+ By Andrea Stuart + Photos by Fearless Girls Photography
Two teenage girls walk up to a bronze statue encircled by fuchsia tulips. They carefully position themselves with their backs to the figure, looking back to check their placement among the flora. One arm stretches out from the duo holding a phone. Then, leaning in toward one another, the girls peer up at the device, tilt their heads, and smile. After a few clicks, they hunch over the phone, swiping left and right, eventually holding the phone up for one more take. Then they leave.
The popularity of photography has grown since the advent of the camera phone. When photographer Chase Jarvis published his book, The Best Camera Is the One That’s with You, in 2009, the world ran with the idea. Now, people of all ages and backgrounds find themselves behind the lens on an almost daily basis. One might argue, however, that the art of creating arresting imagery is a skill best honed outside of the selfie.
In 2013, Alison Harbaugh, co-owner of ArtFarm, created the Fearless Photography Program, a photography summer camp and mentorship program that strives to teach young girls how to “own their image”—that is, to take pride in their work and see that they are just as important as the work they are doing. Harbaugh understands the benefits of using whatever camera a person has available, but she also understands the power behind learning to use a variety of photographic equipment and finding the pulse of a narrative. “I created Fearless Girls to encourage girls to take the camera, turn it around, and tell stories,” she says.
Fearless Photography provides a way to encourage girls to become more confident, move away from selfies, and become better photographers through storytelling. In Harbaugh’s estimation, DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras, which use a mirror to reflect light to the viewfinder, and mirrorless cameras, which have no optical viewfinder and expose the viewfinder to light at all times, give the photographer more creative control and inspire a higher level of attentiveness.
The program encourages the girls to tell stories by trying different lenses and focal lengths and learning how to use aperture and shutter speed creatively. They learn how to develop a story by immersing themselves in the environment so that they can see from different perspectives. “It’s not just snapping photos,” says Harbaugh.
Beyond the basics of learning about composition, lighting, and how the cameras work, students learn what goes into different types of photography, from portraits to photojournalism. They go into the community and are asked to observe. Through this mindful act, the students become aware of topics that need to be communicated. They begin seeing things they didn’t notice before. The environment becomes richer, and the textures begin to reveal themselves. For many students, this one act alone—observing— can become a catalyst for changing how they relate to the world around them. “Since becoming so into photography, I can see things I wouldn’t normally notice,” says 13-year-old Fearless Photography graduate Elia Alewine. “I didn’t just learn how to take photos. I learned how to tell a story through a series of photos.” Alewine plans to become a professional photographer.
Harbaugh has created a curriculum that builds mental, emotional, and intellectual muscles. “We encourage the students to do something each day that scares them, such as asking a stranger if they can take their picture,” she explains. “They groan when we assign it, then when they get back, they say it was fun and they’d like to do it again. Girls break out of their shells.”
While Harbaugh is the primary teacher, she has a rotating roster of mentors that includes female photographers from various backgrounds, including a National Geographic photographer, wedding photographers, fashion photographers, and former graduates of the program. The mentors of Fearless Photography take great pride in teaching girls how to harness their confidence and take chances. Learning from a variety of specialists allows the girls to explore their interests and find the areas of photography that makes them tick.
Fearless Photography is recognized as a program that instills students with life skills, such as communication, listening, observation, respect, and accountability. Caitlyn Stachura, a program graduate, had an interest in photography when her father mentioned the program. But she didn’t feel mature or experienced enough to identify as a photographer. She’s now compiling portraits for her first photography book, chronicling her high school and college years. “I’ll be attending a women’s college this fall, and I feel [that] being a part of Fearless as a student and as a mentor played a part in my decision to do so,” she says. She also believes that serving as a mentor helps her reflect on her own photographic habits and encourages her to ask herself why she makes the kind of work she makes. “I learned how important it is to cultivate a supportive community of women in the arts, where the voices of women and girls are sometimes delegitimized.”
At the end of each summer camp, the girls participate in a final project. They break up into small groups and work together to tell the story of local businesses and artists. The resulting photographs are then exhibited at ArtFarm.
Now in its sixth year, Fearless Photography is growing. In addition to the annual camp, it offers quarterly workshops and has launched a media mentorship program with Up.St.ART Annapolis. Harbaugh also hopes to take the program on the road. “A lot of girls in middle school aren’t getting the art education they need and aren’t able to express themselves, so this would be great for smaller communities,” she says, encouragingly. “Everywhere I go, there is interest. We just need support and time to make it happen.”
While some students may go on to develop careers in photography, others may not. Yet, each graduate leaves the program with a fuller sense of self and the courage to face more of life’s challenges. Their eyes have been opened to vast world full of possibilities and untold stories. █
To learn more about Fearless Photography, visit