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Picturing ups and downs

MIDDLEBURY — Everyone’s life has ups and downs: moments of triumph or defeat, of hope or despair.
Twelve Vermont youths (including some from Addison County) with difficult pasts recently got a unique opportunity to transform heightened moments from their own lives into works of art. 
The result is the HighLow Project, an exhibit of pairs of photographs — created in collaboration with professional  photographer Ned Castle — accompanied by audio narrations that re-enact “high” and “low” points in the lives of young adults who have received services from the Vermont Coalition of Runaway & Homeless Youth Programs (VCRHYP).
In one pair of photos, for example, a young woman in the “low” portrait sits in a room surrounded by empty beer bottles and a passed-out friend. In the “high” portrait she prepares for her high school graduation, standing in a room of the house where she lived and received help from the Addison County Parent/Child Center.
The HighLow Project will spend the next six weeks at 22 Merchants Row, an unoccupied storefront beside Carol’s Hungry Mind Café in downtown Middlebury. The space, currently on lease, was donated by the Battell Block for the duration of the exhibit — from now until the end of February. Some of the photographs will also be on display in the nearby Vermont Folklife Center.
The VCRHYP was created in 1981, when three youth service organizations teamed up to apply for federal funding. Since then, the Coalition has grown to represent 13 organizations in 12 counties. VCRHYP agencies offer transitional housing, counseling and outreach programs for homeless and at-risk youth and their families. The Addison County Parent/Child Center and the Counseling Service of Addison County, the coalition’s local representatives, brought the exhibit to Middlebury as a means of showing the stories of those with whom they work to the wider community.
What distinguishes the HighLow Project from a typical portrait exhibit is the extent to which subjects participated in the creative process. Although Castle took the pictures, the young adults volunteered their own high and low moments, scouted locations with Castle, spent time behind the camera framing shots and chose among various shots the two that would represent them. Participants also had a final say in which audio clips were used for narration.
In making the HighLow Project as participant-driven as possible, Castle and the VCRHYP took pains to avoid harming the people they were trying to represent.
“The line between empowerment and exploitation is so thin,” he said. “I wanted to make sure (the participants) knew at any point that they could decide it wasn’t right for them.”
Burlington-based Castle, whose work has appeared in shows around Vermont including at the Vermont Folklife Center, also wanted to tell an interesting story. He takes issue with the tendency of portrayals of at-risk youth to favor either dramatic success stories or tragic calls to arms.
“I thought I’d do something more dynamic,” he explained. “I wanted to try to capture that swing” between emotions from one moment to the next.
To find volunteers, Castle got in touch with case managers and organized drop-ins at teen centers. He met potential subjects, explained the project and allowed the young adults time to decide if they were really interested.
Even after that point, control remained in participants’ hands.
“We created a release form that was unique, in that participants retain ultimate control over the stories,” he said.
If a participant decides, even years later, that the photos and audio are not appropriate, he or she retains the ability to reclaim and remove them from the exhibit.
In the show the participants are identified by just the first name and last initial.
Including all these measures elongated the HighLow Project’s production time; yet, Castle feels the extra effort was worth it. In his view, “all those little things add up to put you on one side or the other of that line” between exploitation and empowerment.
He is satisfied with the result.
“I believe strongly that this was an empowering experience, not an exploitative one.”
The continued participation of the 12 youths featured in the photographs indicates that they feel the same way.
After its run in Middlebury, the project will continue its tour of all 13 communities with VCRHYP agencies.
The HighLow Project will be on display in the Folklife Center and in the Merchants Row storefront Jan. 17 through Feb. 28. An opening reception will be held this Thursday, Jan. 20, from 5 to 7 p.m. in the storefront space. A few sample images with narration can be found at highlowproject.org.
J.P. Allen is an intern for the Addison Independent this winter.

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