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Children of the Shadow & Light

A new book by USC Dornsife’s Elaine Bell Kaplan uses inner-city children's photographs of their environments to confront their challenges and express their optimism.

The 12-year-old inner-city child who took this photograph said it symbolized both a way out of life on the wrong side of the tracks and a life path choice between light and darkness. Photo courtesy of Elaine Kaplan.
The 12-year-old inner-city child who took this photograph said it symbolized both a way out of life on the wrong side of the tracks and a life path choice between light and darkness. Photo courtesy of Elaine Kaplan.

If you look closely at the photographs, there is a reflection of hope. Clear examples are the images taken by USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative (NAI) students during the time they spent on the USC campus. Those photos show them studying in class, the campus buildings, even the Trojan Marching Band.

“Many of the NAI students commented that they loved the USC campus because it was the one place that they felt peaceful and safe,” said Elaine Bell Kaplan, associate professor of sociology at USC Dornsife, referring to the subjects of her new book “We Live in the Shadow”: Inner City Kids Tell Their Stories through Photographs (Temple University Press, 2013). To protect the children, Kaplan changed their names.

“USC is a place where people, other than their family, really cared about them,” Kaplan said.

The photograph Kaplan chose for her book cover depicts railroad tracks vanishing into the distance. One half of the photograph lies in deep shadow, the other in bright sunlight. Leafy trees line one side of the tracks, a dilapidated stone wall runs alongside the other. The elongated shadow of the photographer falls to the right of the shot.

This stark, yet evocative, image was taken by 12-year-old Cesar Hernandez, an NAI student who remained upbeat about his future.

“I will do something with my life,” he said.

The book is a result of a two-year study which Kaplan undertook with 54 South Los Angeles middle school students ages 12 to 14. Most students were participants in USC’s NAI, a seven-year tutorial program that prepares low income children for admission to higher education.


Presenting findings from her book to USC School of Social Work students, Elaine Kaplan explains how inner-city children cope with family life, peer relations and academic achievement. Photo by Susan Bell.

Kaplan gave each student a disposable camera and instructed them to take pictures of anything that characterized their community. She then interviewed them about the resulting images in a methodology known as “photovoice.”

“I wanted to find out what these kids think about their living conditions, family life, peer relations and academic achievement in South Central,” said Kaplan at a recent presentation of her book to students from the USC School of Social Work.

The project gave the children an opportunity to think critically about their environment as they try to make sense of the world.

The results challenge stereotypes about inner-city kids, namely that they are all involved with gangs and drugs and have little regard for law and order.

Here is Hernandez talking about his photograph of the railroad tracks:

“It’s about that we can choose our path, the dark or the light,” he said.

Thirteen-year old Kyle Richards chimed in: “We live in the shadow, and no one sees we are here.”

The ray of sunlight was NAI which provides participating students with hope for the future and an immediate sense of belonging. Thirty-nine of the 54 middle school students who took part in the study were participants in NAI.  Those who stay in the program, graduate from high school and earn passing SAT scores are offered a financial aid package from USC or can apply to other university programs.

Kaplan chose the photovoice method because it “enables people in need to document their lives as only they can really know them.”

“Photography’s power lies in its dual role as an art form and a means to record facts,” she noted.

“Often the kids would use the photos as a way to set up the story line — a way to ease into talking about their experiences. The pictures took us onto the streets where they lived, into their classrooms and bedrooms, and onto the USC campus.”

Kaplan didn’t expect the children to be so determined to carry out her instructions. Another surprise, she said “was learning that my own sense of what these photos said was way off base.”

“The photographs taken by the kids gave a view of their lives that we frequently miss in our attempt to apply our own perceptions.”

Although the children in Kaplan’s study had experienced poverty, they all tried to do the “right thing:” stay in school, achieve academically and avoid drugs and gangs.

NAI helps them succeed. Over a 16-year period, from 1997-2011, an average of 40 NAI recipients a year graduated from the program. Out of 635 graduates, 621 went on to postsecondary education and 513 enrolled in four-year colleges, 216 of them at USC.

Here is Hernandez again, talking about the USC students who volunteer to work with the NAI children:

“They are all really great with us,” he said. “I want to go to USC.”