We discovered that using photography as a storytelling method sets up a platform to create a dialogue Our young people talk with body language. You know, eyebrows, and shoulders
Tautiaga “Tau” Faaeteete, leads LUPE, a photography programme designed for young people attending Alternative Education, who often struggle with mental health and are at risk of suicidal distress. Tau says, “The goal is to end suicide, through telling stories.” Tau has a small team that work alongside him at Zeal, a youth hang-out space in Wellington’s CBD. Felix Felipo (far right) teaches the technical aspects of photography, Fa’atonu Fili (third from left) gives mentor support, while Tavā Malolua provides deep mentoring for wāhine (first right right and below).
LUPE began in 2020, when Tavā, in a previous role at Alternative Education in Newtown, approached Tau to ask if Zeal had any programmes that could help. “It was really hard to find a team or a programme that could cater to the needs of the young people that I was working with,” says Tāva (pictured right).
“These young people are not your typical kid that goes to high school,” says Tau. “These are the most vulnerable. We’re trying to help them with more support, to give them some kind of insight, so they’re able to move forward in life.”
The weekly workshops have a theme - to help young people explore their identity. After a session on the technical aspects of photography, they’re given cameras to go out and shoot, followed by group discussions and mentoring. “It’s not just photography,’ says Felix. “The organisation provides wrap-around support.
“We discovered that using photography as a storytelling method sets up a platform to create a dialogue,” says Felix. “By revisiting some of their images, you’re able to create a dialogue around how they’re feeling, where they are right at that point in time and some of the things they are going through. It’s quite a powerful vehicle."
“Our young people talk with body language. You know, eyebrows, and shoulders,” says Tau. “But when you take the focus away from them to this creative photo, they start talking. ‘This is what it means… listen.’ It also gives them room to be vulnerable. When they’re talking about a photo, they don’t realise they’re actually talking about their life.”
“At first, some of them are a little bit too cool,” says Felix, “But by week three or four, they’re picking up the camera.”
An exhibition is held at the end, to celebrate each young person. Every photo is put on display, and their three best images are enlarged and framed. “We get their family to come,” says Tau. Many have been frustrated with their child’s behaviours. “We talk to the parents, ‘Your kid is amazing. They’re creative. I just want you to walk through and take it in that your kid is amazing’,” says Tau to the parents. LUPE aims to create great memories. “If they’re ever feeling suicidal, the hope is, that they can remember these moments, and hopefully that deters them.
“We’re sort of reverse engineering this goal setting aspect. If we were to tell these kids in week one, you’ve got to take X amount of shots for this art gallery at the end, you probably wouldn’t get there,” says Felix. “We get to have this beautiful moment with these kids and their families, and it’s hey, look what you’ve done over the past nine weeks. You can actually do this.”
The key point that the team has learned is the need for flexibility. “We don’t know what state the kids are going to be in. How many are going to show up? How are we going to tackle creating a conversation?“ says Felix. Sometimes they arrive in an agitated state and don’t want to take photos. “We’ve actually shifted an entire photography day and turned it into being more about supporting the kids.”
“With this programme, the people involved have that care and support that our young people really need,” says Tavā. “If the girls aren’t vibing with me, or they don’t want to sit down and have a conversation, that’s okay. We can meet them where they’re at, which is crucial.”
“The crux of this project is not being afraid to push boundaries,” says Felix. “Some of the reactions we got included ‘You’re going to give these youth cameras? Why would you do that?’ We pushed forward, we’re going to trust these kids, we’re going to create an environment where they feel comfortable.”
Tavā says “You’re creating this trust and relationship with them, where they can go out, use the cameras, be back at this time. That’s a huge part of it.”
What insight would Tau give to others looking to develop their own suicide prevention project? “Well, what are you going to cultivate? What are the words - love, compassion, acceptance? We’ve got this culture of, regardless of how they come in, we’re going to meet them where they are, and journey with them.”