Get onboard the Mobile Pinhole Project

Lots of people have digital cameras and smartphones that can take pictures – including kids.

But one Los Angeles artist believes young people can still learn a lot about their neighborhoods by taking pictures.

She’s even turned her van into a pinhole camera that kids can climb into.

Artist and photographer Jonas “Nina” Becker runs the traveling workshop, called the Mobile Pinhole Project.

Becker starts the lesson by asking the students to think of their favorite photograph: one they took, or someone took of them. One recalls a picture taken on a family cruise; another describes a picture taken with his belated father, the only picture he has of them together.

She then leads the students through a series of exercises. She projects photographs and asks them to describe what they liked or didn’t like about each one. One photo that got a big thumbs down? A pile of trash in front of a suburban-looking house. One student called it sad; another wondered why someone would pollute on their own street. The photo, though, was taken after a family was evicted after their home was foreclosed on.

It’s time for them to take their own pictures. Becker pulls out some instant Polaroid-style cameras. As an example, she points one at a pile of backpacks in a corner. The students marvel at the click and whir of the old-style device.

Finally the students step out into the sunlight, cameras in hand. Robert Roach, 13 , recently moved to Koreatown after growing up in Compton. He says he doesn’t see many other African-Americans in his new neighborhood. So when he spots a pair of middle-aged black women standing on a shopping center balcony, he flags them down excitedly and asks the take their picture.

Another student, Andrew Cesar, the boy who’s father passed away, is 17 and grew up in Brazil. He snaps a picture of a shiny red Lamborghini parked in an alleyway, next to some rusted pipes. He explains that he was drawn to the contrast of the two things.

The group stops short when they see some older teenagers, their hands cuffed behind their backs, standing against a white metal fence, as police officers speak into walkie-talkies. They quietly pick up their cameras and snap away. It’s a common sight in their neighborhood, they say.

Back at the Alexandria House, students in groups of three and four pile into a white 1991 Toyota Previa, or as they call it, the VanCam.

A tiny hole is cut through the back door. The other students dance on the lawn across from the van. The image of their bodies is then projected, upside down, onto a large sheet of photo paper taped onto the back wall of the van.

Becker says she wanted to make her project hands-on, like a science museum. Growing up just outside Pittsburgh, she remembers one school field trip, when she was allowed to climb into a replica of a human heart.

“I really wanted to create something that would let kids go inside the camera, have the machine be at the scale of their own bodies,” Becker said. “Go inside, see how it works, to really demystify that technology.”