I grew up viewing life as hopeless. At my high school in South Sacramento, you were a jock, a loner, a gang member, or an all-star. I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. There were bullies, drugs, and violence and nobody ever thought twice about it. Giving back to my community was hard to even contemplate back then.

Then I discovered photography. It changed my life and now I feel I can change the world bit by bit. For the past year, I have been teaching kids in the housing complex where I grew up how to use cameras and what makes a good photo. I hope my work helps these kids to discover a passion for photography the way I did.

The kind of transformation that taking photos made possible was very important for me because of how I grew up. I was always worried about getting beat up. It wasn’t just that my English wasn’t great: Some of the other Laotian American kids at school made fun of me because I don’t speak Hmong. I thought if I joined a gang, I would be protected.

Luckily, I didn’t join a gang. Instead I got involved in photography when my high school yearbook was looking for a photographer. On an average day, you’ll see many smiles that aren’t genuine, but taking photos allows me to capture and see joy when people aren’t aware of themselves. People can look at a picture and see that they were happy once. They can see that change is possible.

As a young kid, I lived in an apartment near 41st Avenue and Franklin Boulevard in South Sacramento. Non-residents would come into the complex to harass and steal from people who lived there. When I was 7, my nephew and I went to the laundry room in our apartment building. A few non-residents came in after us. They held us down, checked our pockets, and threatened to beat us up because we did not have any money. It was a shocking and scary situation that I hoped to never experience again.

Participants in the Sacramento Building Healthy Communities Youth Media Team photo workshop at Lemon Hill Mutual House Apartments

Participants in the Sacramento Building Healthy Communities Youth Media Team photo workshop at Lemon Hill Mutual House Apartments

My parents didn’t want that to happen again, either. When I was 9, they decided to move the family to Lemon Hill Mutual Housing near Stockton Boulevard. It was a safer environment because the gates around Lemon Hill were always locked and there was security. But there was not much to do inside the gates.

And the neighborhood outside the gates wasn’t safe. People didn’t dare walk down Stockton Boulevard at night. Even walking down the street during the day made me anxious: There were gang members, drug dealers, and prostitutes.

There was trouble when I went out on my own once. When I was 9, my friend John’s mom gave him $20 so we could go to McDonald’s for lunch. We were excited to walk there all by ourselves. It was going to be the best day ever. Once we left the apartment complex, we went the wrong way and ran into a group of gangsters who were bigger than us. They didn’t like us walking through their ‘hood. They came up into our faces and started bullying us; they made my friend give them the $20. We didn’t get beat up, but our dream of going alone to McDonald’s was shattered. We stayed home after that.

These experiences made me feel like everyone was against me. I felt that I could only trust close friends and family. My parents and older brother were really angry after I was mugged for the second time. My brother went to find the bullies to deal with the problem. When he came back, I saw that my brother had a black eye. I cried because it was my fault. I told myself: I will never go outside the apartment because of problems on the street.

That’s why discovering photography in high school was so important. It showed me a happier life was possible. I looked at those pictures of people smiling un-self-consciously, and realized that I didn’t want to see bloodshed or have to worry about bullies. Life should be peaceful. I wanted this picture of life to be real.

About that time, I had an opportunity to join the youth media team of Sacramento Building Healthy Communities, a project that brings nonprofits together in the South Sacramento area to make Stockton Street safer.

Last year, I started teaching a photography workshop to five kids, ages 6 to 14. We meet every two weeks in the community room at Lemon Hill Mutual Housing.
I talk to them about proper photography techniques and we do photo scavenger hunts, where the kids compete to see who can best apply what they learn in the workshop. After they show me their photos, we talk about them. The kids are inspired by the encouragement and positive feedback.

The shy kids remind me of myself, especially a shy, quiet 8-year-old who never talks. At the third workshop, I spent all day trying to connect with him. Finally he opened up about what’s going on in his life. He told me that he didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood, so he just stays home or goes to the computer lab. It was like seeing my past self.

I’ve tried to make the workshop a place where the kids feel as if they’re in a safe, fun environment where they can relax and forget all of their worries. The kids feel as if they can go anywhere to take photos inside Lemon Hill complex. It’s become a home for them, a place where they feel comfortable.

Photography changed my life and the kids’ lives, too. Once the change started, it continued like dominoes. Now I feel that as a son, a student, and a member of my community, it is my civic duty to give back and show that there is hope.

Meanwhile, out on Stockton Boulevard, things are changing. There’s less prostitution and drug dealing than when I was a kid. The gang violence has died down. Now there is a bike lane and more streetlights. I think a 9-year-old could take a $20 bill down the street without getting mugged.

And the residents of Lemon Hill Housing have started planting gardens—tomatoes, lettuce, and Vietnamese basil. When I look around these days, I see more examples of people being nice to each other and helping out. It’s like looking at a photograph and seeing a real smile.

Mhong Thao is a 19-year-old member of the youth media team at Building Health Communities Sacramento. He studies biology and photography at Sacramento City Community College.

He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.

*Photos by Mhong Thao.