Troubled teens find a ‘new light’ with nature photography

Photographer and counselor Ben Thwaits takes young people from the Northwest Passage treatment center into the wild armed with cameras, as part of a program called In a New Light. Wisconsin Public Television spoke to Thwaits for its Wisconsin Life series to learn more about helping teens gain confidence through art.

Since he was 16 years old, Ben Thwaits has nursed a passion for nature photography. He worked for two years as a professional photographer before teaching at-risk children at a residential treatment center in northern Wisconsin called Northwest Passage.

Surrounded by dense forests, pristine lakes and the St. Croix River, Thwaits began looking for ways to bring nature photography into his classroom. With a grant from the National Parks Foundation, he bought a few digital cameras and the necessary software. Soon, he was leading students into creek beds and up rocky bluffs.

“Within probably three or four weeks, we realized that we were onto something real special, because these kids started investing into their photography on a level way beyond anything I’d ever seen on any other school program, and they started taking truly astonishing photos,” Thwaits said, during a shoot in September 2013.

Many of the students with whom Thwaits works are recommended to Northwest Passage through the juvenile justice system. Others are sent by their own families. Some have abused drugs, some have struggled in school and some students say they simply had nowhere else to go. Some of Thwaits’ students say they can communicate their thoughts and emotions through photography and through the poems they write about their photos.

“It’s a way to express myself without actually talking to people, because sometimes I don’t like talking to people,” said Michelle, a student from California.

Thwaits now calls his program In a New Light. Students in the program have traveled to National Parks around the country to take photographs, and their work has been displayed around the Midwest.

Local Beat is a weekly series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.