Columns at museum entrance

IMAGINE=IMAGE: Teen Photography & The Power of Portraiture

July 10, 2015

“I see the world as “glass half-full.” That is what my portrait means to me. No matter how much rain there is, there’s always sun after. My point-of-view is looking up, looking up at the sky, the light, the color, the imagination. Seeing the bright side of everything is my favorite thing about myself.”                                        

                    -Tariq Harris, teen photographer IMAGINE=IMAGE

Tariq Harris in white sweatshirt. looking upwards
Tariq Harris, self - portrait

From the beginning of the IMAGINE=IMAGE teen photography program, we sensed these young adults were ready to explore. Before creating self-portraits, they viewed the museum’s collection.  Highlights included "Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze.” and a tour of “The Struggle for Justice” with photography curator Ann Shumard.

Group photo of Imagin=Image students
Imagine=Image students , photo by Brittany Cole


"Imagine=Image" student exploring Eye Pop exhibition
Photo by Joanne Miller

Blair Kirkbaumer, Teen Programs Coordinator, summed up the experience this way: “The National Portrait Gallery’s IMAGINE=IMAGE Program used the power of portraiture to prompt teens, ages 13-16, to closely examine themselves – who they are and who they aspire to be. Using point and shoot cameras, the teens explored image-making by creating a portrait that reflects key aspects of what makes them who they are. The final portraits incorporated techniques and ideas seen in portraits at NPG such as symbolism, lighting, and background. Their artist statements powerfully depicted issues central to themselves in regards to self-image and what image they convey to the viewer”

Black and white photo of Nekaijah Cordell in flannel shirt, sitting against wall
Nekaijah Cordell, self - portrait

The process of exploring our identity is life-long.  Transformation takes place incrementally.  Viewing and creating art can open a doorway to finding personal meaning.  Fluency in the language of art can help us to become effective communicators, and the process begins with understanding ourselves.

Evann Pace, reading next to planter in courtyard
Evann Pace, self - portrait

Early on, parents noted a change taking place. “I think this week was surprising for both me and my daughter.  I wasn't expecting to hear my introvert come home with funny stories about the students she met while in this small class.  I also wasn't expecting to see her smile in her portrait as she loves to put on the bravado in most pictures these days.  Someone she really liked in the class shot the picture and I got to see a soft side she seldom displays.” –Shannon McGrail, parent.

Kat McGrail in dress shirt, tie, and suspenders, with arms folded and looking at camera
Kat McGrail portrait self - portrait

Portraiture takes into account the sitter, artist and audience.  Each young photographer planned their own portrait. Some brought objects representing hobbies and talents.  They were eager for friends and family to view them in a new light.  Creating the final portrait required working in pairs.

Their successful collaborations were based on trust developed over the course of the program. The teens worked hard to help their partners capture an image that represented their authentic selves. Weaving together skills and knowledge they learned over the week, they explored the architecture, light, and placement of their subject to capture their best photograph. 

 Jordana Dunphy (below), Kayla Trainor (above); photo by Brittany Cole

On the final day, the teens exhibited their framed portraits in the museum courtyard.  At the opening reception, Shannon McGrail, mother of a teen, shared her thoughts regarding the program as it affected her daughter:  ”She has loved art since she could hold a pencil but never knew the complexities of photography and admits, at 14 years old - not the most introspective age – that she has gained so much respect for something she now enjoys as an art form but never expected to be so ‘cerebral’.  The artists’ statements I read today made me feel strongly about the value of art for our kids.  The kids clearly felt comfortable to express themselves, I think because they were allowed to think about themselves at an age where kids are being told how to look, dress and what to think all while also being told to be quiet!  These kids have value and I think some of them recognize it more today than last week, my daughter included.“

- Joanne Miller – artist, educator – www.joanne-miller.com.