Telling Our Stories: Portraits by Latinx Youth and Their Families in the DMV

Telling Our Stories: Portraits by Latinx Youth and Their Families in the DMV grew out of a concern for how others would document the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on Latinx communities in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The project, focused on making portraits, has been a collaboration between the artist Muriel Hasbun, students and teachers at Escuela Key Elementary in Arlington, Virginia, and curators at the National Portrait Gallery.

The portraits presented in this online exhibition resulted from workshops led by Hasbun and Rebecca Lehr, an art teacher at Escuela Key Elementary. In each bilingual workshop, held in English and Spanish, Hasbun guided fourth and fifth graders through the basic concepts of portraiture. They discussed the roles of artist and sitter, setting, scale, lighting, and other elements of portrayal.

Together, these portraits form a social practice artwork. They demonstrate the importance of ensuring that students—and their caregivers—have the tools necessary to recount their stories. Although the impact of the pandemic is one that comes across indirectly, its trajectory is apparent when we consider how this project was carried out. Meetings were initially held virtually and eventually in-person.

Telling Our Stories took place during the fall of 2021 and winter of 2022. The artist Muriel Hasbun conducted online lessons for the after-school art club at Escuela Key Elementary. She encouraged students to incorporate aspects of their family histories into their work, starting with a family tree. Students learned about composition as they worked on posing their subjects and incorporating objects into their portraits.

Students were prompted to select objects that spoke to them in some way. The objects could be anything through which they could tell a story about themselves, their families, their friends, or their likes and dislikes. Diana and Daniella, for example, placed a colorful fish from their art classroom in front of an Oaxacan textile. Diana said she liked her photograph for its “many colors and designs.”

With each session, students practiced composing portraits, paying special attention to the relationship between the sitter and their background. After photographing inanimate objects, such as the fish chosen by Diana and Daniella, they photographed one another from different points of view and in different settings. Daniella said she was interested in playing with “different angles… to see different sides” of her friend. Daniella chose to incorporate Diana’s mask into her composition. In addition to alluding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mask—with its bright pink color and rectangular shape—echoes other forms in the photograph.

During some sessions, students were encouraged to take their cameras outdoors so that they could watch for the play of sunlight and shadows. Iker and Leo were impressed when they discovered how the shadows could help frame their sitters and their surroundings.

Iker, who loves nature, directed Leo to photograph him against a tree outside their school. Iker said he found joy in working together and recalled that “sometimes [Leo] gave me ideas, and sometimes I would give him ideas.”

Iker and Leo’s collaboration yielded questions about who the maker of a portrait can be. They discussed the roles of the sitter and the photographer and how those roles overlap. In speaking about this portrait, Leo noted how involved he was in creating its composition. He was especially intrigued by the shadows on their school building. Leo said the “zigzag … drew my attention with the shadows of the tree… nature… and the reflections on the windows.”

Memories of Guatemala by Adriana, Anaí, and Anyeli

“Learning to all work together” was one of Anaí’s takeaways from the sessions. She, Adriana, and Anyeli collaborated to make portraits of Adriana dressed in white, carrying flowers, and wearing a diadem. Anaí connected their setup to wedding scenes she had seen while visiting her grandparents in Guatemala and included a diadem given to her by her grandmother.

The students selected the black backdrop so that Adriana’s figure could stand out and the colors would not clash. Anyeli, for her part, wished to include the flowers as she believed they would make her mother happy.

As Adriana, Anai, and Anyeli’s collaboration revealed, students incorporated the lessons of color and contrast in their portraits. Lucía, likewise, was attentive to the dark background and the compositional opportunities it offered. In posing the brightly dressed Ariana against a black backdrop, Lucía also explored the relationship between different fabrics as part of the portrait. 

For Simon, color was quite important. He was drawn to the fish “because its head was blue” and matched his sweater. He and Mia collaborated to make a series of portraits that incorporated the fish. For Simon, posing for a portrait of in such a formal way was a new experience. Both Mia and Simon were excited to be behind the camera and in front of it. They were conscious of how they posed and gave thought to the elements that they chose for each of their compositions.

Playing with Patterns by Simon

Mia and Simon worked together during the two in-person sessions at the conclusion of the workshops. Like their classmates, Mia expressed her preference for the in-person work, which allowed her and her classmates to test out Hasbun’s virtual lessons “and enjoy themselves with art.”

Here, we can see that during those in-person sessions, Mia and Simon experimented with different patterns and paid attention to both their own attire and the materials that were made available to them for the workshops. At right, for instance, Mia’s flower-patterned mask seems to blend into the tapestry behind her. Furthermore, in working with photography, they expanded their artistic practice beyond drawing and painting.

As the students incorporated the lessons into their work, they were excited to see what the results would be. Over the course of the sessions, they became keenly aware of the importance of collaboration in the artist and sitter’s relationship. In making this portrait, Jason (the photographer) and Christopher (the sitter) discussed how they needed to “trust” one another as they worked together.

About the Artist

Muriel Hasbun, who was born in El Salvador to French / Polish Jewish and Salvadoran / Palestinian Christian parents, has developed an artistic practice that focuses on memory and identity as she explores the individual and collective impact of war, migration, and other experiences across generations. Delving into family histories, Hasbun incorporates archives, family photographs, and mementos. Through interactive installations and workshops, she creates spaces of cultural affirmation and self-representation with Salvadoran and other immigrant communities to examine the role of memory and trauma transnationally. A recipient of numerous awards, Hasbun has been based in the Washington, D.C., area since 1980. She is professor emerita and was the chair of the photography department at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design / George Washington University. She is the founder of laberinto projects, an arts education platform that fosters art practices, arts education, legacy preservation, social inclusion, and dialogue in El Salvador, Central America, and its U.S. diaspora. Her works are in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, El Museo del Barrio, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.


We are grateful to the students, their caregivers, and Rebecca Lehr for their commitment and generosity throughout this project. We also thank Escuela Key Elementary’s administration for opening its virtual and physical doors so that these workshops could take place.

This project received federal support from the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.