Photography allowed me to build my confidence, make friends, and express myself creatively at a time where I felt like I had no other outlet. With more money being invested into the digital content and creator economy, First Tech Fund is looking to ensure that our students have an equal opportunity to learn and fall in love with creating as financial barriers prevent many students from getting that access.
As a half-Japanese, half-Jewish girl who spent summers in Japan and weekends at Japanese school, I didn’t fit in very well in my suburban high school community, so I would often take the train alone to lower Manhattan with my digital camera in tow. By photographing buildings, people and nature I’d find along the way, I was able to feel less alone. Publishing my work online connected me to a community of passionate young people who were just like me and introduced me to ways of meeting new people. I started expanding my social and photographic horizons by going to small venues and taking photographs at rock concerts for bands I loved. The combination of self-expression, welcoming environments, and music set me up to launch a few online publications with friends and introduced me to people that I continue to share my creative passions with nearly 15 years later.
This year, our leadership team and volunteers learned a lot from running our first pilot program. First Tech Fund launched in May 2020, during month 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. During our first year as a nonprofit, we were able to support 52 students from every corner of the city to access remote learning, gain mentorship support, learn from young professionals in a variety of careers, and gain professional skills to be further prepared for life during and after high school.
Our holistic approach of tech access, practical curriculum, & mentorship has opened up a world of opportunity for our students. Having a personal laptop enabled them to attend remote learning, participate in extracurriculars, and apply to summer programs and jobs. The mobile hotspots we provided for our students and their families made sure that they would have Internet access at home and while using public transportation. We saw our seniors receive college acceptances from schools like Columbia University, City College of New York, University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon University, and more.
The amount of progress we’ve been able to make in just 11 months has been exciting and fulfilling for us as an organization and we’ve seen that removing cost as a barrier to tech access, paired with practical curriculum and mentorship works. The name First Tech Fund was born in part because we knew that there are many different forms of technology that create a financial barrier for students and we’re constantly looking for ways to support our youth right now. One of the areas of deep interest for our organization, both its leadership and its volunteers, is photography and the hobbies and careers you can pursue once you gain the necessary skills. We have seen many students in our program this year use Instagram to share their self-portraits, download free phone apps to creatively edit images they took on their cell phones, or leverage leftover school supplies to draw at home. These self-expression tools have been a hobby for our students, but an even better way to express themselves during a complicated period like the pandemic where many are feeling isolated and without hobbies or in-personal club activities to turn to.
The average cost for a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is $719 and that doesn’t include added costs for lenses, tripods or courses to learn about photography techniques. This cost prohibits many from investing in their interest in the art, and creates further disparities in the photography field. The photography industry has long seen a lack of representation — 72.8% of Photographers are White, which creates an environment where images in magazines or news publications come from a singular perspective. A lack of diversity in the photography profession means the stories of Black, Indigenous, AAPI, Hispanic, and intersectional identities will not be told or represented for what they are, and instead be displayed through the lens of dominant identities.
That’s why we’re excited to announce that this summer, we’re expanding First Tech Fund programming to include a summer photography program for NYC high school students. The program will follow our 3 pillars — tech access, mentorship, and insight around future careers. We founded First Tech Fund a year ago, to give students in our community the technology access they needed. Expanding technology access to inspire students to become the storytellers and creators of tomorrow will aid in telling the stories of our communities and people, in only the way that they themselves can.
Photography and creativity are also foundational skills for technology jobs of the present and future. This new age of sharing videos and photographs as a medium for connection and community building means that the digital skills students learn through photography and other creative hobbies have future career opportunities in social media, content marketing, graphic design, and many other fields of business.
Digital content creation is expected to reach market size of $38.2B by 2030 and the creator economy is exploding with more VC dollars being committed to companies that empower creators. The creator economy sits at the intersection of the gig economy and the creative industries and according to this Forbes article, the creative industry generates around $2.25 trillion annual revenue and employs more 15–29 year olds than any other sector.
With more investment driving growth in the space, we want to make sure students of color aren’t priced out by investing in them and providing the tools and skills they need for these opportunities.
Mentorship & Community Matters
I know from experience how mentorship can change your life. In high school, my favorite class was photography. The environment let me be the master of my own universe — I could define what I was shooting, how I wanted to capture the moment, and do this on my own time. This fueled my creativity and independence, versus other courses where I was told to memorize and regurgitate information.
There were film cameras around the house because my mom was a photojournalist, and I got a digital camera as my 14th birthday present from my dad who wanted to support my self-expression. My high school had a dark room and a wonderful photography teacher who taught me the foundations of photography and how to expand these passions through mixed media art on Adobe Suite. She was the only teacher I took art classes with from 10th through 12th grade, and was the first to recognize my abilities and encourage me to continue exploring and challenging myself to do and be more. The mentorship I received from her enabled me to grow my confidence in not only my artistic output but also within my whole self. The privilege of these positive influences and access to resources sparked an interest for me to pursue photography after high school, and showed me all possibilities that were out there through self-expression.
Even though I didn’t end up at art school, the exposure and mentorship I had created a lifelong hobby for photography and design that I’ve carried into my life now many years later and had it not been for my teacher who invested the time and showed me she cared, I don’t know that I would’ve continued with photo. This led me to use my creative passions and design skills through a professional career in marketing. The network I created as a teenager of creative individuals across the country has helped me continue to fuel my artistic fire on an ongoing basis and now we’re looking to mentor and inspire others.
Building Lifelong Skills & Reducing Barriers to Entry
Many students aren’t allotted the same privileges I had access to and have a strong focus on making ends meet for their family and making calculated decisions to get into colleges or job pathways that will create a stable income for them and their families. When families are focused on putting food on the table and paying critical bills, a camera or other art supplies become secondary, and often fall to the wayside, as we saw with students lacking access to laptops for school. The Internet and a computer connect individuals to the resources and education they need, but an outlet for artistic expression allows people to express themselves, grow their artistic skills, and reflect on the visual identities that they see within themselves and their communities, which are often not amplified authentically outside of the community. Whether students are looking for a career in the arts and photography, or look at this as a hobby, having access to these tools without cost gives students the opportunity to create community and gives them a tangible skill that translates beyond — it teaches you empathy with who and what you’re shooting, it allows you to understand the creative process and the art of how you frame a situation, and it helps you by opening your ideas and imagination to critique from others. We want our students to have access to these critical skills at a time when their families are struggling to give them a way to tell their stories, without thinking about the cost that usually would prohibit them from taking part.
How You Can Help
Applications are now open through 6/16/21 for FOTO by First Tech Fund for rising 9th through 12th graders who go to a NYC high school and have an interest in photography. We’re currently fundraising to cover equipment and operational expenses for this program here; we are also looking for in-kind donations of film and digital cameras, as well as introductions to BIPOC photography professionals who are open to mentoring students or advising us on curriculum.
I grew into my own identity and creativity by exploring self-expression through a camera and the Internet. It helped me to understand that I did fit in, but that I was just looking in the wrong places. The safe environment to learn technique and career pathways I could explore as a result of that, allowed me to get where I am today. I can’t wait to see all that we can accomplish through this photography pilot program for our community of students here in NYC.