“This is the courthouse, where nobody wants to go.”
“This is City Hall, which is beautiful.”
“This is the library where it’s quiet to go.”
That zen-like tour of downtown New Haven given by Janette Menafee — comprehensive in its brevity and simplicity, along with accompanying photos — was part of an art show that opened Monday and now decorates the Atwater Senior Center in Fair Haven.
The six contributing photographers, all regulars at the center like Menafee, have been at work for eight weeks with the staff and volunteers of Focal Point. That’s a private not-for-profit that uses a very structured program to help seniors and other groups open up in a therapeutic way to sharing with each other memories, challenges, even traumas survived, through taking photographs.
The group has also been at work at the East Shore and Dixwell senior centers, where photography shows by their members went up last month. The program, which comes to the city at no cost, was brought in by Elderly Services Director Migdalia Castro to deepen the cultural and educational offerings at the centers.
The seniors first get to know a Focal Point staffer, in Atwater’s case, social worker Lizzie McDonald. She built trust through conversations about challenges the seniors face, joys they recall, and next steps they want to take.
Then the program brings in volunteer area photographers for the hands-on part. In Atwater’s case, those services were provided by the Independent’s Lucy Gellman and I Love New Haven’s Jeffrey Kerekes; all the seniors’ photographs are or will be soon be posted on the I Love New Haven website.
Then there’s more conversation about how “seeing” with a photograph might be different from seeing with your eyes. The participants are given point-and-shoot cameras and off they go shutterbugging on the mutually chosen theme, which in the Atwater group’s case was cultura, or culture.
“Photography: Everyone can do it. It’s a universal language, like music,” said Focal Point President Maureen Sheehan, who was on hand to profess her belief in the transformative power of the program. She congratulated the six photographers and hailed them in front of an audience of two dozen other seniors in one of the community rooms at the center.
As each photographer presented pictures and a prepared commentary about the compositions, it became clear how meaningful the experience has been.
When Gloria Malave, shy and tearful, presented her family photographs, she said, through Castro’s translation: “I’ve never done anything like this. I have a grandson. I’m proud.” Then she went on to say that she wished her mother were alive so she might see her now.
Blanca Sangurima offered three photographs that reminded her of her childhood in her native Ecuador. “Sometimes I like to look at the sky, the colors in the afternoon, when the sun is gone.”
When she took a photo at Lighthouse Point Park, she said it reminded her — or rather, she took it and then the memory came — of how she had been a little girl and looking at the sea in Ecuador, “and I imagined what life was like under the water.”
Victoria Colon took interior pictures of pepper plants and images that helped her evoke feelings for the coming of spring, a lively topic on the morning of the show when the snow and sleet asserted themselves and yet did not keep any of the photographers away.
“I learned there’s a story behind every photograph that nobody sees,” she said.
Several of the participants were proud of the work for even more basic reasons: They did something, what with eyesight being a challenge for several of them, that they thought they could not do before. In the case of Malave, who deals with episodes of being lost and disoriented, taking the photographs was something she was able, after training, to do entirely on her own, and she said she was proud of it.
The program at the three centers will be coming back, but in September, when there’s no snow on the ground, said Sheehan.
Castro said she is pleased not only with this program, both for its quality and because it costs the city not a cent.
That’s been her mandate, she said — to add depth to seniors’ programming without the price tag. In addition to the photography workshops, Castro has also quietly added cooking classes, provided by CitySeed, and yoga classes, and there are more surprises coming.
Quietly, under the radar, with a boost of $150,000 from the city’s capital budget for code improvements to the Atwater Center, she has also assembled a partnership between her department, the city’s parks and recreation department, and the Fair Haven-based cultural group Arte’ Inc. to transform the look and the offerings at the Atwater Senior Center.
After the photographers and their admirers partook of babka and other celebratory sweets, Castro and her Atwater coordinator Filomena Fiondella stood beneath the newly completed awning at the center: hunter green and pretty as a picture.