When asked what they see in a picture of a church choir, the students answer "kids," "diversity," "beauty" and "Bible."
As with pictures, there are several ways to interpret life. This is what Jim Tillman tries to teach these teens in his digital photography class at Juvenile Court Services.
"If I can change their thinking, then their actions will change," said Tillman, a 48-year-old video producer who is now the program coordinator for the Disproportionate Minority Contact program based in the Sioux City region.
Disproportionate minority contact, or DMC, is a condition where a racial or ethnic group's representation in confinement exceeds its representation in the general population. In Iowa, less than 10 percent of all minority youths made up nearly 30 percent of those in juvenile detention, according to the Iowa DMC Resource Center.
Statistics show the situation is worse locally.
Many factors contribute to DMC, Tillman said, such as minorities or their families not having enough money to afford good representation in court. Although the DMC program began in 2000, its hasn't made the impact program officials wanted.
Some ways to combat DMC include going on gang sweeps with local authorities and promoting positive reinforcement in juvenile detention.
Tillman seeks to reduce DMC through media arts, such as his digital photography.
"These kids have not succeeded the traditional way for whatever reason," Tillman said. "There's something about the art of photography that draws them."
For various reasons, these students have gotten into enough trouble to be placed in Tillman's classroom. They're mostly minorities, but in hopes of keeping them out of trouble, Tillman didn't teach his students about what makes them different but rather what makes them similar.
During the nine-week photography course, students completed a diversity photo project in which they took photos of friends, family and their surroundings.
"These kids want to be loved," Tillman said. "They have a lot to contribute to this community if they're allowed to."
The success was immediate, as one student showed interest in co-teaching a photography class for children, Tillman said.
As the photography excites kids, they get back into mainstream classes, and taxpayers save thousands of dollars that it would cost to jail them.
"We cannot afford not to invest in these kids," Tillman said.