For more than three-quarters of a century, the Josephine Herrick Project has helped heal people through the power of photography. Individuals who felt invisible to the world around them, whether due to PTSD or economic, social or mental disadvantages, have been given the tools to express themselves creatively and emerge from the ravages of their particular problems and become active participants in their communities and attain a sense of accomplishment they perhaps had never thought possible because of their circumstances.
It began in 1941 when New York photographer Josephine Herrick launched the first Defense Photography course for veterans with the War Service Photography Division of the American Women’s Voluntary Services. With injured soldiers returning for long-term hospital stays, Herrick led the initiative to teach photography as a type of therapy. Even portable darkrooms were provided so that patients confined to their beds could learn how to develop and print their photos.
The work with veterans, still a cornerstone of JHP, continued after World War II and throughout the ensuing decades. "Josephine Herrick realized that cameras weren't confined to therapy," says Jessica Wanamaker, Executive Director of JHP. "They're the most accessible art form and way of expressing yourself." More than 100,000 veterans have benefited from the free photography programs provided by JHP. The success of the programs naturally led over time to the expansion of its remit to also reach at-risk and disadvantaged youth, people with learning disabilities and behavioral problems, and senior citizens. Today, 60% of JHP's work helps people from deprived communities who feel socially excluded, particularly youngsters. "We have an influence," says Wanamaker. "We can make a difference to young kids and help change the way they think."
One such youth who benefited enormously from the work of JHP is Akeem Bonaparte. He came to the program a young man with learning disabilities. Being a student at JHP made him outgoing and built his self-confidence to take photos.
Bonaparte even interned at JHP and then landed a job as a supervisor at the United Nations Postal Administration. The JHP program "gave him that boost," Wanamaker says. "It made this young man feel supported enough to get a job at the UN." In 2013, Bonaparte received a Volunteer Service Award from President Obama for his volunteer work with New York Cares helping children with developmental delay disabilities and serving food to the homeless.
Some of the most profound emotional and psychological changes that have been witnessed as a result of JHP programs have been in veterans suffering from PTSD. Mike (not his real name), a Vietnam veteran, loved photography as a young man. He took photos described by his daughter as beautiful and exotic. But his hobby had ceased ever since his life had become defined by the trauma of his wartime experiences, memories that he had never spoken about with his family. He was reclusive and unable to make friends.
It was at the suggestion of a counsellor at a Veterans Center that Mike enrolled on a program at JHP. It proved to be transformative. He wasn't just taking photos again, he was going out into the community, meeting fellow veterans and making friends. Wanamaker says, "Men with PTSD often can't socialize. This opened everything up to him, as well as finding an outlet for creativity.”
The man in this portrait was a fellow veteran on the JHP program.
“Building relationships and trust among the participants is part and parcel of the program with veterans and in some ways this picture shows this,” says Wanamaker.
At the graduate exhibition, Mike's daughter was in floods of tears from seeing what the program had done for her father. "I've never met this man before," she told Wanamaker. She later wrote to Wanamaker, thanking JHP for its work and describing the phenomenal change in her father's psyche. "At the gallery event this past year I have never seen my dad so proud of himself and his work. To see my father beam with pride and have others praise his work meant the world to me, to him and my family. The whole experience has been life-changing for him and for my family, and we are so grateful."
Both Mike and Akeem took the tools and skills they learned as JHP students to continue taking photos to this day. JHP itself is also thriving and growing. "There's no other organization like JHP in the US," Wanamaker says. "None have the sustaining power." Emblematic of this growth is JHP's latest initiative, the F-Stop Project @Queensbridge, conceived by Wanamaker.
Over the course of this summer, F-Stop will bring photography classes to over 150 residents of the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Queensbridge Houses, the largest public housing development in the country, is like an isolated island, says Wanamaker. There are developments surrounding it, and their attendant economics, but no trickle down. "The artistic centers don't step foot near Queensbridge. There's no relationship. The arts are a foreign country to these communities."
This stark disconnect is what F-Stop seeks to address by reaching out to seniors, youth and veterans to enable them to use photography as a means of advocating for their communities as activists. As with previous programs, printed books of graduates' photos will be produced. There will also be events, but the difference is that students' work will for the first time also be displayed in gardens, streets and other public spaces. "This year, there will be more than 15 exhibitions outside."
The Josephine Herrick Project has a remarkable history and after 78 years it's still making waves and changing lives. They receive generous in-kind donations from companies like Tamron, Fuji, Sigma and Canon, and it’s Canon’s Rebel T6 that’s used by JHP for its classes – "It's the camera of choice from a teaching point of view," Wanamaker says.
To keep expanding, one of JHP's missions is building on funding from family foundations, trusts and individual donations. As part of its fundraising efforts, on June 18th JHP is holding its Spring cocktail party and photography auction at the New York Academy of Medicine.
To learn more about the work of The Josephine Herrick Project, please visit: https://www.jhproject.org/home
To purchase tickets to the Spring Benefit, please visit: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/continuous-focus-2019-spring-cocktail-party-photography-auction-tickets-61907073724