Observing in Unconventional Ways

Visit the third floor of the Canada House during Rafi Wolach's photography workshop, and you will see students carefully adjusting lenses, attempting to locate the best angles and developing shots. The fact that they have special needs, including autism, physical and mental disabilities and emotional challenges, does not hinder their progress. They are passionate about their art and completely focused. 


"It is inspiring. We give them the tools and the guidance, and they do amazing work," says professional photographer Wolach a former director of the program who now teaches several classes annually.


For the past 12 years, the Morasha center has offered yearlong workshops to small classes of special needs kids from third grade until high school age. The groups, accompanied by their teachers, are brought to the center for about 20 sessions yearly. They learn a wide variety of photography techniques in a relaxed, nurturing manner. 


For example, Wolach instructs students in composition, learning to use colors or shapes in new ways. In one popular exercise, the students utilize objects in their surroundings as frames to focus on the subject of the photograph.


However, according to Wolach, the technical skills the students learn are of less importance than the improved self confidence that results from the sessions. 


"Using photography, they can express themselves in ways many of them can't do using words. Suddenly, you notice that a child will choose to focus on certain themes, such as animals. Taking pictures of animals may be his only way of expressing his affinity for animals," Wolach explains.


The groups sometimes go on-location too, visiting exciting urban areas or fun places, like the zoo, to find new subjects. Among the many concepts Wolach hopes to instill , is the importance of observing the world in a precise manner.  


This is not always easy for autistic or hyperactive students, but Wolach provides help that is both respectful and persistent.


"By the end of the year, many are able to take extremely focused photographs, and all of them have learned something about taking the time to really look at things," he explains.  


The schools that participate in the program represent the diverse residents of the area; this year, they include three Arab-Israeli groups, a class from a nearby special needs school and another group from a boarding school for youth-at-risk. In previous years, the program has also welcomed students from religious schools.


While in earlier years, the project included as many as 12 schools, Wolach says budget cuts have led to limits on the numbers of new students they can include. 


But despite its smaller size, the program continues on its successful path. Several graduates have gone on to study photography on their own and a few even work as photographer's assistants. The classes are fulfilling for the facilitators as well.


"I learn from my students too. From them, I learn to look at the world in unconventional ways," says Wolach.