Samy’s Camera has always been committed to and enthusiastically supported educational programs promoting photography. By emphasizing both the artistic and the vocational potential in photography, they have offered numerous classes, put on special workshops, and have sponsored lectures with prestigious photographers.
One of their current and most exciting programs is Samy’s Camera Photo Camp which is run by Deborah Cloyed, a gifted teacher and fine photographer herself. She is working with many young children, teaching them sophisticated concepts about photography in the most stimulating way. She helps these kids build self-confidence and develop their own voice. I was able to sit down with Deborah recently and interview her about the unique Photo Camp.
Anthony Friedkin: Tell me a little bit about your background…Where were you born? Where did you grow up?
Deborah Cloyed: I grew up in Virginia, outside of DC, for my first 17 years, and then became a bit of a gypsy during and after college. I spent time in Thailand for a while, and London. Next, I moved out to LA—that’s when I first worked for Samy’s around 2002. Then I took off again. I lived in Barcelona, bounced around Europe a bit and came back to LA and Samy’s again, was on CBS’ Amazing Race, then worked in Honduras for about 7 months as a photographer, before doing volunteer work for a charity in Kenya. After, I spent three months in Virginia writing my first novel, before moving to New York…
AF: Fiction Non-fiction?
DC: Fiction…I’ve had two novels published with MIRA Books, a division of Harlequin.
AF: I had no idea…congratulations…what are the titles of the books?
DC: The first one is “The Summer We Came to Life.” It’s set in Honduras, about three women grieving their best friend’s passing, while their mothers share stories from the tumultuous 60’s & 70’s—Civil Rights, the Iran Revolution. It involves science and spirituality, plus a twist involving parallel universes.….The second one is easier to explain! “What Tears Us Apart,” set in Kenya against the political election violence of 2007, is a gritty love story that explores the nature of tribal affiliations, trust, and betrayal.
AF: Wow…That’s impressive…I had no idea…Tell me about what inspired you to become a photographer? How did you become a photographer?
DC: I think I’ve always been very artistic, and coming from a large family—there’s 70 people in my family—and they are not artists…they’re astrophysicists, they’re engineers, dentists, and teachers, but no artists, I always kind of stuck out and I knew I stuck out. So, I pursued several of the fine arts—but when I found photography around 12-13 years old, that’s when I got really excited and started taking classes, at a local college. I managed to slip in just in time to learn darkroom skills, black & white film, to get all the basics… that a lot of kids today don’t get…
AF: Do you remember what your first camera was?
DC: I do. My grandfather loved photography and he gave me a Nikon F, like, an ancient one, so I had that and I had a Pentax K1000.
AF: So you started out photographing with film…
DC: Oh yes…it was a long time ago, before digital. I’ve seen the entire birth of digital photography happen. My first job, when I was fifteen, was in a camera store, so I’ve seen the business side of it also.
AF: So you’ve done your own darkroom work then, processed your own film and made your own prints. I was wondering…when digital came in, and I know you shoot digital now…was transitioning into digital easy for you? Or did you find it challenging? Was it a struggle at all? Or did you embrace it fully? What was your opinion about it?
DC: Well…I understand appreciating film for its look, and the smell of those chemicals (laughter)
AF: Nothing like the smell of fixer on your fingers…
DC: I was a teenager coming up in all of this. I was always really excited about the possibilities of digital, and I learned Photoshop really early on, which gave me kind of a jump up. Later, I would teach Photoshop. At a certain point I was shooting digital if I was shooting jobs, and shooting film for fun…like I would have this cool Mamiya rangefinder, and I would bring film on my travels….but at a certain point digital got so good, and was so much cheaper and easier to use, especially in travel photography.
AF: Shooting film is great training in my mind, There’s nothing better I think…because when you make an exposure there’s no deleting…
DC: I talk about that with my students… they watch their parents go click…click…click… and I say “No… better to take one… take the one, to wait for the moment. We talk about timing, about being aware at all times, of your composition, your lighting, so that you’re ready to get the shot.
AF: That’s wonderful…Tell me about the program in general, the school program that you do. When did it start? Are there specific goals to it? I know you work in conjunction with Samy on all of this…
DC: In 2009 me and another colleague (who was here at the time) approached Samy about starting a school program. We have such resources here at Samy’s Camera. We have such a love of photography here, and a knowledge of photography. It made sense we should have a program for the local schools. Samy—who is such a kind, brilliant, wonderful man, like family to me—always supported it fully. He basically said, “Great! Go figure it out…”
AF: So this goes back at least 6 years now…
DC: Yes. We walked across the street (from the Fairfax store) to Hancock Park Elementary and researched after school programs, learned about them, and created Samy’s Camera Photo Camp.
AF: Is it a public or private school?
DC: Public school—very high rated.
AF: One through 6th grade?
DC: K through 5. So… I created the curriculum, and I began teaching there first…
AF: Have you ever taught before?
DC: I had taught adults, and I had worked with kids in different capacities, volunteering in homeless shelters and youth centers. I love kids; I have always loved kids. This is something I tell the parents on graduation: “I’d taught adults photography, but at first I really didn’t know what elementary school kids could do…So I taught them the same concepts I teach adults, all these complicated things like composition, lighting, framing. We talk about shadows, the direction of light, exposure, perspective …
AF: Do you show them examples of work, other photographer’s work, to illustrate these things?
DC: The structure of the class is: The first half we’re in the classroom learning new concepts, looking at photographs, discussing them. Once we’ve absorbed the lesson then we give them cameras, and we’re outside taking pictures.
AF: How old are the kids about?
DC: I’ve worked with high school kids, middle school, and elementary. The biggest success we’ve had—which has really grown—is with elementary schools. So primarily now I focus on elementary. Kindergarten through 5th or 6th.
AF: So how old are your youngest students?
DC: From five to ten or eleven…
AF: Really? So do they automatically sense…have an instinct for it? Because they’ve shot with their iPhones, or their parents iPhones. Is the camera a foreign object to them? What’s it like to hand them a camera?
DC: You know, even in the six years I’ve been doing this I’ve seen a change. Nowadays, they come in pretty well-versed…
AF: Even if their only 5-6 years old..
DC: Yes! Because they use iPads and smartphones, kids come in knowing how to work the buttons and such. In today’s age, photography is used as a means of communication more then ever…which some photographers moan about, but I actually think it’s amazing, I think it’s great….Instagram, Facebook…
AF: Well it crosses all borders; it’s an instantaneous language..
DC: And that’s why Instagram and others have become so popular, because photographs, as you know, Anthony, are so emotional. Talk about the best way to communicate your life to the people you care about—you send a photograph. So I think kids are just growing up more and more with that idea, and know how to press the buttons…So, in class we talk about how to really get into the art of it…and watching what they can do is just amazing…
AF: Tell me more about that….any real surprises for you about the kids? In what they photograph? What’s the one thing you didn’t anticipate?
DC: I was surprised the way they learn so fast-so fast-I’ll see a clear progression from the beginning…in just 8 or 10 weeks. I see them trying all the things we learn about in class. For example, perspective. When they first come in, everyone stands at one level, snap-snap-snap, but soon you see them approaching a subject, a flower, or whatever, and go “OH WAIT.” You can sense the wheels turning, as they get down low and try different angles. They begin to say things like “oh this one isn’t in really good light,” and look for a better location. To me, that’s just amazing!
AF: Do you give them assignments at all? Do you tell them to go and photograph a car for example, or a portrait or something?
DC: I have beginners and advanced classes. Every week in the beginners class we learn a different kind of photography. For example, we’ll do fashion photography, and I bring in stuff for them to dress up, a backdrop, and a reflector. They take turns holding the reflector or being the ‘art director’—which means they’ll tell the “model” how to pose and such. On Macro day, I’ll bring in tripods, and they’ll learn how to use the self-timer, and how to work in a more controlled environment, taking pictures of things like toys. We do Food Photography, Portraits, Nature, Sports photography… In Sports, they learn timing by photographing jump roping, panning, and they learn pre-focus…in order to capture (like a ball) in mid-air.
AF: I want to take your class….it sounds like so much fun, How many students are in the class? Generally?
DC: I do a max of twelve now—twelve is the magic number! The class fills almost all the time. I’ve had classes of 18 or 20, but—remember kids are running around with cameras—it’s way to hectic. It’s not a traditional classroom setting.
AF: How long do the classes last for generally?
DC: One hour. At each school, there’s a class one day a week, with the advanced class taking place after my beginners class, so I can stack them up…
AF: So there’s no intermediate class then…it’s either beginners or advanced classes pretty much?
DC: There are three different advanced classes students can take. So, I’ll have kids multiple times, and it’s so heart warming…I have the privilege of watching them grow up. I’ve had kids start as teeny-tiny kindergartners and by the time they’ve taken my last class, they’re getting ready to leave for middle school.
AF: Do they ever come in and say “You know I saw this photo and it was very disturbing for me “ Or do they talk about their emotions very much? About what they’re either seeing or trying to accomplish in a photograph?
DC: Photojournalism, the last class we do before their graduation, that’s the most serious class. So—remember they’re really young but—I tell them we’re going to have a serious conversation today… and we talk about the power of photography. I ask them to raise their hand if they think one person can change the world, and usually most of them will raise their hand. Then I say, “Raise your hand if you think one photograph can change the world.” They’re not so sure about that one, that seems crazy, so we talk about it, about war photojournalists who risk their lives, or brave natural disasters. We discuss front pages of newspapers for example, how powerful images can generate donations to help a cause. We talk about why we, as human beings, connect to a photograph more than words.
AF: Have you noticed any difference between the boys and the girls? In terms of how they shoot or what they photograph?
DC: No..not really. Well, on Fashion day the girls tend to be like “Oh, it’s my favorite day!” While the boys say, “No way! I’m not going to be the model,” then by the end of the class the boys demand to model (laughter)
Maybe that’s one example, but in general….no, there’s not much difference. It’s more the personalities that surprise me. Like, I’ll have one student who is so vocal, so enthusiastic, that I think their work is going to be the best in the class. But at the end of the semester, after I go through all twenty-five thousand photos, I’ll have this quiet student who just kind of works on their own—and it’s their images that just blow me away…
AF: So at the end of the course, how many meetings total are there?
DC: It’s either 8 or 10 weeks, three semesters a year.
AF: What ages are they?
DC: They’re all ages…
AF: So the parents enroll their kids in the class, correct? So you accept kids from all different grades…
AF: So how do the kids handle that? How do you handle that?
DC: That’s where teacher skills come into play, because it’s definitely a balancing act that happens. Kindergartners tend to need a lot of attention, “Look over here, over here!” There’s a lot more showmanship with them. But with the older students I want to make sure they get individual attention that’s up to their level, so I can push them a little bit more. So, I do this and then have the older kids help out with the younger kids. They mentor them, it works well…
AF: How many classes do you teach in any one semester? How many different schools?
DC: Up to eight classes a week… at four different schools
AF: Have you done any work in any impoverished neighborhoods, where the kids come from poor families?
DC: We’ve held the program at thirteen schools of varying economics, from South LA to Malibu. Currently, I have a waitlist of schools requesting our program, so now I rotate, open to all neighborhoods, regardless of their economics… We’ve also provided a lot of pro bono education. Which brings me to something I’m really excited about. I’m creating a new division of Samy’s Camera dedicated to giving back, named Samy’s Camera Outreach. Samy’s already gives generously to a host of charities, but this will be a more grassroots effort, with me out in the community, doing charity on behalf of Samy’s…
AF: So it’s a charity outreach program? How will it work?
DC: It has two components to it—providing portraits to targeted members of the community, and free photography education, which is something we’ve already been doing. I’ll continue doing workshops at STEM High Schools. We provided a pro bono semester at Virginia Road Elementary, in South LA. We also work with the Sheriff’s Youth Activities League, their youth foundation, providing field trips and free classes.
AF: Are these kids who have been incarcerated? Or kids who have gotten into trouble?
DC: No, they’re just kids that have one or two working parents and no good support system, so they go there after school. We provide positive extra curricular activities for them. So, we’ll be doing more of that, but the other aspect is providing empowering portraits for women’s and children’s causes, hospice patients, and animal shelters. We’re teaming up with an organization called Flashes of Hope that takes portraits of children with cancer at LA Children’s Hospital and I have portrait sessions lined up for USC Keck Hospital Palliative & Hospice patients doing legacy work with their patients.
AF: Hospice meaning that they’re basically terminal?
DC: End of life, right…
AF: And these are kids?
DC: No, at Keck Hospital, the patients are adults. The kids’ portraits are at Children’s Hospital LA.
AF: Have you done anything like that before?
DC: It’s all just getting rolling. I just did a shoot for Pug Nation LA, a rescue organization…
AF: The portraits of the animals…will they get posted somewhere? Will they be online so people can possibly adopt a pet if they want?
DC: Yes, that’s the whole idea, to provide better pictures that people will see on the website, get more animals adopted.
AF: It sounds like portraiture comes easy to you? Is that true?
DC: Yes, that’s what I’ve always done…
AF: You know for me, because I’ve shot a number of portraits in my life, it’s all about trust, that your subjects can relax and be genuine, and not overly pose and all these things, that we find true honest moments about who they are…without that trust, it’s a different experience…
DC: That’s a beautiful way to put it. I did a lot of travel photography, but primarily I’ve always worked with people. That’s what I’ve always focused on, been drawn to, and what I’m good at, I suppose.
AF: I was wondering, going back to the education programs, when the kids graduate- what does that involve? Do they each make a little portfolio? Is each student, in a sense, required to produce a portfolio of hard copy prints, at the end of the class?
DC: We end the semester with a big graduation ceremony for the families. I put together a gallery show; it’s a big production! I get up and tell how amazing the kids are, then have the kids talk about what their favorite stuff was… all the different things that we did, what we learned. I test them on their vocabulary, and show a slideshow, taken from a selection of photos from the class, about 100 photos, set to music. I include photos I’ve taken of the kids, background type photos, but primarily it’s their work. Then the kids come up one by one, they get a diploma, a nice little fancy diploma, and then we view the gallery show, with each student standing up and speaking about their framed print in turn. Generally we do these in the school libraries, where we have more space. After, they come for a fun, guided tour of our flagship store. And then of course they receive their T-shirts and hat from Samy’s, and all their images on DVD.
AF: How much do you talk about Photoshop or teach them how to manipulate their pictures after they’ve taken them?
DC: We don’t cover photo editing in the beginners class, but in the advanced class we do a whole Photoshop day. I also talk to them about, as much as you can with young kids, creating responsible imagery. When discussing fashion photography, for example, because kids aren’t really aware of this, especially young girls, we discuss how the edited images are ‘fake’ and impossible to attain for any human, even models, and how governments are starting to outlaw such extreme editing. We have a good discussion about that.
AF: Do they learn re-touching at all?
DC: Yes. But of course they’re kids … I bring out the computers and we turn faces green, add a third eye, have fun with it.
AF: It all sounds fantastic, with everything you’re doing in the classroom, I can’t wait to photograph it…what is the biggest challenge for you with the kids?
DC: I don’t consider this a challenge, I consider this one of the greatest blessings of my life.
AF: For example, I’m wondering about the process, like getting them to think visually, or does that come to them naturally?
DC: Definitely, that comes to them naturally….
AF: What about getting them to recognize the concept of, and in a way, the definition about the medium of photography itself? That photography is very different then other visual mediums like painting or drawing.
DC: They’re seven..(laughter)… Honestly, the kids are brilliant and so, so creative. The only challenge is the incredible amount of work that I put in, like going through twenty-five thousand photos, framing 70 gallery prints in a day, plus driving all over to different schools, the work that goes into it, that’s challenging. But I love it!!
AF: Is all the photography the kids accomplish, is that done in the class only? Or do the kids get to take the camera’s home with them, like over the weekend.
DC: All the work is done in the classes. We lend them cameras for each class, with labeled memory cards, for each student. At the end of the semester, each kid usually ends up with 400 or so photos.
AF: What type of cameras do the kids use? Are they point and shoots?
DC: Yes, they’re digital point & shoots…
AF: So the kids aren’t using digital SLR’s…do they ever look through a viewfinder? Or are they doing all of their composing off the LCD screen.
DC: The digital SLR’s are too big and too heavy, plus there’s the liability of using such expensive cameras. But we definitely talk a lot about composition and being very aware—I’m always looking over their shoulder—of what we’re looking at on that screen, asking: “Why is this included? Or not?” We’re always talking about framing, and being very careful of that.
AF: How critical do you get with the kids?
DC: It’s a balance. I try to get them to critique their own images. In the beginning when I’m teaching them what composition is, for example, then of course I’m telling them the basic principals, but advanced kids can critique the Rule of Thirds, balance in images.
AF: Do you ever teach black & white only?
DC: Yes, we do black & white in my advanced class. We also photograph reflections in water droplets, experiment with food color in water to create these abstractions, and…
AF: Your class sounds wonderful, these kids are so lucky to have you…
DC: I love doing this! When I think of all the memories, I love it…I am honored to help these kids build self-confidence, develop their voice.
AF: And I’m sure the parents must be thrilled with the learning curve of their children, that their kids are learning how to express themselves visually. That’s so incredibly important for children.
DC: The response from the parents, honestly, has been glowing, so I think we’re doing something right. If a kid goes through the beginning classes, and continues through the advanced classes, then I really have the joy of getting to know them and their family.
AF: Deborah, I want to thank you very much for doing the interview with me today and also congratulate you on your commitment and your passionate dedication in doing this-it’s abundantly clear after speaking with you-and who knows? Maybe one of these kids will grow up to become a very successful photographer in their life. It’s very exciting what you’re doing….I wish you all the best.