Willie Garcia is sharing a few trade secrets. “I would walk up and say ‘Buon giorno,'” he says, in perfectly accented Italian. Sweeping his arms wide, he acts out the approach and the courtship: “I tried to conversate, that’s what I tried to do. And then I would tell them I wanted to photograph them.”

For Garcia, as with the two other photography students who accompanied him to Tuscany, the real trick to photography isn’t in light levels or focal distance–it’s in connecting to people. Garcia and the others are in a program called Pathways to Housing, which helps people recover from homelessness, mental illness, and drug and alcohol addiction. Practicing photography in a foreign country for 10 days is a new chance to hone that skill.

Garcia smiles, gesturing commedia dell’arte–style toward a wall of photographs of himself with Italians. Boldly approaching strangers, engaging with them and then taking their pictures–with himself in the frame!–is something he never would have done in cold, brusque New York City.

“I am a shy person,” agrees fellow student Bruce Eyster, “but when I have a camera, I can get out there and–” he mimics a snapshot with a click of his tongue. “It really did help me.”

The main mission of Pathways to Housing is to help people with psychiatric disabilities live successfully in apartments of their own. But finding an apartment is just the beginning. Pam Parlapiano’s twice-a-week photography class, along with others that teach writing and painting, gives the participants a way to engage with other people and produce something lasting.

“A lot of agencies just treat this as a little crafts and babysitting,” says Parlapiano, looking around at the paintings and photographs on display last month in the Cork Gallery in the basement of Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall. One is a stark black-and-white portrait of an emaciated, frizzy-haired woman staring intently at the wall. In a more painterly photo, a classically beautiful young woman sleeps on a bench, arms folded, beneath a bank of blooming azaleas. “I think the most important thing is that people are learning how to be artists,” she adds. “This isn’t ‘Outsider Art’–it’s art.”

A painter for years before the trip to Italy, Eyster decided to find the faces he’d seen in the Uffizi and the Metropolitan on the streets of Italian cities, then photograph them using the portrait conventions of Renaissance painting.

He came back with a comprehensive body of work and an experience any artist would envy: the chance to study art in Italy, going to museums during the day and coming back to a meal of prosciutto, fresh Tuscan bread and glazed fruit. As they traveled through different villages, Eyster was struck by how much the people he saw looked like the subjects of famous paintings. “They’re the same ones that are in the museums,” he says. “I wanted to take them home with me.”

Garcia got something else out of the trip: confidence. Before he left, the photography class took studio portraits at Iris House, a residence for HIV-positive families. Garcia turned down the invitation. “It seemed so intense,” he says. “I was just too shy to think about doing something like that.”

Could he do it now?

He looks at the portraits, takes a step back, then forward again. “Yeah, I think so.”