A Summer in Boston Through Their Eyes

The Legacy of the Youth Conservation Corp Photography Program

a young black women in a grey shirt leans over a railing to take a photo

YCC participants practice their photography skills.

The Boston Natural Areas Network

Founded in 1977, The Boston Natural Areas Network (BNAN) worked to preserve, expand, and protect green spaces like urban wilds, greenways, and community gardens across Boston. In 2014, after nearly forty years of service, BNAN merged with The Trustees of Reservations and their collection, which includes over 18,000 film slides and approximately 7,000 photographs, was absorbed into their Archives & Research Center.

The Trustees recognized the historical value of these materials and were pleased to receive a grant in 2023 for over $344,819 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to support the processing, digitization, and conservation of the Colonel John Ashley Papers (1755-1818) and The Boston Natural Areas Network collection (1977-2014). The NEH grant funding will support the arranging, describing, and re-housing of the BNAN’s physical records–including its photographic materials–according to archival best practices. The digitization of these slides and photographs is a crucial component of this project, as it will ensure that both interested researchers and the communities represented in these visual materials will have access to them.

a banner celebrating the opening of the East Boston Greenway

A banner promotes the opening of the East Boston Greenway in 2002.

Engaging the Youth Conservation Corp

One such group represented in the collection is comprised of the young people who participated in the Greenway Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) at the Neponset River and Mary Ellen Welch Greenways. Formed in 1994, the YCC gave high school students in the Boston area the opportunity to engage with the natural environment and complete service work during the summer. Students who participated in the program were compensated for the hours they worked, which helped increase access to lower income students who needed summer jobs. The program started in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park along the Neponset River Greenway and expanded to the East Boston Greenway and other Urban Wilds over time.

From July through August, approximately forty students worked to clean up marshes, build trails, test water quality, and complete mural and mosaic projects. At the end of the summer, the students completed presentations about the work and what they learned to the communities surrounding these greenways. Thirty years after its inception, the enduring impact of the YCC on BNAN’s history is undeniable, serving as one of the foundation’s most important educational initiatives. By providing local teens the opportunity to immerse themselves and connect with the city’s natural spaces, the YCC played a vital role in nurturing the next generation of environmentally conscious community members.

Processing the Collection

During the collection’s preliminary processing, a group of unlabeled envelopes were found which contained images seemingly taken by YCC participants. Further investigation of related archival materials revealed that these envelopes were from a natural photography program which the YCC started in the summer of 2001. The program was introduced as an opportunity for participants to work with a local photographer to improve their photography skills and document the natural environment around them. Participants were given traditional film cameras and color film which they used throughout the program and at the end of the summer, their photographs would be displayed at a presentation to their community.

Moments photographed by participants include time spent walking through Wood Island Bay Marsh, canoeing on the Neponset, and painting murals in Hyde Park—revealing the variety of work the YCC engaged in throughout the session. During certain summers, participants had the opportunity to engage in special photography projects. For instance, some worked on a project aimed at capturing portraits of individuals instrumental in the establishment of the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway in East Boston called, “The Faces and Places of the Greenway Photography Project.” Together, these images offer a special glimpse into what life was like for these teens during a summer of environmental education, community engagement, and hands-on learning.

two young people take photos on the greenway

Importance of Documentation

While many photographs in the collection depict children and teens participating in educational programs at the community gardens, greenways, and urban wilds across Boston, these envelopes are especially important as they contain the only images created by young people. At first glance, these images might not appear noteworthy, with some appearing blurry, repetitive, and unrelated to the program’s subject of nature photography. Yet dismissing them would be a mistake. Some of the most insightful and revealing images in the collection were made during the program’s downtime. Pictures made while goofing off, making friends, and enjoying the summer vacation reveal what YCC participants found important and worth documenting.

Here, the camera has given these teenagers the ability to preserve how they uniquely view the world, perspectives which often go unrepresented. Despite not being initially intended as an archival endeavor, the images made during this program offer a rare opportunity to understand how youth interacted with each other, situated in the landscape of Boston’s natural spaces. In a reflection at the end of the program, one student wrote about her time in the program, stating that “my crew worked with a photographer, and we explored the beauty of nature of the [Neponset River] marsh on film. As a result of this experience, I have a lasting interest in photography and often take pictures with my camera as a hobby.” In this sense, the photography program has served more than just its original educational purpose; it has become a testament to the transformative power of giving voice to the youngest members of our communities and honoring their perspectives on the world around them.

a youth in a blue shirt takes a photo of an older man and his dog

A YCC participant takes a picture of an East Boston resident and his dog

a youth playfully jumping

a YCC participants jumps

Moving Forward

The story of the Boston Natural Areas Network’s Youth Conservation Corps photography program is just one of many waiting to be rediscovered within this collection. The legacy of these materials serves as a poignant reminder that every perspective, no matter how seemingly ordinary, is truly valuable and worthy of preservation. And while we wait for the public release of this collection in spring 2025, look around and allow these young photographers to inspire you to document all the beauty within your own communities.

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