It's a Tuesday morning in June, and nationally acclaimed photographer Linda Solomon is standing in the gymnasium of the Salvation Army's Purdue Center of Hope, showing more than a dozen boys and girls how to use the disposable cameras that have been handed out to them.
"Not everybody can be good in sports," she says, "but anybody can be a good photographer, and then we can all take beautiful photos of the things we see in life and want to remember forever."
It's clear that most of these kids have never owned a camera, but then most of them have never really owned anything. Each of them is a resident of the Salvation Army's Emergency Family Shelter, which — as the name implies — provides temporary emergency housing for children and their mothers when they simply have no other place to go.
Some of the children are victims of domestic violence, drug-abusing parents, or other tragedies. But today their lives have been brightened, for they have been gathered together and given a special assignment. As part of a "Pictures of Hope" workshop, they are going to use their new cameras to take photos of things they wish they had, and those images — one from each child — will be printed on holiday cards to be sold as fund-raisers by the Salvation Army.
"Isn't it nice to reach for your dreams?" she asks the children. "That's what we are doing — capturing our dreams with our cameras."
Solomon, an award-winning photojournalist and author of the New York Times best-seller, People We Know, Horses They Love , first walks them through the basic steps: how to hold the camera, frame your subject, and advance the film. When she uses a projector to show examples of her own work, the kids ooh and aah when she flashes a slide of Will Smith — not because it's an excellent portrait of the actor (it is), but because the kids suddenly realize, as one of them says, "You were standing that close to him when you took that picture?" They gaze at Solomon with awe when she replies yes.
"A picture is worth a thousand words," she tells them. "It can tell a story of our lives, and that's what you are going out to do — to tell a story from your lives."
With camera instruction over, then comes the hard part — hardest of all for the adults who listen as the kids step to the front of the room and shyly read from the "wish lists" they have compiled earlier. No sports cars, McMansions, fancy clothes, or even piles of money for these children.
That's not what they wish for.
Instead, 11-year-old Rodriguez hopes "for my grandmother to come back alive," "for my Dad to get out of jail," and "for nobody to get killed."
Eleven-year-old Cairolto's dreams include "my family to stay together and happy and healthy," "to make many inventions that help humanity," and "to cure illnesses and save lives."
Nine-year-old Jermine says her main wishes are "to see my Dad again," "for my Uncle Randy to get better," and "to live in a house." She also hopes "more people will get help from the Salvation Army."
Though other grownups in the room sniffle or look away as these kids — old and wise beyond their years — read from their lists, Solomon quietly coaches each of them about how to capture such heartfelt dreams on film. She's perhaps used to the heartbreaking needs of children like these by now, since Memphis is one of ten cities across the country selected to be part of "Pictures of Hope."
"Okay, you want your father to get out of jail," she tells one boy. "That's a wonderful thing. How can you photograph that? By perhaps taking a picture of a judge?" The boy nods, and they move on to the next topic: a bedroom of his own. He thinks he might just take a picture of a nice bed. "That would make a great image," says Solomon, and the little boy smiles.
After the children spend the next few days taking their photos, the cameras (with each child's name written on them) were sent to Solomon, who worked with Ed Welburn, the vice president of global design for General Motors, to select the photographs.
"I was so moved by how the children revealed their hearts in their images," says Solomon. "One little boy's dream was to someday have a roof over his head, and he photographed a roof. These are images that will stay with you, and in your own heart, forever. And when people share these beautiful cards with someone they care about, they will have helped change the lives of these children, by believing that they could accomplish those dreams."
Thanks to a contribution from General Motors, 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of these cards will go to the Salvation Army. The "Pictures of Hope" cards were unveiled in October and are available for sale at the Purdue Center of Hope, 696 Jackson Avenue, and on the Salvation Army's website (www.salvationarmymemphis.org).