• January 2012

Through the Eyes of Refugees Comes Kirsten Elstner's "VisionWorkshops"

VisionWorkshops Executive Director Kirsten Elstner has been a photographer and teacher since completing her Master of Arts in Photography at Ohio University in 1990.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Life, and Fortune magazines, as well as dozens of others. Elstner also worked in Bangladesh for the International Red Cross, and as a photographer for Brazil’s largest newspaper, O Globo, in Rio de Janeiro.

But it wasn’t until she became part of VisionWorkshops that she found her perfect assignment. Since 2000, she has been proud to provide programs free of charge to needy students through generous donations from the community, foundations, and corporate sponsors.

Teaching Young People to See

“Our workshops inspire youths with positive role models, and with opportunities to display their photographs and writings at galleries from Annapolis to Europe to India and the Middle East,” she says, noting that since 2000, the program has hosted 60 workshops and taught more than a thousand kids to take photos.

The vision of the program is to build a vibrant community for self-expression, self-respect, respect for others, and connection across cultural boundaries on the journey toward adulthood, Elstner says.

“We link youth from around the world in local and online communities in which they seek to better understand and appreciate themselves and others,” she explains. “We know they are catalysts of hope, inspiration, and expression for youth who need encouragement. And we see the results of our efforts contributing to a more peaceful and tolerant world.”

She holds dear many memories of the students she has met and worked with through VisionWorkshops. One who affected her most, Elstner says, was a young girl in Oaxaca, Mexico. She recalls watching the girl’s progress through the workshop. “She came to us with so many odds stacked against her, yet she showed me around her village with such grace and pride, and put intense focus and effort into everything she did. She inspired me.”

This globetrotter has taught photography at the college level at the International Center of Photography in New York, The Corcoran College of Art and Design, Goucher College, The Art Institute of Boston, and The Massachusetts College of Art. Through VisionWorkshops, Elstner mentors young people in her community, as well as nationally and internationally as director of the National Geographic Photo Camp workshops.

When it comes to her hero, Elstner says that’s an easy one. “My mom is my hero. She’s strong, smart, creative, and knows how to laugh.”

Elstner lives with her husband and two sons on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. The image, top, is of her boys a few years ago when the family was on vacation in Hawaii.

Following are some of her favorite images from the VisionWorkshops series.


Photo by Saber, from Jordan “We are now the generation of revenge. Everyone wants to fight with each other. Why aren’t we like brothers? Like the Quran says: ‘We are all brothers in Islam.’ So why can we not live like that? My dream is that all fighting will end.”


Photo by Hannah Brower “I remember wondering whether my house survived. I remember finding out that it didn’t.”


Photo by Ghandeer Abad “In Iraq, there was fighting and it was so dangerous. I have two uncles that died there, but here it is safe for me and my family. Baltimore gives me peace.”


Photo by Hari Dhamala “I came to Baltimore from a moutainous, beautiful, and religious country, Nepal. There, my life was like a captive bird. I lived in a refugee camp. My family brought me to Baltimore, and now my life is like flowing water. I brought some of my fascinating religion and kindness to Baltimore, and my own knowledge to build this city.”


Photo by Carmen Solano


Photo by Ihab Safi

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