06/16/2015 04:23 EDT | Updated 06/16/2016 05:59 EDT

Street photo project helps homeless and at-risk youth share stories through lens

TORONTO - Taha Muharuma has more than 33,000 Instagram fans who follow him to see his stylized snapshots of city life.

But during a recent visit to Toronto's colour-drenched Graffiti Alley, the seasoned street photographer took a turn in front of the lens.

Muharuma wanted to better inform his two attentive students about the intricacies of composition and lighting.

This was more than just an advanced lesson on smartphone snapshots.

For Gilad Cohen, it was an effort to help educate and uplift homeless and at-risk youth through the art of photography.

Cohen's non-profit organization Jayu — which shares human rights stories using art — partnered with six Toronto-based photographers and the Horizons For Youth shelter for the project #CaptureTheStreets, which kicked off in the spring.

Graeme Roy, director of news photography for The Canadian Press, was among the photographers involved, and each zeroed in on a different element of mobile street photography. Youth participants then went out to explore different parts of the city to fine-tune their skills with guidance from their photographer mentors.

"We're talking about landscapes, we're talking about portraits, we're talking about shadow shooting, and we're using those characteristics — or those traits — to show the youth how to take photos," said Cohen.

"It sort of changes the way they not only look at themselves and their skills but the city around them."

Cohen said he got involved with mobile street photography about two years ago and that it's given him a much-needed creative outlet for expression — one which he hoped to share with the youth.

"When you're working with an oppressed group, you're working with a group that's lost its voice," he said.

"Through this project, we're hoping to empower them, but also to give them a platform to regain their voice and break down some of the negative stigma that follows the youth around in this community."

Already passionate about photography, Yasmin Gilani seized on the chance to take part in the project, which she learned about through her case worker.

The 20-year-old said she learned tips and tricks from Muharuma on how to feature highlights and shadows in her shots. She proudly scrolled through a series of photos captured on her mobile, including several captured in the city's subway.

"It's helping me a lot because in the future, I'm planning on becoming a makeup artist.... For sure, I'm planning on posting my own pictures," said Gilani.

"If I learn these tricks now, in the future, I maybe can do something with my own business."

Cohen said the best photos from each youth will be displayed at galleries throughout the city. Community Story Strategies worked with participants to record a personal story or memory related to their image. Gallery visitors will be able to access the audio with headphones positioned next to their photos, Cohen said.

Full proceeds from each photo sale will go directly back to the youth who took the photo.

Cohen said the project proved to be far more affecting than he had anticipated.

"We had one youth come in today and she said: 'You know, when I'm in the shelter, I feel like I'm homeless. But when I'm out with you guys, I feel like a regular person.' And that's so profound. That's one of those outcomes that you never really predict."

Photos will be on display in Toronto at Scrim4rent from June 19-28, the Centre for Social Innovation from July 3-12 and Brimz from July 15-26.

A social media campaign is also encouraging users to capture street photos and share their thoughts on youth homelessness and their own communities using the hashtag #CaptureTheStreets.



— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.