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Project X: Photographic Growth Spurt

By Ellen Wallenstein


PHOTO © QUELA JULES
NEW PERSPECTIVES ON ART: An abstract home interior by Boston Arts Academy student Quela Jules.


Boston-Area High School Students Get Professional Guidance and a Museum Exhibit

Consider the idea of local high school students having the opportunity to discuss their photos with a world-class curator who selects their images for museum display.

For the past six years in Massachusetts, two different Boston-area public high schools have accomplished just that, joining together as a community to create Photosynthesis, an annual exhibition presented each May at Winchester’s Griffin Museum of Photography.

Photosynthesis was the 2005 brainchild of teachers Dave Ardito of suburban Winchester High School, located ten miles north of Boston, and Guy Michel Telemaque, of Boston Arts Academy, an urban visual and performing arts high school. This ambitious educational initiative—in which professional photographers, curators, students and teachers are united in their passion for photography—opens eyes and pushes some literal boundaries.

Telemaque and Winchester High School’s Robert Gillis, have developed a close working relationship and share a deep commitment to their students and the program.

Their two classes are assigned to create a series of images connected by a common subject, theme and/or visual element that possesses significant personal meaning. Although the teenagers come from different demographic backgrounds, they share similar concerns. They all make images in places that are personally meaningful and often use themselves, friends and family members as subjects.
 
Photosynthesis students work on individual photo projects in their own neighborhoods during the school year. They visit each other’s schools, taking part in inspiring presentations by well-known Boston-area photographers who talk about the process behind creating a body of work.

At the end of the year, students from both schools share the privilege of sitting down for a short critique with Dr. Alison Nordström, photography curator and director of exhibitions at the George Eastman House. Nordström talks to each student individually and selects three to four images that best represent what each photographer is trying to do. She picks images that work well as a group and discusses how the work will be displayed in exhibition. She also suggests references to professional photographers the students should know about. While she meets with individual students, the others interact to discuss their images and chat with invited guests from the Boston photo community.    

For Nordström, who has always worked in the public sector, this exhibition is her favorite event of the year, every year. Impressed by “the enthusiasm both on the part of the students and the adults who have the privilege to be involved,” she appreciates the fresh viewpoint and innocence of the students’ work. “They are not taught to be careerists yet, so it is pure photographic impulse.” The exhibition Nordström curates owes its existence to the advocacy and facilitation of the Griffin Museum staff, directed by Paula Tognarelli. They write the grants, contact mentors, do the press releases and public relations, mat, frame and hang the images, produce signage and host the reception. Funding for this program is generously provided by the Griffin (no relation) and the John and Mary Murphy Foundations of Winchester.

All the teachers involved in the program are extremely enthusiastic. Gillis notes, “The pride and self-esteem that this project generates for the students involved is fantastic. There is no doubt it has created a sense of goodwill and community between the two schools and the museum.”

Yet the most valuable insights come direct from the students. My experience with Photosynthesis and the Griffin Museum was one that I’ll never forget,” says Quela Jules, a member of the Boston Arts Academy class of 2011. “Not because it opened my eyes to participating in the world of art exhibitions outside my school’s walls but because I know there was the strong element of reaching a new kind of audience. What first seemed like a displacement of my work, portraying racial matters and abstract ideas, soon proved to be beneficial as I watched an older, whiter audience digest it. I felt respected as an urban artist outside the city and as a young artist among adults.”

ABOVE: Dr. Alison Nordström reviews student images to curate the Photosynthesis exhibit.                               © Frances Jakubek/Griffin Museum of Photography                                                                       

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PDN July 2014

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