Interview with Alicia Hansen by Christer Windeloev-Lidzelius

 

First, could you start by introduce yourself to those in our audience who may not know who are, where you come from what you do?

 

I am a photojournalist, producer, designer, creator, innovator, architect, problem solver, and New Yorker. My family immigrated here from Sweden and Denmark in the late 1800s. I was born in Michigan, grew up in Georgia and have spent the last 22 years in New York.

 

I am the CEO and Founder of NYC Salt, a nonprofit photography program that is a bridge to college and a launchpad into the creative economy for teenagers and young adults who come from low-income immigrant families in underserved communities in NYC and are primarily people of color.

 

I am creating pathways to higher education and careers in the creative industry for teenagers and emerging artists of color in NYC. I am helping to level the playing field by using my social capital to connect our students to job opportunities.

 

 

Alicia, you have been connected to Kaospilot for some years now; can you please share how the relationship started and evolved?

 

Years ago, I received an email from a Kaospilot, Nina Berg, asking if she could do an internship with us for the Fall semester. I said yes, and she came and worked with us for three months. She was an awesome part of the team and an asset to have in the studio. This is how I came to know about the Kaospilots. Later, David Storkholm and Paul Natorp asked if I would host a Creative Leadership workshop at our studio and we did. This was my second introduction to the Kaospilots. Over the years we have had a second intern and see Paul and David when they are in New York. I have visited the Kaospilot school a couple times over the years to observe the start of the school year and the admissions process. I have participated in three or four of the Education Design Masterclasses with Simon Kavanaugh and stay in regular contact with many of the other educators across the world that I have met in those workshops.

 

If someone would ask you what you have gotten out from the work with Kaospilot, what would you say?

 

My work with the Kaospilots has influenced and touch everything I design at Salt. It’s like coming home. All the ways in which I build and facilitate community have been translated, defined and affirmed through the learning I have done with the Kaospilots. I am not a traditional learner and I have been raised to believe that real transformative change comes from deep individualized relationships with people in communty. That is the foundation for our work at Salt. The Kaospilots have added to that belief and given me the tools to facilitate change, growth, and opportunity for my students.

 

I am not a traditional learner and I have been raised to believe that real transformative change comes from deep individualized relationships with people in communty. That is the foundation for our work at Salt. The Kaospilots have added to that belief and given me the tools to facilitate change, growth, and opportunity for my students

 

Talk to us about NYC Salt. What does it do, why did you start it and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

 

I started Salt 16 years ago with no money, no relevant nonprofit experience and a great amount of idealism. A friend of mine had seen the documentary film, Born into Brothels, which is about a photographer who teaches kids photography in the brothels of Calcutta and changes their lives. She thought we should do that in NYC. So, I agreed to teach and she agreed to find the nonprofit to volunteer with and we started a class. She went back to England six months later and I kept showing up every week to work with 8 middle school boys from the Dominican Republic. Parallel to that, I had just finished working on the first all-digital story with a photographer named Joe McNally for National Geographic. I worked with a dozen photography and tech companies to put together the tools we needed. I fell in love with digital technology and thought that kids would love learning about digital cameras and the computer workflow and they did. I had perfect attendance every week and kept teaching those boys for the next six years. This was in the early 2000s as photography was moving from analogue to digital. Fast forward a couple years, as I saw the director of the program I was volunteering for use my resume to bring in grant funding, I realized that I could probably do that too. I wrote a business plan, entered it in a couple competitions, was a finalist and gained the courage to incorporate NYC Salt as a nonprofit.

 

My vision with Salt is simple. Kids don’t get a high level of art instruction in our schools and I have an expertise and a network to use photography to create pathways to higher education and careers in the creative industry for teenagers and emerging artists of color in NYC. Beyond that I have created a multi-year sequential program where we serve students ages 14-18 for two to four years. Salt is a family, a bridge and a launchpad.  We level the playing field to bring more diversity into the creative industry in NYC. Our alumni success is proof that this model works. We have alumni who have been shooting for the New York Times Magazine regularly and have had four covers in the last three years. They have been published in major editorial publications, telling important stories, and have exhibited work at Christie’s and many different galleries, and they have developed incredible agency, confidence and grit through our programs.

 

As far as I have understood you have been recognized by a major company lately. What was that all about?

 

We have been recognized and funded by several major corporations this year.

Most significantly, Nikon USA has invested in our students through a consignment program, college scholarship, and camera donation. They are committed to supplying every student in our program with a D50 mirrorless camera system to use through the school year.

 

Sony has sponsored the cost of five outdoor exhibitions of our student photography work and supplied 45 camera systems for that work to be created through a partnership with the NYC Department of Probation.

 

And most recently, Apple Music has partnered with us to support the second cohort of an emerging artist program that I created during the pandemic. We are one of two organizations they are working with nationwide.

 

I feel honored that these corporations see the value of the arts and in investing in our young people.

 

We exceeded the fire code for attendance, but it was fantastic!

 

To better understand your model can you share a project or two that the students have accomplished?

Our program model consists of three levels in high school (ages 14-18), a college persistence program focused on mentorship and internships (ages 18-21), and an emerging artist program for ages 21-26. In high school, our first-year program is a foundation year where we use photography to build visual literacy, teaching our students to see and learn the creative and technical aspects of using a camera. The second and third years build on the first and focus more time on storytelling and more advanced studio technical training. We believe a student can’t tell a good story if they don’t first have a mastery of their camera and how to use light, composition, color, and moment. We couple our instruction with fieldtrips to creative agencies and have guest speakers to expose students to career paths, and we have a mentorship program and college prep program that focus on individual help in building portfolios and college applications. 90% of our students will be the first in their families to go to college.

 

Every year, we walk the high school students through choosing a theme that they will then create a body of work to exhibit at the end of the school year. In 2016, the year that Trump was elected, our students chose “You Don’t Have to Yell to be Heard” as their show title. They all chose stories to photograph focused on all the issues that arose during and after the election. The stories the told were about race, gender, sexuality, immigration, gentrification, and activism. It was a powerful show that brought in over 500 people for our opening at the Bath House Studio in the Lower East Side. So many people showed up, that the police came and we had to close the doors and there was a line down the block of people waiting to come in. We exceeded the fire code for attendance, but it was fantastic! The kids were so very proud to be heard.

 

Here are a couple important projects accomplished and published by our alumni:

Christian Rodriguez wrote and photographed a story about his father’s near-death experience with COVID for the NYTimes Opinion Section. He also just wrote and photographed a story for Grub Street on a neighborhood Puerto Rican Restaurant at risk of being closed. Christian came to Salt his second year of high school and was in our program for three years, we helped him get into The Savannah College of Art and Design, drove him to college, went to celebrate his graduation and he is now in our emerging artist program and successfully working for editorial publications, and just shot his first advertising campaign for Best Buy.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/opinion/sunday/your-dads-not-feeling-well.html

https://www.grubstreet.com/2021/12/casa-adela-rent-hike-rally.html

 

Malike Sidibe is a student that showed up at our studio one afternoon after a substitute teacher told him about our program. He was a senior in High School. He’s now just turned 24. He’s shot three covers for the New York Times Magazine, was named in January 2022 one of 30 top emerging artists to watch out for nationwide by Photo District News, auctioned a photo from the Black Lives Matter protests in NYC at Christie’s Auction House last summer, shot one of Time Magazine’s ten top photos of the year in 2021 and had three of the top 100 photos of the year.

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/13/magazine/police-reform.html

https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/photos/2020/12/photographer-malike-sidibe-year-in-review

https://time.com/5921202/top-100-photos-2020/

https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/say-it-loud-visionaries-self/malike-sidibe-b-1997-23/125414?ldp_breadcrumb=back

 

In your pedagogical model, what really stand out as crucial to accomplish the goals of the programs?

 

The most important thing that makes everything else fall into place and facilitates the success of the student learning is building strong relationships between the students, teachers and mentors. What comes next is fun, always having good food, and lastly which maybe should also be the first, is to facilitate a learning environment where the students are teaching each other and talking more than the teacher.

 

Many people like photography and like to take pictures. Why do you think that is? (This question may need to be better formulated)

Photography is fun and everyone has an iPhone?

We have found though that our students are not interested in learning iPhone photography. They want a real camera. They are interested in learning the buttons and dials, being in the studio, working with strobes, continuous light sources, and gels. A couple weeks ago we intentionally let the kids break a mirror and then carefully glue the pieces on a piece of card board and use it to reflect light onto a subject. It was a really fun class.

 

What would you say make a great photographer and a great photo?

Curiosity and persistence make a great photographer.

Dimensionality makes a great photo. The mark of great talent is layering, when a photo masterfully combines light, moment, fore, middle and background and color – the moment all the elements shift into place, the moment it clicks.

 

Where do you think the art and craft of photography is heading – what trends and tendencies do you see?

I see a greater convergence of still and video, a stronger emphasis on e-commerce, and social media marketing. I see a more diversified client base, fewer big ad agencies and more in-house marketing departments. I am hopeful that there will be a trend towards more original content production v stock. I see students needing to be fully adept at still and video to be able to be competitive in the marketplace.

 

As a leader and social entrepreneur, can you share some lessons you have learnt?

 

  1. Find funding before starting a new program or business model
  2. Always ask for feedback from the students and include them in the design of the classes
  3. Find time to reflect on what works and what doesn’t and make changes quickly
  4. Take time to build the right team
  5. Office hours where I work one on one with my students is very time intensive but correlates directly with meeting their needs or connecting them to opportunities that I would never know they needed if I stuck to just teaching a class.

 

To give an example of the power of once a month office hours…

I’ve been meeting individually with each of the 12 emerging artists in my class once a month. Through these 30-45 minute conversations, we dig deeper into how they are doing, what their questions are, how they are applying what we talk about in class. These meetings have identified specific needs. One student told me that his dream is to illustrate books for Scholastic. My husband has worked with an art director for decades that just became the director of book illustration at Scholastic, so I set up a zoom call for him to learn about what she is looking for when she hires illustrators. Another student needed a lens for her Sony camera to be able to start a video project on her dad who was just exonerated after being in prison for 26 years. My friend at Sony gave us an a7iii mirrorless camera a couple years ago that had been sitting in a closet with no lens. I asked her if she’d send a lens and she did and now this student has an amazing camera to use. Same thing happened with two other students. Camera equipment was donated and we assessed needs and sent cameras out the door. I can’t wait to see what they create!

 

If someone else would like to go about starting a school and they would come to you for advice; what would be your top three advice?

 

  1. Follow your heart
  2. Do your research
  3. Make a plan and find funding first

 

Finally, what would be a great next project for you and NYC you think? Europe studio?

I want to see the work of our emerging artists in the photo festivals in Europe (Paris Photo, Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, Unseen in Amsterdam, and the Copenhagen Photo Festival), and I would like to partner with an arts institution in Europe to facilitate a one-month summer residency for students to be put on teams to collaborate on a project that they would complete and exhibit that our alumni would either participate in or help facilitate.  It would broaden our student’s world view to travel and would just be so fun to do.

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