The Baltimore United Viewfinders is a youth-led arts leadership initiative teaching young people in East Baltimore to use photography, video and other digital media to address local social justice issues.
For two years, the group has been working with the help of a loose configuration of partners, mainly under the auspices of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and, in particular, its MFA in Community Arts (MFACA) program.
Anne Kotleba, the group’s co-founder, wants to use her Community Fellowship to expand and improve the Viewfinders and help it to meet its own community-defined potential.
“This fellowship will help to bring all the elements of the program together to grow it as a full-realized community group,” says Kotleba, a MFACA alumnus and lover of politics, art and history.
The Viewfinders already have experienced considerable success. Members have taken more than 8,000 photos and created 12 videos. The group has developed retail products, participated in solo and community group exhibitions and presented at national assemblies.
One recent project was the creation of a photobook called “Eastside Stories,” which includes original photography and reflections from the middle- and high-school students who meet on Wednesdays and Saturdays to explore community-building through the arts.
“This book is for the outsider looking in. We hope this book will change perceptions of our community so that others will know how things ARE versus how they SEEM,” states one paraphrased quote from the book.
Kotleba says the book and other similar projects help the students who live in East Baltimore neighborhoods to find their voice and showcase the unsung heroes of their community.
“These students want to highlight the neighbors, the kids playing, the store owner who lets them come and hang out and not just the negative things,” she says. “So I think they’re making change by highlighting the positive, bringing people together and creating dialogue around their photography.”
Kotleba, who is originally from the Chicago suburbs, has always had an affection for the arts. But when her father–a talented graphic artist– passed away from lung cancer while she was in college, Kotleba said she learned to “lean on others for support and use art as a way to heal.”
After a term with AmeriCorps*NCCC and a couple years in Colorado, Anne spent four years rebuilding Gulf Coast communities and working as a teaching artist after Hurricane Katrina. It was through this experience that she realized how art could affect entire communities.
Viewfinders is a manifestation of a long journey, both for Anne and for East Baltimore.
“MICA helped plant the seed, in resources, faculty support and initial funding,” Kotleba says, “but now it’s really going to flourish with community support and leadership.”