What Francesca Brunner loves about the students she meets as an Outside the Lens volunteer is their honesty, curiosity and creativity. What she loves about Outside the Lens is the way the photography-focused nonprofit helps the students see those same qualities in themselves. Maybe for the first time.
“What is so great about about these projects is that they let these kids see themselves reflected in their art, and it is so different from what they see in the mass media,” Brunner said during an interview in the group’s Liberty Station office and gallery. “They see real people up there being celebrated, and they are super proud of that.”
Founded in 2001 by Elisa Marusak Thomson, Outside the Lens uses photography, videography and digital media to help young people tell stories about themselves, connect with their communities, explore nature and document the issues they care about.
In addition to its workshops and camps, the nonprofit organization offers outreach programs that focus on under-served and at-risk youth throughout San Diego County. Brunner has been a part of those programs since the beginning. Before the beginning, in fact.
A painter and illustrator, Brunner met Thomson in the early 2000s when they both had kids enrolled at the Children’s School in La Jolla. Casual chats about school and parenting grew into longer conversations about the power of art (Thomson is a photographer) and its potential to help children learn and grow.
When Thomson organized the first Outside the Lens project — a photography program for the children of migrant workers — she asked Brunner to help out. She has been on board ever since.
“It was just so eye-opening,” the 53-year-old La Jolla mother of two said of that first project, which had the students illustrating their lives and dreams with photography and poetry. “We gave each of the kids a little disposable camera, and they got to take pictures of each other and learn the technical side of photography.
“At the end, we brought the parents in for a presentation, and we took family photos of everyone. For some of them, it was the only family picture they had ever taken. I thought it was so great that they went away with something tangible.”
Born and raised in London, Brunner learned the art of giving back through her mother, a violin teacher who was passionate about music and children. She came to the U.S. with her husband, restaurant designer Jungbae E, 30 years ago. They settled in New York, where Brunner spent two years teaching adults to read through the Literacy Volunteers of New York.
“It sounds like such a cliché, but I learned as much as they did,” Brunner said. “The idea was always to make the students feel at ease and to build their confidence without judgment. It is similar to what you try to do as a mom.”
The couple moved to San Diego 18 years ago, and Brunner’s volunteering eventually expanded to include creating an art-literacy program for the Nativity Prep Academy in Oak Park, a tuition-free school for students who will be the first in their families to go to college. The art-literacy classes introduce students to important artists throughout history. They also help them discover the artists who might be lurking within.
“I think all of this helps demystify art. So many kids think of art as something that is just out there in a museum somewhere. They think it’s stuffy, and this makes it real for them,” Brunner said of the Nativity Prep and Outside the Lens programs. “A lot of students sketch and doodle and do cartoons while they’re class, but they don’t see that as art. The more we help them learn, the more they realize what they are doing is art, and that they are capable of creating something special.”
In her 15 years with Outside the Lens, Brunner has done everything from teaching classes to pitching in on decor and centerpieces for this year’s “Shutter and Stout” gala, being held Nov. 5 at the Lot in Liberty Station.
Last year, she helped with a project involving fourth-graders at Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights. The students went to Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve to take photos, and instructors taught them how to use a photo-editing app to turn their photos into sketches, paintings and mixed-media pieces.
Brunner taught the students color theory and helped create a school gallery to showcase their work. As she often does, Brunner contributed a generous selection of art supplies. And as always, she left the students with a generous piece of herself.
“She is just so giving,” said Outside the Lens media educator Hilary Morefield, who worked with Brunner on the Cherokee Elementary project. “She has such a heart for kids and for instilling curiosity and creativity within the students. She is a true artist in her own right, and she brings that energy to the table when she works with students. There is an immediate sense of understanding and acceptance with her. She really brings a warmth to what she does.”