‘The program gives a lot to the kids – self-confidence changes, improving their status in the family. Sometimes it can even improve their motor functions.’Each week, more than 100 Israeli schoolchildren with special educational needs climb the stairs of Jerusalem’s Naggar School of Photography, Media and New Music to learn how to capture their lives through the lens of a camera. The program, now in its 17th year, was the brainchild of the school’s founder, photographer Avi Sabag, who believes that photography has a profound influence on how human beings see the world.

“Photography is something with immediate results. You deal with society, light, reality, and perceived reality – it changes something in the schedule of our lives,” the Moroccan-born Sabag told ISRAEL21c. “And this is very important for the children.”

The Naggar School, generally known by the Jerusalem neighborhood where it’s located – Musrara – was created in 1986 as an alternative college for young Israeli artists. The school began with a photography curriculum, and over the past 20 years has grown to include departments in new media, video, animation and phototherapy. According to Sabag, who continues to serve as the school’s director, one of the school’s main goals is to teach its graduates to use their art as a means to change the Israeli social landscape.

‘How can I get my artist, my sensitivity, to change something in Israeli society?’ is a question he says Musrara students are encouraged to answer through their work.

The program working with special needs children – aged 8-15 – is an integral part of this vision. Funded primarily by the Jerusalem Foundation, through donations made by the Freeman Family, and with additional contributions from philanthropists Patsy and Benny Landa, it began shortly after the school did, in 1990, with just 20 children. Today, the program involves more than 100 Jewish and Arab children from five schools in the Jerusalem area. The students – who attend once-a-week classes for approximately two hour sessions – have a variety of disabilities and, for many, this is the first time they’ve ever held a camera. In the course of the program they learn not only how to frame and take photographs but how to develop and print them as well. They are taught to use both film and digital cameras, and how to print in both mediums.

Photographer Dorit Goldstein has taught in the program since 2000, and has seen its benefits first-hand.

“The program gives a lot to the kids – self-confidence changes, improving their status in the family. Sometimes it can even improve their motor functions.” Most importantly, she says, the photography “gives them a tool to express their feelings.”

Each child is given a film camera to take home with them, and many of the children use their cameras to photograph scenes of everyday life with parents and grandparents. In addition, the four dedicated instructors develop exercises for the students to help guide them in their creative process.

For instance, one exercise has the children shoot photographs through a piece of paper that looks like a gilded antique picture frame. Another has the students shoot an object lit solely by a lighter in the dark. A class outing brought the children to Sacher Park, in central Jerusalem, where they were assigned to photograph whatever interested them.

“We have to be very creative in order to develop activities with the camera for the kids [in which] they will be active,” explains instructor Goldstein. “We try to make them do things and be creative. It’s been a great success.”

Because of the language barrier, the Arab schools bring their teachers along as translators. But, according to Rafi Wolach an instructor and the curator of the children’s end-of-year exhibit, the Arabic-speaking children are soon able to understand their Hebrew-speaking instructors without language.

“After a few times, there is a connection,” says Wolach. “The children can understand without understanding the language. Something interesting happens [between students and teachers].”

The instructors point to the experiences of the Arab children as being particularly significant. With the program, they are able to do things many of them haven’t done before – visit a museum, go to the beach, or even run around a west Jerusalem park. Their new ability to express themselves through photography has also led to a change in how these children are treated in their schools and communities.

“Especially in Arab schools, the whole concept of special education was different, they used to hide [those children],” explains Goldstein. “Now, parents’ come to the opening [of the children’s photography exhibit], it’s become a tradition.”

The annual exhibit of the children’s work is a great occasion for the teachers, the students, and their families to celebrate the students’ accomplishments. This past year’s exhibit, ‘Special Photography 2006,’ which closed in late December 2006, demonstrated the variety of the children’s work.

The pictures ranged from still lives to family snapshots, from landscapes to pictures of each other. They are clearly the work of children, but as curator Rafi Wolach sees it, “if you didn’t write special education, you would see only the work of children, and not children with special needs”.

For Musrara director Sabag, the success of the program is evident on the faces of the students and their families. “I see the eyes of the parents – it saves them,” he says. “The children are so happy to be here in the neighborhood, in a family. For them to see their pictures in a gallery, to deal with a camera, it gives them something special.”