PABLO — Sometimes something that seems small can change a life forever.

One day a few years back, the something small that turned unexpectedly into something big happened to Esperanza Orozco-Charlo.

The young Salish teen was on a science field trip with her Two Eagle River School classmates along the shores of Lake Mary Ronan. The topic at hand that day wasn’t all that interesting to her. But there was something happening that caught her eye and ignited her imagination. Another group of the school’s students was there learning the art of photography.

And so she sneaked away from the lessons in science and picked up a camera for the very first time. 

It was the beginning of a journey that would change the way she sees the world and, more importantly, herself.

At about the same time, the founder of a nonprofit organization called “A VOICE,” short for Art Vision & Outreach in Community Education, was working to put together a trip to New York City for a group of aspiring photographers from the Two Eagle River School.

David Spear already knew about the power of photography to change lives.

He had spent decades teaching photography to young people who lived in some of the most challenging areas of New York City as part of his nearly two-decades-long job with Cornell Capa's International Center of Photography.

The outreach into the community began with a challenge from his boss to take his photography skills to a new level. One of the missions of the ICP was to bring photography into the lives of people who might not otherwise have access to it.

The idea came to him one day while standing on the corner of 96th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. When he looked one way, he saw the area where some of the city’s wealthiest people lived across from Central Park. When he turned his head in the other direction, there stood East Harlem.

Spear knew immediately that Harlem was where he needed to go.

By the time he left New York City to settle in the Mission Valley, the outreach program he developed had him teaching photography in seven New York City high schools all located in impoverished neighborhoods.

The experience showed him the power of photography to connect with young people and its ability to help them connect with their own families and communities.

When he and his wife (and Polson native) Jill Erickson decided to move to Montana, Spear knew that he wanted to find a way to duplicate his New York program on the Flathead Reservation. Since 2000, he’s been doing just that at Two Eagle River, an alternative school in Pablo for Indian students not faring well in the public school system, and at the Salish Kootenai College.

He and his wife founded the nonprofit organization in 2006. Its website is located at avoice.accionpower.com.

Through those years working on the reservation, Spear never forgot what it was like taking pictures in the big city. He dreamed of some day of taking a group of young photographers from the reservation with him to New York to share that experience.

But finding enough students interested in making the trip was a challenge until Taelyn Lafley came along. Lafley’s enthusiasm for photography was infectious and soon others joined in Spear’s dream.

The core group of students had been meeting to make preparations for the trip in March 2016 when Orozco-Charlo’s photographs appeared on the wall after the field trip where she picked up the camera on a whim.

She was eating lunch when she heard her name come over the intercom. The voice told her to go the room where the photo group was meeting.

“I wasn’t in photography back then,” she said. “I didn’t know what they wanted from me. When I walked in, they were all sitting there looking at me. David said he and the class really liked my photos and they were wondering if I would like to go to New York City with them. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. I wasn’t even part of the class.”

After clearing the hurdle of getting permission from her mother, who initially didn’t like the idea of her daughter traveling such a distance, Orozco-Charlo packed her bag and joined the 13 others who spent a week taking pictures in a place that opened their eyes to a much larger world.

For nearly two hours last week, Orozco-Charlo and Lafley recalled that trip and how it changed their lives. They talked about the people they met along the way and those they captured in photographs that now are part of an exhibit being shown at the Missoula Art Museum through Dec. 31.

The other student photographers were Lee Atwin, Shawnee Brave Rock, Nikki Burke, Tristin George, Nina Leone Hernandez, Whisper Michel, Jenna Mullaney, Alexia Parizeau, Mars Sandoval, Xavier Smith, Michelle Tomma and Bailey Wippert.

Orozco-Charlo was invited back to New York this summer as an intern at the Lower East Side Girls Club, where she learned how to take studio portraits and then taught others the skills they would need to do the same.

Both Lafley and Orozco-Charlo said photography always would be part of their lives. It’s changed the way both see the world around them.

“It’s given me a different perspective on our land and our people,” Lafley said. “I can take a picture of anything and it will always be there … I like landscapes and anything else that my eyes can see. Sometimes I wished that my eyes could just take the picture and capture it forever.”

When Orozco-Charlo looks through a camera's viewfinder, her eyes also see differently than most: edges of light, contrasts of color, a fleeting moment captured in time.

Both are considering photography for a career.

“People think that photography is just photography, but I know now that it can actually get you somewhere in life,” Orozco-Charlo said. “Since I’ve been (to) New York, I’ve met great photographers who are doing big things.”

Many of them began by simply taking photos of their family or places they visited, and now they earn their living taking photographs of the famous or the newsworthy.

“Just look at me,” she said. “I was there in New York City and got myself a name on the reservation just from picking up a camera by ditching class to go be with the photography class.

"Now I have a name on the reservation. People know who I am. They know about my work. They know about my shows. (And) now I got myself a little name back in New York, too, and big photographers there now know who I am and where I come from and what I like to photograph and what catches my eyes. I got to learn new things and experience a different way of life.”

Learning how to do studio portrait photography has opened new doors, with people calling her to ask if she would be interested in photographing them or their family members.

“To people who would say that photography doesn’t get you anywhere, it actually does,” Orozco-Charlo said. “It’s pretty awesome. I’ve met some inspiring people that I’m forever thankful for.

"Every person that I talk to about my work and how I got to New York and how I made things happen, I just tell them David Spear is the one who helped me. I wouldn’t be the photographer that I am today if it wasn’t for him.”

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