?” he asked.
Midway through the semester, students begin to experiment with various cameras and lenses. Finally, they head to a state-of-the-art photography studio where they put their skills into practice taking pictures of themselves and each other.
They start out taking self-portraits that attempt to replicate certain emotions. Then they watch videos of professional photo shoots to prepare to photograph each other.
“In this day and age, they’re all taking cell phone pictures, but just because you can take a picture doesn’t mean you know how to take a photograph,” Lopez says. “Teaching them to do that is what my job is. The goal is to capture the essence of who they really are.”
Lopez, who has traveled the world, often uses his own photographs in class. His personal passion is evident as he scrolls through his extensive collection.
“Some of these kids are from tough neighborhoods. This gets them to see that there’s more than just the Bronx, that there’s another world out there that they should be exposed to,” he says.
In their final projects, students use Photoshop to combine their own self-portraits with a backdrop of one of Lopez’s photographs, creating a digital montage. Rivera’s award-winning photograph, for instance, shows two images of himself — one dark, one light — in a forest setting.
Bulletin boards in the hallways of Truman are lined with scores of photographs taken by students, which entice other students to sign up for the course. Toni Gaskins, a guidance counselor, recalls a student with truancy issues and poor grades who showed an interest in photography.
“I promised her if she kept coming to school every day, she could take Mr. Lopez’s class,” Gaskins says. That student went on to win the Congressional Art Competition — a national contest — and now studies photography in college.
“She turned everything around,” says Gaskins.
For Lopez, the goal is for all his students to see the world a little differently. As one student put it: “Photography changes your way of viewing things.”