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Five-year-old Nino stares solemnly at the camera from behind an oversize bow tie. His baggy overalls, cut from the same yellow, pink, and green patterned cloth, are garish against the red canvas of the tent behind him.

The photographer, Chicagoan Tone Stockenstrom, has spent the last three summers training kids at the Picolino Circus in Salvador, Brazil, in photography. The 15-year-old circus was founded to teach Salvador’s orphans and street children new skills and provide them with a source of income and a sense of community. Most of the acrobats and entertainers are between 12 and 25, but an exception was made for Nino, who was adopted by one of the trainers, a woman named Neida, as a baby. “He’s kind of an icon of the circus,” says Stockenstrom.

Her portraits of the performers are currently on exhibit at HotHouse, along with images shot by the kids and work by students from the Logan Square Neighborhood Association who’ve been training with her in summer photography workshops over the last three years. Logan Square may be far removed geographically from Brazil, but, notes Stockenstrom, many of the photographs share common themes: young people forming their own relationships with peers and the world; teens interacting tenderly with their own children or lovers. Gritty alleys and street corners; ethnic pride.

The exhibit is dedicated to Jose Mario Da Cruz Carvalho, a Picolino juggler and capoeira performer who was killed by the police last spring after he broke into a house. At the entrance to the exhibit a stark eulogy is scrawled in Magic Marker on a Plexiglas box housing a Polaroid of Carvalho along with a photo he shot of a boy leaning over a brick wall outside a shack on a dirt street. Sixty thousand children and teenagers a year lose their lives to violence in Brazil, the text says; in the U.S., 82 percent of homicide victims killed with guns are aged 15 to 19.

“I was struck by the violence against youth right now all over the world,” says Stockenstrom, referring to the apparent massacre of gang-affiliated teenagers by guards in a Honduran prison in April. “Our youth are our most vulnerable and powerful group. They need access to art so they can express their beautiful and oftentimes painful life experiences.”

This summer Stockenstrom’s going back to Brazil–and taking 12 of the Logan Square students with her. They’ll do joint photography projects with their Brazilian counterparts, and the kids will interview each other on video, a medium Stockenstrom hopes to get more involved with. Her other plans for the future include building a permanent darkroom in Salvador and bringing a group of the Picolino kids to Chicago in 2004, as well as publishing a book on the circus.

“I love doing these long-term projects,” says Stockenstrom, who funds her work through grants and corporate donations. “It’s much more interesting because you peel off the layers. Last summer I found out Nino’s mom’s father was a photographer–I never knew that. I saw old photos he had taken of her when she was young and training for the circus. I was blown away.” Now she wants to do a series of photos of Neida holding or looking at her father’s photographs; one such portrait is on display at HotHouse.

“The Picolino Circus-Logan Square Neighborhood Association Youth Photo-Documentary Exchange” is up through June 26 at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo. There’s a free reception June 25 from 5 to 7 PM; call 773-491-6739 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Trond Stockenstrom.