Before Erik James Montgomery started teaching Abigail Rivera about photography, the East Camden girl hadn't paid much attention to places like the downtown waterfront. "I would just pass it by," Rivera, 13, recalls. "It looked nice. But it was just water."
After taking pictures of her city for two years, however, the eighth-grade student at Octavius V. Catto Community School has a different perspective - and a more expansive field of vision. "Now, I just find the waterfront so beautiful," says Rivera, one of about 250 Camden youngsters who have studied with Montgomery since 2010. "I've never seen Camden so bright."
Adds her teacher, "I want my students to see beyond what they see in front of them. I ask them, 'What else do you see? What else is going on?' "In Camden, Montgomery often offers small workshops or individual tutoring sessions - mostly free - at the Camden County Library's Ferry Avenue branch.
The facility in the heart of the city's Centerville neighborhood also is the setting for two of Rivera's most accomplished photographs, including one of a boy racing through the parking lot. And it's where I meet the student and her teacher, in a community room where Rivera's kinetic image of a windblown basketball net is projected on a screen for my enjoyment.
"Originally, our one-on-one class was supposed to be just four weeks," says Montgomery. "But because we hit it off so well, and she's such a great young photographer, I keep extending it." Montgomery, 42, generally charges $50 for an hour for a workshop, and more for private tutoring. But many Camden families can't afford such fees, so he raises money for a nonprofit (EJMfoundation.org) that enables him to offer the sessions free to those who qualify.
To earn a living, he shoots weddings, portraits, church services, and other events. He loves his work ("a photograph has the power to tell a story"), but when he talks about teaching, it's with the fervor of someone with a calling. "Erik has a love for photography and for young people," says Wynell Freeman, pastor of Fresh Word Kingdom Assemblies in Voorhees, where Montgomery is an ordained deacon.
Montgomery also loves Walt Whitman's "a city invincible" poem. "A lot of people outside Camden see a city invisible," Montgomery says. "I want my students to see a city incredible." He's not talking about substituting rose-colored glasses for lenses in order to promote a sunnier image of Camden. Instead, Montgomery aims to teach students the technical, perceptual, and emotional skills (patience, for example) necessary not only to capture but also to create images that do justice to the passion behind them. In other words, he encourages youngsters to realize dreams they might not have known they have - until they pick up a camera for the first time.
Montgomery will often allow students to shoot with his professional DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera; Rivera also uses a digital camera belonging to her mother. "I want students to learn this craft I love so much," says Montgomery, a married father of two, who lives in Pennsauken. "I want them to go from being snapshot photographers to photographers who think about the images they create. I have them take the camera settings off automatic. With auto, what you see is all you get."
A self-taught shooter who has been working professionally for 25 years and teaching photography for eight, Montgomery offers photography workshops through his foundation and in partnership with other arts education programs in the city.
"I would love to have him back," says Nyeema Watson, assistant chancellor for civic engagement at Rutgers-Camden, where Montgomery has engaged students in the Future Scholars summer program in photography and videography projects, including a powerful video about racial and ethnic slurs.
"He had the students kind of rethinking language, rethinking themselves," Watson says. At the IDEA Performing Arts Center on the downtown waterfront, "the kids were excited to work with Erik," founder and chief executive officer Cynthia Primas says. "He has this great eye because of his heart," she adds. "He knows how to bring things out of the kids."
Rivera says she has learned to look beyond surfaces, and how to wait and work for the shot she is looking for. And the more she learns, the more confident - and creative - she feels. "My number one goal," she says, "is to travel around the world taking pictures."