Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.
The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not just a dusty old saying to Rhea Kulkarni. A senior in the international baccalaureate diploma program at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Kulkarni founded The Photo 4 Good, a nonprofit launched in spring of 2020 that focuses her talent for photography on helping foster a safer environment for the homeless youth in our community. All of the profits from The Photo 4 Good go to Teen Feed, a Seattle-based shelter that provides homeless teens with basic needs, such as healthy meals and access to health care.
ParentMap caught up with Kulkarni to learn more about her work and views on how art has the capacity to unite people and ignite powerful social change.
How did you first become involved with youth activism?
My mom found out about the Youth Ambassador Program [at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center] through ParentMap, when I was in ninth grade. I did a few summer programs with them, and at the end, they give you an opportunity to apply to the Youth Ambassador Program if you’d like to continue the work for the next year. So, I applied and got in! I spent my junior year — so that was last year — working with the foundation on some insanely cool projects. I think the biggest thing that I got out of the ambassador program is the family I made with the other YAP members — they are just incredible people.
Tell us more about the founding of your nonprofit.
I’ve always been into photography, even as a young kid. When you’re in high school, so many things come at you and you’re just so busy, with schoolwork and all of that. There’s a lot of things you have to compromise on and let go of. But photography was always this relaxing passion for me rather than work I had to do. And so, over the summer before my junior year, I participated in a cool online program offered by the International Center of Photography in New York City.
It was called The Image and Social Change, and we worked with the intersectionality between activism and photography, and how we can use images in the real world to drive social change. One of our segments was about taking pictures and representing a storytelling theme. Mine was basically about the isolation that people have felt during the pandemic and the mental health stigma. I was able to take pictures of different areas around my house, my community, my city, Seattle — everywhere — and create a story of what people felt during COVID.
Mental health has definitely been an issue during this time, and I really, really wanted to highlight that through my photography. The program taught me how a simple photograph can really [communicate] a lot about social activism and different issues that are happening in the world. I was inspired by that, and so I started taking more and more photographs. But I also wanted my photography to have some sort of benefit for the people in my area. One of my friends [was looking at my photography and] said, “I would totally buy that photo you just took.”
I thought, maybe more people will buy my photos! So, I started a website, The Photo 4 Good. The money from the sale of my photography goes to Teen Feed, which is a local organization supporting homeless youths in Seattle.
How did you choose Teen Feed as the beneficiary?
I was a Teen Feed volunteer, and I have always been inclined to the homeless issue. That is something that just hits the heart. [The homeless situation] makes me reflect on the type of privilege I have. It is a great organization, doing such important work.
Do you foresee photography being a course of study in college or an eventual career path?
I definitely have thought a lot about this whole “art and activism” thing. One of the things that I reiterated when I was applying to the Youth Ambassador Program at the Gates Foundation was the concept of an “artivist,” something that I didn’t really know much about until I was part of the YAP organization. I think art speaks a lot to activism and to social issues [in a way] that other things can’t, connecting with not only the physical part of you, but also the emotional part. I want to be able one day to create those connections through my photography, because I think that’s what really creates positive social change.
How would you advise other youths to become changemakers in their own unique way?
Teens are often encouraged, “Find your passion, follow it and then do something about it.” While that is completely valid and normal advice, it’s hard at this time of life to find this huge passion. We just have so much on our plates. But you do need to take a step out — you can’t sit back and expect that a passion is just going to come at you.
I also think something that is really underrated — and this might sound a little weird — is that teenagers often have a lot of emotion. This is not a bad thing. It actually can help a lot. For me, when I found out about Teen Feed and the issues that these teens were dealing with, I felt this anger in my body. And anger is a really undervalued emotion that can actually push you in the right direction. How can I help these people? How can I stop this?
Any advice for parents on how to support their child in the pursuit of their passion?
I think for parents, it’s important to take a step back and notice what their kid is genuinely having a good time with that can be channeled into something meaningful. Even something as simple as video games or playing basketball all day. You can do something with basketball, you can do something with your passions and your talents. Just notice what your kid really likes: That’s the first step. And then, support them in finding a way to use their talents and interests to positively impact the lives of more people in the future. That’s probably the most helpful thing a parent can do for their kid.