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Teacher Pushes Students To See Houston With Different Eyes

In the late '90s a private jet transported a group of Houston public school students to Saudi Arabia to hone their photography skills. Ray Carrington III relates this fact over the phone as if it is the most normal thing in the world. That's because Carrington is not your typical teacher.

Fifteen years ago he developed an intensive photography course for the students of the Magnet School of Communication at Jack Yates High School in Houston. The former chief photographer for the Port Authority of Houston, Carrington crafted it not because he had always wanted to be a teacher but for rather the opposite reason: The idea of teaching seemed stifling to him. A friend talked him into the position, but if he was going to do it, he was going to do it his way — pushing young photographers toward work good enough to hang in museums.

His method involves a complex subject: Third Ward, the neighborhood where the school is located. Year after year, he lets his students loose in the neighborhood, near downtown Houston, pushing them to see the traditionally black area's people and buildings with a fresh set of eyes. Whether they happen to already live there or are bused from across town, the students all discover something new.

This photo, taken by Ylonda Rodgers in 1996, is one of Carrington's favorites.

Every year, the best photos are exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. (The photos in the gallery above were all exhibited in the popular show.)

"I'm a traditionalist. If it ain't broke, don't fix it," Carrington declares, explaining why he has no plans to alter his approach; his students will spend their first year getting down the basics of aperture and shutter speed on a film camera. Only later will they experiment with digital photography.

He has been awed by the results in the past.

"There are some that really just hit my heart — because the image is so clean and pure with light and contrast — and sometimes it's a combination of what they write."

Carrington's students write about the people and moments they uncover in the school's backyard; a mother combing her daughter's hair; a boy offering a first kiss; boarded-up homes and fancy new condos.

The one element of the project that has changed over the years is the neighborhood itself, which is quickly becoming gentrified. Old buildings have been torn down; fancy new condos have gone up.

"My only regret is not to have taken more architectural photos," Carrington says. Some of the buildings his first students took for granted are now gone.

At some point, Carrington says, he'd like to put together a book with images from over the years — more than a few of which were taken by students who are now professional photographers.

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