Local photographer with eye for helping youth to launch free after-school programming

Posted at 11:18 AM, Nov 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 11:21:29-04

(WXYZ) — He’s an artist, a photographer with an eye for helping people.

“From a societal standpoint, we have to take care of each other, because if we don't, then who does,” said Shawn Lee.

Lee is the owner of Shawn Lee Studios in Southfield. More than a decade ago, he lost his job in another field — but soon after, he gained a passion in photography.

“I figured I needed to be really good at it, so I started taking classes and going to school and got proficient at it. And what I needed to do was cultivate business,” he said.

He started "I See Detroit" photography tours back when the city was going through bankruptcy.

“As I look up and coming into bankruptcy in the city of Detroit, everybody's hurting. And so I could decide to hurt and not do nothing, and I could leave just like everybody else did, or I could do my part to help bolster ... or give back and strengthen it,” said Lee.

His love for Detroit and people continued to build through his business — eventually leading to his "Rock That" photography conferences.

“We’ve built a conference around that to invest in creatives, to invest in youth, to invest in people. And so we partner with some pretty big organizations to be able to invest in people and in most instances, allowing them to come to our conference for free,” he said.

And what does “rock that” mean to him? He explains, “rock that is my term for making life happen.”

There’s a give-back mantra with most everything he does and his next adventure, helping young minds create through after-school programming.

“Now we are frameworking long term instruction, right? So not just a flash in the pan, but how can we now teach kids where there may not be any art classes or may not be any photography classes,” he said.

With $120,000 worth of camera gear donated by Canon and a more than $100,000 gift from an organization called 17hats, Lee intends to do just that, invest in people, in youth who may be slipping through the cracks.

Starting this month, he plans to run a year-long pilot program first at Mt. Clemens Secondary Complex.

“We’re going to do three cohorts of 40 students each. We're building into it field trips, we will have motor coaches. It's just some exciting stuff,” he said.

Mt. Clemens art teacher Maureen Cusenza will help facilitate the programming.

“COVID stopped so many things, you know, and put a halt to things that it finally feels like school again ... and now we have an after school program. Shawn came up with the idea to feed them all, which the kids were so excited about,” she said.

Cusenza said Lee’s idea was a welcome surprise.

“When you want to do inspiring, engaging things, it tends to cost more money. So when he called, it's like winning the lottery,” said Cusenza. "The fact that he told the kids that they're going to be shooting with real equipment and printing their own pictures and having a gallery show where they get to hang their framed artwork and then sell it and keep the money? Oh, they're all about it. So he's not just teaching them art skills or photography skills, but also life skills and business skills."

And art, both Cusenza and Lee say, is a necessity for young minds.

“I believe that every young person should take at least one art class, a photography class, a painting class ... It helps you to think outside of the box of where we are. What we need in times of trouble are not people who just manage stuff. We need people who can innovate ways out of things and into things,” said Lee.

He said the plan is to roll this out to more schools in the future.

“So that we really invest and well-rounded students and provide them with an opportunity not only for creativity but success in life,” he said. “It goes to the point of, care about people ... and care enough about people to not give them crap. Give them your best. Let's give people our best. Let's put some thought into this and invest in our kids, because they're going to lead our tomorrow.”

As the recipient of the the 2022 Humanitarian of the Year from the Professional Photographers of America, Lee said it’s an honor to be recognized, but he doesn’t lift others up for the awards.

“We were doing this work when it's not popular, it's not. It's not a sexy work, right? You know, lifting people up is not sexy. It's just you can't do it because it's visible … we do it because we love people,” he said.

Lee says right now he’s looking for photographers in communities willing to help instruct youth – if you’re interested in helping or you want to donate to his efforts, reach out to him here.