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F-Stop and Shutter, Focus on Water Heals Troubled Teens and Pre-Teens

By Marie Zhuikov

An underwater photography project supported by Wisconsin Sea Grant, designed to engage troubled teens and pre-teens in freshwater science, is showing such success that founders are working to expand its reach to youths in coastal communities.

About four years ago, Toben Lafrancois, an aquatic scientist at Northland College in Ashland, Wis., came across outdoor photos taken by clients of a northern Wisconsin residential mental-health treatment program called Northwest Passage. The photos were better than any he had seen taken professionally.

“I thought, this is what’s missing from getting people to care about the freshwater ecosystem,” Lafrancois said. “People need to see under the surface. Scientific presentations and data are fine, but it’s not all that effective in getting people to care about water.”

He called Ben Thwaits, program development coordinator for Northwest Passage, and said, “You don’t know me, but I want to take your photography program under water.” Thwaits agreed this would be great for the children and “In a New Light: Under the Surface” was born. This therapeutic underwater photography program gets kids outside in wetsuits and snorkels with cameras, and into northland lakes and rivers. (See a YouTube video here.)

“People who see the pictures are amazed by the underwater world. They are immediately drawn in and feel the awe and wonder. Then they see the stories of these kids, and they are double amazed at the hope these kids are finding in the natural world. They begin to care for our waters, and also for our most at-risk children,” Lafrancois said.

The institution staff and teachers noticed changes in the children’s behavior and classroom interest. “A kid will have a great day and be all smiley,” Lafrancois said. “Then the staff will come to me and say, ‘You know, that young lady doesn’t smile, and she just smiled all day.’”

With two years of Sea Grant funding (2016-18), Lafrancois and Thwaits are taking the students’ questions and photographs into the classroom to teach topics like basic biology, watershed processes and sedimentation.

They are expanding the program to the Lac Court Orielles and Red Cliff reservations, and to Bayfield High School. He is letting the students choose what to photograph and said they want to capture the lake, including special coastal areas and sea caves, the wild rice harvest, fish spawning runs, a local polar plunge and a swimming race.

They hope to produce photography shows in local galleries, and to share their stories and pictures with the community.

“We have a tool that we’ve found is extremely beneficial to the people who use it,” Lafrancois said. “And we think everyone who looks at the pictures is going to learn something about Lake Superior.”

He also finds a lot of personal satisfaction from the project. “Career-wise, it’s the perfect thing because it puts all my skills to work. It combines underwater exploration, and half the questions the kids ask, I can’t answer as a scientist.”

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