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PHOTO: Jen Vogus (left) stands with a group of her AbleVoices students after they had hung their photos at Franklin City Hall. The photos will be on display there through October. / Photo by John McBryde


Before she discovered photography through an organization known as AbleVoices, Sami Zini felt voiceless.

She was often depressed and listless, and at times felt like an outcast. A diagnosis of autism helped to explain her feelings of loneliness, but it took a newfound interest in photography to start lifting her spirits, to pull away from the fog that seemed to envelop her.

It took, quite simply, the relatively new program AbleVoices and its founder, Jen Vogus.

“I didn’t really know where I fit in, and why I was treated differently and why I was doing the things I did,” said Zini, who recently moved to Franklin with her family and is now a student at Nashville State Community College studying web design and photography. … “I was kind of treated like an alien. Jen really helped me lift up my spirit and made me feel like I can do whatever I want.

“Since I joined AbleVoices, I feel like I get to see there’s nothing wrong with it [autism diagnosis], that everyone has a talent that no one else can see.”

The example of Zini’s turnaround is just what Vogus envisioned when she started AbleVoices nearly two years ago. Through her own passion for photography — especially its technical, artistic and humanitarian aspects — and her advocacy for special education, Vogus felt the medium could be used to help young adults with disabilities with self-expression, empowerment and advocacy.

“What I want to do … is foster a more inclusive community and an awareness that people with disabilities have desires and hopes and dreams just like everybody else,” she said. “That is the end result that we shoot for.”

Photos on display

Vogus has developed a partnership with Williamson County Schools, and has so far spent a semester each at Centennial, Franklin, Ravenwood and, currently, Page high schools. She has also begun a summer program for students who have transitioned out of high school. With each group, Vogus teaches the students the mechanics of photography and provides them with point-and-shoot cameras. She’ll take them on field trips to various locations around Nashville and Franklin and have them photograph whatever scenes that might inspire them.

“Over the course of a semester they take pictures of not only the people, places and things important to them, but they also take pictures that represent their strengths, their interests and all they have to offer the world,” Vogus said. “We then print the photos, mount them and hang them in a photo gallery, along with captions for each photo.”

The students’ photos can be seen at the Williamson County Community Services building in Franklin, and photos from Ravenwood High students and a few of the summer students are currently on display at Franklin City Hall through October. Upcoming sites are the Parthenon (November 2019-January 2020), the Brentwood Library (February 2020), Tennessee Performing Arts Center (May-July 2020) and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (September-December 2020).

A way to communicate

 Vogus’ inspiration to use photography as a means of communication began when her son, Aidan, entered kindergarten 12 years ago at Kenrose Elementary School. He has a rare genetic condition that leaves him with intellectual and physical challenges and is almost completely non-verbal.

“I was really struggling to find a way to help the teachers and students and others to get to know him as an individual,” Vogus explained. “So I started taking pictures of what he enjoyed doing and things that he loved doing, and I would send pictures to school with Aiden with captions on the back, and he started sharing those with everybody.

“And because they were tangible prints, other students and teachers were able to see them and it opened up his world. Other students found out that Aiden liked a lot of the same things they liked, and the adults were realizing he had a lot of interests, had a lot of strengths.

“It became a back-and-forth mode of communication. The teachers and aides started taking pictures of what he enjoyed at school, so we got to see what he was doing during the school day. A photo book became his mode of communication, through elementary school and middle school. Now he’s using social media more.”

Vogus became involved in special education with WCS and is a founding member of a parent advocacy group that works directly with the district’s special education administration. She developed a workshop to help young adults with disabilities showcase their skills through pictures, and later discovered a methodology known as PhotoVoice. It’s a program that puts cameras in the hands of individuals or groups that feel like they don’t have a voice for something in their lives or an issue that’s affecting them.

Vogus then launched AbleVoices in January 2018 at Centennial High, and has since taught numerous students and the power and the depth of photography as a means of self-expression.

“Even though these young adults may have taken pictures with their phones or their iPad or some sort of device, none of them have really been taught aspects of photography,” she said. “So I talk about composition, some techniques that professional photographers use to make their photographs better, taking pictures from different angles, perspectives, noticing the light, looking at shapes and lines. Some of these young adults have just really gotten into it.”

Like Zini, for instance. She plans to graduate from Nashville State with an associate’s degree and eventually work as a web designer and photographer. Or like Bryant Welch, who discovered photography through AbleVoices.

“He takes his camera everywhere he goes now,” Vogus said. “He had never had an interest in photography prior to doing the project at Franklin High School. He just got his occupational diploma, and now he wants to find a job that’s somehow related to photography.”