For the past few years, Jason Musselman and Becca Laders, fellow master’s degree candidates in the teacher training program at Lesley University, have made their way to the far ends of the globe to teach photography to residents of remote villages who might otherwise not have an opportunity of this kind to make art; first in South Africa, more recently in Honduras. They call their endeavor “Our Journey for Hope.”
This year they have been applying the same teaching model to a venue much closer to their Concord home: They spent the summer at Advocates Inc., an outreach organization in Framingham for adults with mental health challenges, developmental or intellectual disabilities, autism, brain injury, and other life challenges.
“From My Perspective,” an exhibition of the work created by 26 students at Advocates Inc. under the guidance of Laders and Musselman, opens Friday at the program’s gallery at 1881 Worcester Road, Suite 103, with a reception from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
“Our focus was on using photography to break down the unseen barrier between the Advocates community and the community at large,” Musselman said. “From a teaching standpoint, it has been an incredible experience to make the journey from not knowing the challenges my students face, and being afraid to teach them before the project, to a wish and desire to let the world know what I now know, which is that they are people, they have a voice, and what they have to say could be extremely valuable for the rest of us to hear.”
Deciding to apply their model locally, rather than visiting another rural village in a developing nation, was partly practical, Musselman said. Having earned his master’s degree in May, he was job-hunting, while Laders still has another semester to go at Lesley. And when a friend who is on the board of directors at Advocates Inc. asked them to consider taking on a summer project there, they were immediately intrigued.
“Working right in our own backyard sounded interesting,” Musselman said. “And unlike our last project, in Honduras, we wouldn’t face a language barrier. . . That made it easier for us to get feedback on what they wanted to work on and how it was going for them. It meant the participants could drive the class’s mission, as opposed to us trying to sense what they might be interested in.”
What the participants were interested in turned out to be not entirely different from the other students they have worked with. The students wanted to take pictures of their pets, their family members, their surroundings. This was fine with the instructors, whose goal was simply to give these adults a new way to communicate.
“The goal was to teach them to take pictures of things they loved and things they were interested in,” Laders said. “It was very personal to them, more so than our past projects have been.”
Another distinction in this year’s project, Musselman said, was that the students kept cameras with them all the time, rather than only during class hours as was the case with their younger students. As a result, the exhibition offers a broader spectrum of experiences. “You can really see the life they live. Their lives at home, their families, their activities, the places they go — it’s a 360-degree view,” Musselman said.
Though neither of the two had professional experience working with developmentally disabled adults, they discovered that in some ways it isn’t much different from the high school settings in which they both expect to forge their careers.
“With any class you teach, there’s a certain level of anxiety going in,” Musselman said. “I don’t know who my students are, what challenges they are facing, what problems I might encounter. That’s true in any class that a teacher faces for the first time. We became so comfortable with them so quickly. And they brought so much more to the class than I expected.”
In one particularly poignant example of a student’s dedication, Musselman recalls working with a student who is deaf. On the day that Musselman planned to shoot photos near railroad tracks, the sign language interpreter was not available. Musselman and the student went anyway.
“We were there with no real way to communicate, other than body language. I had to be aware of everything around me, and I kept thinking, ‘This is the sound of silence.’ There were the two of us, in silence, taking pictures, both learning from each other. It was an unforgettable day.”
Friday’s opening reception will include music, refreshments, and discussions by participants about what the photography class has meant to them. The exhibition will remain open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through next month, with the exact closing date undetermined. For more information, go to www.advocatesinc.org.
LOCAL WWI HISTORY: On Saturday at 1 p.m., the Fort Devens Museum will host a program about the 26th Yankee Division in World War I, made up of men from New England who became the war’s first full American division and the first National Guard unit to fight in France.
The highlight of the free event will be a screening of a new DVD, “Yanks Fight the Kaiser: A National Guard Division in WWI,” with extensive coverage of the Yankee Division in action. Also appearing in the DVD are the restored monuments honoring American soldiers who fought in these battles. The DVD was produced by Ed and Libby Klekowski of Amherst.
To accompany the presentation, the museum, at 94 Jackson Road in Devens, will offer refreshments made from popular WWI recipes, and will also have an expanded Yankee Division display, including uniforms, helmets with painted insignia, photographs, and a journal from a cook who was in the 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division.
For more information, call 978-772-1286, or visit www.fortdevensmuseum.org.
SURREAL DISPLAY: Gallery Seven at 7 Nason St. in Maynard presents “Surreal,” featuring works by Libby Gowen, Chelsea Kyle, Eugene Narrett, and Michael Orzech, from Tuesday through Sept. 28.
The show celebrates the art movement known as Surrealism, which combines the dual realms of dreams and reality through painting and photography. The artists will take part in a public reception Sept. 7 from 7 to 9 p.m.
For more information about the exhibition, call 978-897-9777 or go to www.gallerysevenmaynard.com.