For Hartford Teen, A Personal Project On Leadership
14-Year-Old Photographs Governor, Mayor And Others
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
June 15, 2013
HARTFORD — Tre'Jon Hamm reached for the grand doors of the state Capitol when his cellphone buzzed.
"I can't talk to you right now," the 14-year-old told his friend on the other line. Hamm rushed here after school on one of the final days of the legislative session.
"I'm going to meet the governor. Peace."
Soon, Hamm was snapping rapid-fire photos of a smiling Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, standing behind the gubernatorial desk between American and Connecticut flags. Then began the videotaped chat: Malloy in a suit and tie, Hamm in a T-shirt, cargo pants and lobster-red, high-top sneakers.
"The first question is, who is someone you think is a good leader and why?" Hamm asked.
This meeting was not a school assignment. Hamm, a lifelong Hartford resident and amateur photographer, set out to find leaders in the capital city, take their portrait, ask them about leadership and tell them a joke.
Malloy is one of 40 people that Hamm has interviewed and photographed since April for his personal project, "Leadership in Hartford: A Better Tomorrow." Among the subjects are Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, college presidents, a state Supreme Court justice and his own mother.
A photo exhibit is planned for Wednesday at Billings Forge in Hartford. Afterward, the framed photographs will be displayed at Firebox Restaurant.
"A lot of people think Hartford is a bad place," said Hamm, who is finishing eighth grade at Irving A. Robbins Middle School in Farmington. He is bussed there through the state's Open Choice desegregation program.
"Hartford has a bad rap and I wanted to change that."
'A Fun Project'
The project was born after February's historic blizzard that pummeled New England and Hamm's Frog Hollow neighborhood. Cars were buried. Plows struggled to clear more than two feet of snow from city streets, and schools around the state were closed.
Hamm sat at The Kitchen at Billings Forge with one of his mentors, Knute Ogren, 39, a regular at the Broad Street café where Hamm's mother works as a chef. Ogren lives nearby and is the development director for Camp Calumet, a Lutheran summer camp in New Hampshire that Hamm has attended.
They stared at the snow outside. Bored.
"Everything was, like, blocked or closed," Hamm said. "We just wanted to do a fun project."
It's bothered Hamm that some people only associate Hartford with violence. So with Ogren as his co-collaborator, the duo focused on what they appreciate about the city: The people and their hard work, which turned into a theme of leadership.
A leader who came to mind was Tamarra Carson, 35, a single mother of three.
"My mom," Hamm said. "She leads my family ... I love that she was resilient and she was just inspiring. She taught us right from wrong."
Carson moved their family into the apartment complex at Billings Forge four years ago. Hamm, the middle child with a cherubic smile and entrepreneurial spirit, "has always been into art," Carson said. When the nonprofit Billings Forge Community Works held a photography class for residents, the boy fell in love.
"Before that, I used to actually draw," Hamm said recently after photographing Chion Wolf, an announcer and producer at WNPR, for his leadership project.
"I love nature, so I would usually go out in the city and try to find birds and take pictures of the birds, or plants, and the sky and rocks and stuff."
For a time, Hamm took still photos with a handheld video camera that his mother gave him. He upgraded several months ago to a second-generation digital Nikon camera donated by one of his mentors, Courant Photographer Patrick Raycraft.
'A Natural Leader'
Hamm has criss-crossed the city with his camera and Ogren, who is in charge of scheduling and posting updates on their "Leadership In Hartford" Facebook page.
"Initially, this was not going to be a big deal," Ogren said. "When Liam McGee signed on" — CEO of The Hartford — "that's when it started to be a big deal. And then all of a sudden it got to be, well ... how are we going to pay for this?"
Cary Wheaton, executive director of Billings Forge Community Works, pledged $1,000 on the organization's behalf so Hamm could print and frame photographs for the exhibit. Wheaton hopes the project can inspire the other young residents at Billings Forge.
"Tre is a leader here among the kids," Wheaton said. "He's a natural leader and they see his passion."
Getting important people with busy schedules to agree to the project required a bit of craftiness.
"I know you're busy. 10 minutes. I promise," read a letter that Hamm and Ogren emailed to potential subjects. "I will come to your office (or any other place in the city) and take 10 or 12 pictures of you, and ask you two questions about leadership. They will be easy. I'm also prepared to tell you one joke which I hope you will think is funny."
People always ask about the joke.
They also filmed an introductory YouTube video. "You'll be on time for your appointment?" Ogren asks Hamm in the clip. "That's cool."
The first person to respond and be interviewed was WFSB meteorologist Scot Haney. Days later, Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Richard Palmer gave Hamm and Ogren a tour of the court and "let me try on the robes and stuff," said Hamm, who also took a seat on the honorable bench.
Soon after, Hamm met with McGee and Trinity College President James Jones in their executive offices. Mark Twain House Director Cindy Lovell and University of Hartford men's basketball coach John Gallagher also welcomed the teen to their workplaces.
So did Gordon Scott, whose family owns Scott's Jamaican Bakery, and Pamela Trotman Reid, president of the University of Saint Joseph.
The many other leaders included Wheaton, Burns School Principal Monica Brase and executive directors of the ACLU of Connecticut, Hartford Marathon Foundation, Foodshare, the Capitol Region Education Council, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the Wadsworth Atheneum. The 40th and final interview was Thomas Leonardi, the state's insurance commissioner, earlier this month.
Hartford Deputy Police Chief Neville Brooks said he was honored to be part of Hamm's project. Brooks, a proud Batman fanatic, told Hamm in May that his goal is to get the Batman signal flown above the city.
"We do need leaders," said Brooks, who oversees the department's downtown, West End and Asylum Hill operations. "To get the city and the community moving in the right direction, the way we do that is developing relationships in the community. Even on a small scale."
"He's a little bit reserved," Brooks said of Hamm. "But once he gets behind the camera, he means business."
'Rise To The Occasion'
"Are you nervous?" Tamarra Carson asked her son.
Hamm, sitting in the Billings Forge café on a recent Wednesday afternoon, responded as if his mother just inquired about a crush.
"No, there's nothing to be nervous about," said Hamm, shaking his head with a dose of teenage defensiveness. He paused and asked his mom, "Why are you so happy?"
Twenty minutes later, Hamm was shaking hands with the governor, taking his portrait and making small talk about the New York Yankees. "You want to sit around the table?" Malloy suggested.
"Yes, please," said Hamm, keeping his answers brief and professional. So who is Malloy's idea of a good leader?
"Some personal favorites would be Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ... But those are all political," Malloy told Hamm. Malloy mentioned coaches Geno Auriemma and Jim Calhoun of UConn basketball championships, and over 10 minutes, elaborated on the qualities of a leader.
Often that person has overcome challenges, whether it's a physical disability, poverty or the Civil War, Malloy said. "When you're a natural leader, you're expected to rise to the occasion ...
"Leadership and great leaders, there are more of them than we think."
After Hamm deadpanned his promised joke — "Why can't skeletons play church music? Because they have no organs" — Malloy chuckled and asked the boy a serious question as he wished him well: "Are you a happy guy? Yeah? You are? All right. You gotta lighten up there, buddy."
Days earlier, a relaxed Hamm offered his own definition of leadership: "A leader is guiding others on a correct path... and inspiring others."
With that in mind, Hamm wasn't shy about thinking of himself as one of those people.
"I like to be a leader for, like, mainly all the people who like photography," Hamm said. "Some people are probably scared to express themselves ... Scared that they'll get made fun of, or something like that.
"A lot of the kids usually say they'd like to be a basketball player or a football player," he continued, "but you never hear a kid say they want to be a photographer."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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