Homeless children with cameras -- Jim Hubbard talks about his book and the Shooting Back idea

The pictures are black and white: girls jumping double dutch, toddlers playing in a bathtub, a boy calmly examining a gun, landscapes with lots of graffiti and plenty of trash. But the images in Shooting Back: A Photographic View of Life by Homeless Children, a collection of 125 photographs taken by homeless kids, do not deliver the usual despairing message. Instead they suggest that the young photographers have been able to look at the life around them with a healthy amount of curiosity and resilience. Jim Hubbard, the former UPI photographer who started the Shooting Back project in 1989 while photographing conditions of the Washington- area homeless, hopes the spirit of these pictures sends a powerful message: ”There’s all of this creativity and intelligence out there that’s being wasted by society in the form of these children.”

Hubbard, 49, says the Shooting Back idea came about when he was visiting a shelter and Dion Johnson, then 11, showed him photographs he’d taken with a family camera. (Johnson’s work appears throughout the book.) Hubbard decided to recruit a number of professional photographers to instruct the children in technique and teach them ”how to look at society critically with a camera.” The only limitation imposed on their creativity is that photos must be taken within one block of their shelter. The project’s title was inspired by a 9-year old shutterbug who observed a syringe-strewn sidewalk and remarked, ”We’re shooting back.”

To date the Shooting Back program has reached some 400 Washington-area kids and resulted in an exhibit of the work that is currently touring the country (at the moment it is on display at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts). Shooting Back Media Centers have been established in Washington and Minneapolis, and proceeds from the exhibit and book are donated to the Media Centers.

Hubbard, who began his career photographing the Detroit riots of 1967, came to Washington in 1982 as a UPI photographer. ”The administration was saying that there were no homeless, and all over Washington I saw homeless people, and so I started a documentation of them.” Some of these photos can be found in his 1991 book American Refugees. But he cites his Shooting Back experience as ”the most rewarding photographic work I could have ever done. It’s a simple thing, but it’s tapped into some kind of nerve, and I think that nerve is saving some of the children.”