By Bryan Saunders
Vernon Ray had an epiphany after attending his younger cousin’s funeral. Seeing a young man lose his life, not much older than Ray’s son, it was time to give back to the community.
Ray launched Shoot Cameras, Not Guns, a program through his photography studio to teach children, teens, and even adults photography as an alternative to getting involved in street life.
“I called my brother, and I say, ‘Yo man, we got to do something man,’” Ray said. “Just like that, I just blurted out ‘shoot cameras not guns.’”
From there, Ray got moving quickly. He created a logo, an Instagram account, and a concept video where a child had to choose between carrying a gun or picking up a camera. The caption on the video read, “ 60% of our youth rather get caught with it (guns) than without it. It’s time to show them a new way, shoot cameras, not guns.”
Ray lost another cousin in 2021, who was working to change his life and looked up to him. He got involved with the photography studio and even participated in workshops before being shot and killed.
Ray had to lower his cousin’s body into the grave. This experience reaffirmed he needed to keep pushing his program to sway people towards photography over being involved with guns.
“Because I was so passionate about seeing a change, I started offering more free workshops,” Ray said. “I got to do something. They need the help. I offered more free workshops, buying cameras and equipment with my own money because I didn’t want to see another young brother end up like that.”
Just last week, one of the teenage boys Ray mentors through the program was shot and killed after he gave a monologue about violence prevention. Ray said the trauma from that murder is why his program must be successful. The program works, but he needs people to come together and support the movement.
With over 1,000 homicides in Philadelphia since January 2020, Ray said that Philadelphia is in a state of emergency and offering creative outlets to the youth is one of the solutions to keeping them away from a life of involvement in gun violence.
Ray knows firsthand how gun possession can change someone’s life. He did three years in the mid-2000s for gun charges. After returning home, he picked up a camera. Through some mentorship, he forged relationships that allowed him to carve out a career and open up his photography studio, Creative Mind Productions.
While he charges for photo shoots and camera work, Ray does these workshops for the community free to help offer a trade to people willing to work and who want to stay out of the streets. Ray teaches them entry-level photography skills and gets them comfortable enough to where they can pursue photography opportunities on their own.
“We teach the skill of understanding a camera, Ray said. “Whatever basic skills they learn, they get an opportunity to put these skills to work because I promote practicing after you learn. So now you’re implementing those skills that you practice in the real world, real-world situations, so they get an opportunity to come out with me on several different jobs.”
This pilot program has had success, but Ray wants to continue evolving. He hopes to secure partnerships and funding to continue giving young people the opportunities they deserve, a creative outlet to reinforce positivity in the community.
Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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