Sunday, May 18, 2003

In the classroom with
photographer Jimmy Heath


Teaching focuses on kids' 'sweet stories'

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jimmy Heath almost hisses when he says it: "Things have happened to me. I don't want them to happen to these kids."

The "kids" are the Over-the-Rhine 10- to 13-year-olds enrolled in his Literacy through Photography program at OTR's Peaslee Neighborhood Center. About 100 children a year go through the free six-week program. Some do it two, three and even four times.

If he's successful with them, the things that happened to Jimmy Heath won't happen to them.

Heath, a 48-year-old Over-the-Rhine resident who grew up in the Tri-County area, is a high school dropout who got his GED in his early 20s and went on to build himself a successful career with a camera.

"I was living in Connecticut. I had a suit job as a media specialist, writing scripts and making educational and training films, making a decent living," he says without the hiss but almost in a whisper. "I was also an alcoholic. A serious alcoholic, but I managed to function.

"I was married, but she couldn't stand me. Or rather, she couldn't stand the alcohol.

"Eventually, the physical effects started showing up. Liver problems, pancreatitis, I was near death a couple of times. The crash, a major health crisis, came nine years ago."

Eventually, money ran out

At that point, Heath quit his job, sold everything, gathered up his money and moved back to Cincinnati. "I got an apartment in Price Hill and sat around all day drinking. I was trying to kill myself with alcohol because I didn't have the guts to put a gun to my head."

The money ran out in a year and Heath found himself not only an alcoholic, but also a homeless one, sleeping on park benches. "I lived on the streets, I think, about six months. I'm not really sure because the whole period is a blur.

"That's when I went to the Drop-Inn center and enrolled in a recovery program. It was the first time I was sober in I-don't-know-how-many years. But I do know I'd be dead without the Drop-Inn Center. I don't doubt that for a minute."

By all accounts, Heath's recovery is complete, though he still refers to himself as a sober alcoholic. Not that he looks like one, sitting here in his airy second-floor studio at Peaslee with bright afternoon sun streaking off his steel gray hair.

The studio, he explains, used to be Crossroad Health Center. Now, the old examining rooms serve as darkrooms, one fully equipped, one half-equipped and waiting for donations, a third piled with junk.

Heath buys what he can when he can, but his job as editor of Street Vibes, the newspaper produced and sold by the homeless on streets around town, doesn't pay a bundle. He's an award-winning photographer who could probably make some bucks selling his pictures, but "I keep giving stuff away. I have this notion that selling cheapens it. I gotta work through that."

His job as director of Peaslee's Center for Community Photography - "basically it's me and volunteers from XU, UC and Miami" - is a volunteer position that pays in great satisfaction, not money.

Students keep a journal

Literacy through Photography is the centerpiece of the program and is where his "kids" enter the picture. Kids like 13-year-old David Darden, on his third go-round in the class. "I keep taking it because I like photography and I like Mr. Jim. He's a role model. I can learn a lot, and maybe have a job or a hobby with photography so I can go to Europe and shoot people and buildings and art."

Or kids like 12-year-old Ashley Brown, taking it for her fourth time. "It's fun and it's going to be my job. Mr. Jim makes sure we learn stuff."

Here's how it works: At the first class Heath gives them all a disposable camera - "Some I buy, some I get donated" - and instructions on use. As the classes go on, he talks about texture, composition, contrast. Then he gets to the meat of the program.

"I talk to them about how to record life's experiences with a camera. Then I send them out to shoot wherever - school, home, playground, neighborhood, anything that's important to them.

"While they're doing that, they keep a journal and eventually write the story behind the photograph. What they shot and why and what it means to them. I can't tell you how many kids have started this being barely able to read, and now just look at this."

"This" is an exhibit of work by his most recent crop of photographers - photos and stories - running through May at Base Gallery, 1225 Main Street.

"Sweet, sweet stories, aren't they?" Heath asks, pointing to a picture of Darden's cat, Isis. "Kids are so creative and so perceptive; if we just listen to their voices we can learn something."

Learn something like how to go about teaching other teachers: "I'm so sure of this program that I would like to do workshops for educators. And I will, once I get the program perfected. But I need to learn more. I'm not a professional educator. What I know, I've learned mostly from the kids.

"The problem with workshops, as with everything, would be funding. I know it can be done through grants and foundations. I just need to figure out how."

Until then, Heath will continue paying his bills with his Street Vibes check and giving the rest away."

"A lot of what I do is for me. I feel so good being with these guys that I love being alive, and it sure hasn't always been that way."

E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com




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