"If you take the time to slow down and look at what's in your space, then you can find beauty wherever you are."

So says Denzyl Jaymes, 16, one of a group of Henderson youth celebrating a big win at the annual Te Putanga Toi Access Awards. Run by Arts Access Aotearoa, the awards recognise individuals and organisations making it easier for all New Zealanders to access the arts, and a project involving young West Aucklanders was among the big winners last night.

The Waitakere Alternative Education Consortium, Target Alternative Education Centre and Creative Collaborative, Auckland received the Arts Access Te Auaha Community Partnership Award for work started in 2016.

When they started, the view of Henderson wasn't so beautiful. There were serious concerns about youth disengagement and violence in the suburb, particularly after the murder of dairy owner Arun Kumar in 2014.

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Humans of Hendo, inspired by iconic Humans of New York photo blog, saw West Auckland youth excluded from mainstream schools use photography and story-telling to make lasting community connections.

With mentoring from photographers Vanessa Green and Asha Munn and artists Amber Walls and Melinda Butt, the youngsters went into their community, armed with cameras, to ask residents, business people and decision-makers if they would share their stories and have their photos taken.

Building up a collection of portraits and colourful stories about the lives, loves, challenges and triumphs of the Henderson community, the young people created two books, distributed postcards with empowering messages and have staged exhibitions at Corban Estate Arts Centre, Henderson Library, Zeal youth centre and in empty shop windows.

There are hopes for a third iteration of the project if funding can be found.

For many of the 13—16-year-olds, it was the first time they'd used a proper camera or had to talk to strangers on the street about their thoughts, feelings and opinions.

Munn says after they'd gotten past taking the ubiquitous "selfies", the youngsters began to look afresh at life through the lens in the hope that others would look afresh at them.

Sharon-Rose Whyte, 17, admits she was nervous when approaching people she didn't know and, in turn, some people, particularly older ones, were wary when approached by youth they didn't know.

"It made us confident and the older people, who were taken aback by us at first, started talking to us," she says.

Denzyl says by the end of the week, those same people were talking and laughing with them quite openly and praising their work.

Humans of Hendo project members and mentors (from left) Asha Munn with Elliott Coco Munn, Vanessa Green, Manuela Adams, Shane Taane, Denzyl Jaymes and Sharon Whyte. Photo / Michael Craig
Humans of Hendo project members and mentors (from left) Asha Munn with Elliott Coco Munn, Vanessa Green, Manuela Adams, Shane Taane, Denzyl Jaymes and Sharon Whyte. Photo / Michael Craig

"They told us we were doing amazing work to come out into the community and that made us feel better about approaching other people. I've learned to read people a bit more, to be confident about talking to others.

"It's about, 'don't judge a book by its cover'. People have a bad opinion of Henderson, but they don't take the time to look at it properly. If you take the time to slow down and look at what's in your space, then you can find beauty wherever you are."

Fellow participant Shane Taane, 18, says she's never had trouble striking up a conversation but enjoyed learning more about the technical side of photography. She's hoping to take photography further.

Arts Access Aotearoa described Humans of Hendo as something that captured the imaginations of the entire Henderson community, created young leaders, built empathy, countered negative stereotypes and galvanised a supportive network around some of the community's most vulnerable youth.

"The project demonstrates the incredible power of creativity to inspire hearts and minds, and help us all to stop and look at things differently."

It wasn't only the young participants who benefited.

The mentors enjoyed working together so much, they formed Creative Collaborative to run similar programmes for young people in alternative education throughout Auckland. One of those, Breathing Space, on the North Shore holds a one-day exhibition next Friday at the Kaipatiki Youth Hub in Glenfield.

Munn says City of Tales uses art to share young people's Auckland stories.

Other winners at the Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2018 were:

• Beth Hill, programme leader for arts, self-directed learning and living skills at Northland Region Corrections Facility, awarded the Arts Access Accolade Award.

• Ōtautahi Creative Spaces, Christchurch, awarded the Arts Access Holdsworth Creative Space Award 2018, for its focus on artists and their pathway to mental health and wellbeing.

• Beth Hill, Northland, awarded the Arts Access Māui Tikitiki a Taranga Award 2018, for her leadership in the use of the arts and education as transformative tools for men in Northland Region Corrections Facility.

• Auckland Arts Festival, Auckland, awarded the Arts Access Creative New Zealand Arts For All Award 2018, for its leadership and commitment to making the festival accessible to diverse audiences and building new audiences for the arts.

• Jesse Johnstone-Steele, Auckland, awarded the Arts Access Artistic Achievement Award 2018, for his outstanding artistic achievements and contributions, and his pivotal role in Touch Compass Dance Trust since its inception in 1997.

• Hawke's Bay Regional Prison and St John's College, awarded the Arts Access Corrections Whai Tikanga Award 2018, for a partnership project between secondary school students and young prisoners that explored the young prisoners' creative potential and developed a successful business model within a tikanga framework.

• Lynn Freeman, Radio New Zealand, Wellington, for her commitment to reporting on the diverse arts and artists of New Zealand over nearly 20 years — most recently as a presenter on RNZ's arts show, Standing Room Only.