Program student, Tyrone, cruises the shallows.
Finding hope under the surface
Underwater photography educates, inspires and heals troubled teens.
Story by Laura Proescholdt. Photos courtesy New Light Under the Surface
Stumbling over ungainly flippers, almost somersaulting face forward in a rush of frantic excitement, a wetsuit–clad teenager rushes to shore.
"Look what I got!" he shouts, a smile stretched wide across his goggled face. He shoves a dripping wet camera toward the teacher on shore, who looks at it and gets almost as excited as the boy. On the screen is a gleaming colony of freshwater sponges, stretching like glowing green tentacles toward the underwater lens.
This sponge is just one example of many mysterious underwater life forms of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, revealed anew by the young men of Northwest Passage, a residential mental health treatment center for youth ages 12 to 17 and located in northwestern Wisconsin.
The pioneers of Northwest Passage's new program, New Light Under the Surface, face a range of mental, emotional and behavioral challenges. Many have spent time in juvenile detention and all confront problems that their home communities and families are not equipped to help them face. They've come to the St. Croix River Valley seeking — as all teens do — acceptance, encouragement and hope.
Spending extended periods in flippers peering through underwater lenses may seem like an unusual way to inspire hope in teens, but this project isn't the first at Northwest Passage to use art and positive experiences in nature to help youth find strength. New Light Under the Surface is a new dimension of a wildly successful therapeutic nature photography program, In a New Light, which was pioneered by professional photographer Ben Thwaits in 2010.
While working as a Northwest Passage classroom teacher, Thwaits saw an opportunity to use his expertise to help students see the world from new perspectives. As a wildlife photographer, Thwaits knew firsthand the profound capacity of nature to act as a vehicle for healing. The results of his fledgling photography program far exceeded his expectations, however.
Within weeks after students had curiously peered through a camera lens for the first time, they were producing high–quality photos of wildlife, plants and landscapes. It also became clear that assuming the role of photographer was highly therapeutic. As Thwaits explains it, photography is merely a portal to healing experiences.
"It's really about putting a camera in the kids' hands, giving them basic instruction, putting them in a startlingly beautiful environment, and letting nature do its work. In a New Light is a very hands–off program in that you let Mother Nature be a counselor, tapping into the inherently therapeutic elements of nature," he says.
During photography outings, participants were visibly calmer. Taking high–quality nature photos requires a keen eye and patience, and therefore calls photographers to calmly engage with their surroundings. Photography also provided participants with a constructive platform for self–expression. The encouragement the young artists received in response to their work was, for some, the first positive feedback they had ever received from their communities.
New Light Under the Surface began to take shape in early 2012 when the stunning results of the In a New Light program inspired research diver and Northland College ecologist Dr. Toben LaFrancois to email Thwaits and say, "Let's go underwater."
Together, with support from St. Croix National Scenic Riverway staff, they drafted a grant and received funding from the National Park Service's Youth Partnership Program in 2013. Thwaits and LaFrancois identified two goals: to reveal the astonishing underwater beauty of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers and to reveal the inspiring potential of the young photographers behind the art.
In the summer of 2014, seven boys armed with high–tech underwater camera rigs were the first to dive under the surface to embark on a mission to share this hidden realm of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway with the world.
New Light Under the Surface grows out of principles firmly established by its terrestrial forerunner — it provides an immersive, engaging experience in nature. However, the uniqueness of the underwater world serves to amplify these qualities — all while adding a hint of danger.
Thwaits explains that this is part of what makes the program particularly effective for the Northwest Passage youth.
"Kids come into the program because they're risk–takers, because they're sensation–seekers and because they often don't care what people think. They're in this program because these traits have resulted in them getting into trouble. Yet, when we put them in a setting like underwater photography, being a little bit of a risk–taker and a sensation–seeker is a huge advantage. They're translating their inherent characteristics into a very positive outlet," he says.
Though the project appeals to those with a flair for risk, the safety and comfort of participants is the top priority for staff. Gradually, they've worked to build confidence and trust while diving. Participants work in teams, using the buddy system, and LaFrancois, Thwaits and the other staff keep a constant head count.
It takes bravery to don the wetsuit, flippers and snorkel and dive underwater, but it takes a whole other kind of grit to get high–quality photos.
Thwaits explains, "You have to be willing to let go and give yourself to that environment — you can't fight the river, you can't fight your environment, you can't be thrashing, you can't be constantly swimming against the flow because you're just not going to get any pictures. The moment you stop kicking hard, let the current take you a little bit, and let yourself just be enveloped in that environment, instantly you're going to start getting better pictures."
Striking a balance between instinct, adrenaline and intent is no easy task. However, successful moments are deeply gratifying and definitely exciting.
The challenges inherent to underwater photography are what make this project notable. However, it is the young photographers' ability to confront these challenges with grace and artistic vision that makes New Light Under the Surface truly inspiring.
A sunny day in August saw a group of these pioneering young photographers hiking the short path to Pacwawong Dam on the Namekagon River near Hayward. Thwaits chose this site as an underwater photography destination for its aesthetic beauty and historical significance. Tufts of vivid green reeds clustered in a calm pocket of the river hinted at its past importance as a ricing site for the Ojibwe. Underwater, the remains of an old logging dam loomed dark and mysterious, hiding a myriad of toothy fish, shy mussels, colorful freshwater sponges and the crayfish described by most of the boys as "freaky" or "creepy." After a safety briefing about currents and underwater structures to look out for, the boys set out to explore.
The photographers who immersed themselves in the rhythms of the river environment were entranced. It was easy to see what sparks the therapeutic dimension of the project: it's fun for all involved. LaFrancois says he has been surprised to see the way in which this project reveals a deep disconnect in our culture.
"Whatever brought the team members to us, is washed away by the river. They focus, work hard, work in teams, get results and come up with better questions than graduate students," he adds.
Which leads LaFrancois to ask, "Why aren't communities set up for natural play for kids and adults? The reprieve from whatever problems have dominated their lives to this point is tangible. We all need this."
In speaking with these young artist–adventurers, it was clear that the reprieve offered to them by underwater photography meant a lot. When asked whether he looked forward to Tuesdays, the designated day for underwater photography excursions, Tyrone said simply, "More than any other day."
Damien, highly energetic and goose–bumped after emerging from the chilly water, told me why underwater photography was something to look forward to.
"It's fun and it's interesting. It makes me feel excited, and it makes me feel kind of patient, and it just relaxes my feelings."
When I asked him if he was scared the first time he tried it, he explained with a toothy grin, "Not really. Nah. I'm not afraid of anything."
As for whether the experience was anything like he expected, he said, "No. Not at all. Totally different. I thought it was going to be something kind of dangerous, something risky, but I don't know, there's actually something calming. Calm and relaxing. Some parts it's actually kind of rough and exciting. But for the most part it's actually calming."
Although, he concedes, the spell cast by underwater photography is broken when "you swallow a whole bunch of water in through your snorkel."
Many of the photographers spoke of this deep sense of calm. Jaden explained that he enjoys underwater photography because "everything else can be put aside for the moment and you can just focus in on what's under the water."
For some, this sense of peace is almost spiritual. One photographer described it as feeling "untouchable," saying that underwater, he felt "relaxed and spiritually with the world and [his] surroundings."
Another said that he could feel "another power that is stronger than me. And that's Mother Nature."
Not only is underwater photography highly therapeutic for the participants, it is educational. The sort of education happening here, however, is completely distinct from the usual paradigm of classrooms and desks. The learning that takes place on photography expeditions flows naturally from a fascination with the environment.
"The ecology elements emerge organically," explains Thwaits. "That's always been one of the unique things with In a New Light,that it starts with the art. It starts just with awe and wonder as the way to open their minds to get them thinking in a different way and experiencing things they've never felt before. Then, when they're in that place of wonder, when their curiosity is naturally engaged, and when they're operating from that place of fascination, then, we capitalize on those opportunities as learning experiences."
One young photographer, Jacob, boasted that he had discovered how to attract largemouth bass underwater. With slight skepticism, staff listened to him explain how he waved his hand slightly over the sand. The bass would notice this and fin excitedly toward his lens. It seemed a coincidence, but then the ecological connection was clear — bass use the same technique with their tails to make spawning beds.
When I asked LaFrancois about ecological implications of this project, he directed me to this 2006 Walter Mondale quote: "I've always recognized the [Wild and Scenic River] designation as a starting point for protection of the St. Croix. It bought us some time, perhaps. But sustaining the values of the St. Croix will require that each generation make a renewed commitment to the cause."
A renewed commitment requires a deep sense of connection. The photographers are forging this connection personally as they encounter the magic of these freshwater ecosystems firsthand. However, their vivid photos will also spark fascination and connection in others. Because the photographers themselves are mysterious, misunderstood, and sometimes overlooked, it seems especially poignant that they are the ones to reveal to the public freshwater resources that are often treated in the same manner.
"We don't need more information," LaFrancois explains. "We need more people to care and to have major shifts in attitude, understanding and behavior. That is why I am working on an art project. The critical thing will be for the team to show people this amazing underwater view because for most people every shot is going to represent a major discovery!"
One photographer, Anthony, understands he has a unique role as artist–adventurer.
"There's more stuff to explore that hasn't been explored before. It's all been studied — they know what the species are — but they haven't seen that one spot. No one else has. They haven't seen that one spot and because it changes all the time, so even if someone thought they did, they still didn't see the same thing I've just seen," he says.
In this way, the impact of this project extends well beyond each individual photographer. Thwaits and his team, along with the National Park Service, are working to bring these discoveries to students through partnerships with area schools.
Distilled, the mission of this project is, according to Thwaits, to "reveal unseen potential and beauty." This is true of the young photographers looking to find hope as they navigate the treacherous currents of the river and their lives, learning the difference between struggling against the powerful water and finding a calm strength within it. It is also true of the freshwater ecosystems that, like the youth themselves, are threatened. Under the surface is a mysterious, magical, beautiful world. Anyone who has the chance to delve underneath is lucky, indeed.