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Black Belt 100 Lenses: Changing the view

Sometimes, seeing things through the eyes of a younger generation can change perception and perspective.

At least, that’s the hope and goal of the Black Belt 100 Lenses Project, a joint endeavor between the Selma-based Black Belt Community Foundation and The University of Alabama’s Center for Community-Based Partnerships.

The project is a spin-off of a student project Co-Director Elliott K. Knight completed with fellow student Bethany Collins under Professor Bettina Byrd-Giles at The University of Alabama in 2006.

The group asked Alabama students to take photos that showcased what the university meant to them, and he created a mural from them.

“People really just started talking to each other,” said Knight. “I’d been on campus three or four years and was seeing things I’d never seen, the things that are important to other people you did not realize.”

Knight wanted to expand the program to include the surrounding community and Black Belt region, and he and Collins took the idea to Dr. Samory Pruit, university vice president of community affairs. He approved it, a partnership was formed and 12 counties became the project’s focus.

Over the last two years, area students have completed group photo projects in Sumter, Greene, Hale, Perry and Macon counties. Lowndes, Wilcox, Bullock, Choctaw, Pickens, Marengo and Dallas counties will be included in the future, with Dallas slated to be the last due to its size and population.

The project was partly put together to erase negative views some outside the region may have of the Black Belt.

“People say things or have stereotypes about the Black Belt region,” said Knight. “Actually living there is a lot different than how people perceive. It’s important to make people outside our area see how we define ourselves.”

Each group includes a mix of private and public high school students recruited to the project by an advisory committee of administrators and teachers.

“We’re basically kind of letting the students celebrate what the Black Belt is to them,” said Co-Director Whitney Green. “Celebrate our assets, but recognize issues that we need to address.”

The students shoot with loaned, film cameras for one to two weeks. The choice to use film over the digital medium widely available today is used as a form of quality control — each roll holds only 24 pictures.

“We try to encourage them to be more thoughtful about what they take,” said Green. “They have to be a bit more strategic about what they’re taking.”

Green also said the decision was made to prevent students from deleting pictures they did not like. Green said that sometimes, the best photos are among those deleted.

The end result is expected to be a coffee table book, community ownership from the students and, hopefully, an outside perception makeover.

“The process really does instill a bit more pride in their community,” said Green. “A lot of them do seem conscious of issues as well as assets in their community.

“Our hope is that this would build some of our future leaders. These are going to be kids that take pride and ownership in Black Belt.”

That’s not to say that the students are encouraged to focus on the region’s positives. They are asked to capture both good and bad to from a complete picture of the area.

“Basically, we’re kind of letting the students celebrate what the Black Belt is to them,” said Green. “Celebrate our assets, but recognize issues that we need to address.