Focus on Youth: The Naked Truth of Portland Through the Eyes of Teenagers

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Photo by Carlos, Focus on Youth

In the nation’s consciousness the Pacific Northwest stands out there on the edge of the ocean, crisp, wet, clean and green. It is our better half, poking us to a cleaner lifestyle, forcing us to look to the outdoors, to the natural beauty around us, reminding us of the things we need to do for our inner selves.

We know it’s so, there is too much out there reverberates with the truth of it all. Healthy people, pristine forests, water, water everywhere. Fill your lungs with some fresh air and live a good life.

And yet we know it’s not the whole truth. That’s what you call reality, and to have a smidgen of that cut into your recipe of sweet living – stunning geography, happy people, your pick of blood-pumping outside dos – is to make the cake of being taste even better.

Portland is one of those Northwest ideal places. But it is also a big city, complete with all the beauty and imperfections of any other. To see it for what it really is, not a postcard, but naked and being itself is to hold a deeper appreciation of the place.

See some of Portland at its homely best in the work of a few dozen youth from the city that are part of an effort called Focus on Youth. These are what director Donna Lee Holmes calls low-income, high risk youth. The project uses professional photographers to give them the “creative outlets to make positive changes in their lives.”

While the focus of Focus on Youth is on at-risk kids, a good many of them are also immigrants.

It is that immigrant eye, then, that so often seems to catch the city being herself. There is: A tilted view of the skyline, with steel-grey sky as backdrop; A close up of a grate and then many grates, catching and leaving behind that inevitability of any congregation of humans -- garbage; A shot of that other inevitability of  human settlement, graffiti; A clutch of grimy newspaper boxes huddled on a street corner and finally the images of a playground, in a dull black and white, empty and lonely, a sad place, but you know only for a day or until recess when the life of it will return abundant.

We see many barriers in these photos -- fences, steel barricades, the Columbia River keeping Portland to one side and away from the photographer and viewer. So it is hard not to read into these and other images the promise of what is there across the river or beyond the fence for the immigrant who is also being held back by current or past circumstances.

But that authentic city and all the promise it holds, isn’t so far away, not so unattainable.

And as the good people and the good work at Focus on Youth proves, one vehicle for getting there is that creative outlet of photography the program offers.

You can see some of that creativity on our Bokeh companion site at

Have a look at these images. They are likely to stir a deeper appreciation of the Northwest and for the people who make these kinds of projects possible.