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How a celebrity photographer saved picture day for this New York school


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: And you can see the Lou Reed caught between the twisted stars exhibit at the New York Public Library through March 4, 2023.

For many students Picture Day is a rite of passage. For parents, it's a way to hold on to memories of their children through the years. But for one New York City School the day almost didn't happen until one photographer stepped in. Correspondent Ali Rogin has the story.

Ali Rogin: For Raven B. Varona, photographing the world's biggest artists it's just another day at the office.

Raven B. Varona, Celebrity Photographer: A lot of times with celebrities, you know, that's their job, they're ready to get in front of the camera. They know what they're setting themselves up for. They know their best angles.

Ali Rogin: A recent assignment with a much younger cohort took her out of her comfort zone. Public School 25 in Brooklyn, New York was about to cancel Picture Day.

Karlie Hustle, Parent: We didn't have the money in the PTA coffers, so to speak to fund that.

Ali Rogin: It's a Title One school meaning 40 percent of families qualify as low income. Karlie Hustle's daughter Harp went to PS25 for kindergarten.

Karlie Hustle: Photos are keepsakes. These are moments that you get to crystallize in time. It happens very fast. Kids grow up. Things happen. People change.

Ali Rogin: Hustle new Varona because of her work in the music industry. She saw an opportunity when Verona posted a tweet saying she still takes small jobs.

Karlie Hustle: It just like clicked it was like, you know, a god wink or something to think that, you know, that might be a year where those kids didn't have photos. It just didn't sit right. with me and, and my daughter's father. So we sought out Raven, and we got it done.

Raven B. Varona: I grew up in the Bronx, my whole life went to a Title One school from K to eight, like I have certain years of picture day that I don't have the photo because we couldn't afford it. Even though my mom, you know, made sure to try to get it every year. We forget as adults that when we were kids, these moments are so monumental for the day.

Ali Rogin: How did you go about empowering them to really express themselves when they got in front of your lens?

Raven B. Varona: Yes, so I really believe and I believe this to be true for everybody, especially any of my subjects that you should have your own agency to, like, you know, express who you are. So the first thing we did was that we had monitors all around the portrait setup so that the kids could actually see themselves as they were taking pictures.

We encourage all the kids to just be like, how do you feel? What are you feeling right now? Like, obviously, we would tell them to smile at first because, you know, parents want to see a happy kid. But there were kids that were like, I don't want to smile. We'd like OK, what do you want to do? And like one kid was like, Can I hold my stuffed animal and we were like, Sure, or can I give a thumbs up or whatever poses they wanted to do that they felt represented them.

Karlie Hustle: And each little child got to be celebrated in their own way through having their image captured. I think it's you know affirming and it's good for kids self-esteem.

Ali Rogin: Each student was able to take their photo home with print donated by Canon.

Raven B. Varona: It made me really emotional to just reminded how just creativity of photography is like a privilege. You know, like the idea of Photo Day and this memory for children in a school being a privilege that so many can't afford, or they can't look back on and like 10 years see themselves in school was really disheartening to me.

Ali Rogin: Through her Best Side Foundation, Varona is inviting other Title One public schools in New York to apply for their own Picture Day.

Raven B. Varona: So instead of doing one school, I can do 10 schools, and then I can get all my photographer friends to do them. And then we can do 100 schools. And then like, maybe in five years, we can cover the whole country.

Ali Rogin: Giving families and kids a little happiness. One click at a time. For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Ali Rogin.

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