By Laura Stoddard / Photos by Claudia Johnstone
Photographer Karen Shell believes that everyone has their own recipe for happiness. Hers consists of three things: earning a living doing something she enjoys; making time for adventure and play; and giving back. Keeping those elements in equal balance helps her stay grounded and focused on the things that matter most.
Shell never aspired to become a photographer, in fact, she says it’s rather happenstance that she fell into the profession. Growing up she was very creative and always knew that she’d end up as an artist of some sort, but being a photographer never occurred to her — she didn’t even own a camera. For college, Shell was awarded an academic scholarship to Arizona State University, and planned to obtain a degree in graphic design. However, the universe had other plans, and when she discovered that the waiting list for that program was two years, she turned her gaze to photography.
“I’ve been a freelance commercial photographer for 29 years,” says Shell, “and it’s perfectly suited for me. I’ve gotten to travel the world, meet people, and learn things that I never would’ve been exposed to otherwise. I’m so blessed that I’ve been able to spend my whole life supporting myself doing something I absolutely love.”
Something else that Shell loves is donating her time, effort, and funds to worthwhile charities and projects. Over the last several decades, she’s done everything from throwing birthday parties for children at domestic abuse shelters, to playing kickball with the mentally handicapped, to providing free school pictures for more than 1,000 homeless children. The endeavor that Shell has found most fulfilling, however, is one-on-one mentoring with at-risk youth (meaning children who are in foster care, shelters, or homeless, and who subsist at, or below, the poverty line).
“I was always looking for ways to inspire and empower these kids,” says Shell. “So, I thought I’d try a photography project; having no idea what it would grow into.”
She bought a handful of cameras, enlisted the help of fellow photographers to act as mentors, and created an after-school program, calling it Kids in Focus. Over the course of nine weeks, students are taught the basics of photography, and they and their mentors venture out on sightseeing excursions (whether it’s the streets of Downtown Phoenix or Papago Park) to explore and capture. Six years after its inception, the program continues to grow, and, according to Shell, transform lives.
“With every project,” she says, “I become more and more amazed at the changes in these kids. Anger issues disappear; self-confidence levels go through the roof; they’re calmer and happier, because they have a new way to express themselves, creatively.”
Shell realized that here’s something safe about a camera for these kids. Many at-risk youth tend to keep their eyes on the ground; they’ve been through significant challenges and traumas, and as a result, have withdrawn from the world. But with a camera, they can safely look up and look around, gradually reconnecting with people, environments, and even themselves.
The program culminates in a photo exhibit of the children’s favorite works at the Arizona Science Center. Shell says it’s incredibly special to see these abused and neglected kids standing proudly next to their photography, confidently interacting with the public, and dressed to the nines (she makes sure they all have something nice to wear, drawing upon donations when needed).
“The purpose of the night is to give these kids an opportunity to shine,” Shell says. “But the truly amazing part is that people have no clue what their backgrounds are.”
In previous years, the exhibit opening, which is open to the public, has drawn crowds of about 500, and because it’s such an uplifting and moving experience, Shell invites everyone to come enjoy it. As far as future plans for Kids in Focus, Shell hopes to keep the program going as long as she possibly can.
“It can be quite exhausting, still earning my living as a photographer and doing this, but I know that I was meant to do it. I feel like my whole life has been grooming me for this.”
The Kids In Focus Exhibit Opening will take place March 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at CREATE at Arizona Science Center, 105 N. 5th St., Phoenix; 602.753.6339; www.kidsinfocus.org.