MAPLEWOOD, NJ — History shows that photography has the ability to change hearts and minds, to make a deep and lasting impression. Some photographs have become icons for whole periods of history, such as the “Migrant Mother, taken by Dorothea Lange, which shows the privation of the Great Depression.
Approximately 30 photography students at Columbia High School are now leaving their mark in a similar way with their current project, “We The People.” This special exhibition, which will be on display at CHS’ Domareki Gallery throughout May, with an opening reception on Friday, May 4, at 11:30 a.m., features large photographic portraits of students expressing various emotions. This exhibit is falling in line with the #Enough movement, a nationwide call from students for stricter gun laws so that they can feel safe in school. This movement has grown after the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 students and teachers dead.
“This project is about demanding gun safety in schools,” CHS photography teacher Jon Fisher told The Villager while walking through his classroom assisting his students on April 20. “This is about rights. There is this controversy about the Constitution and the amendments. We called it ‘We The People’ because we want to show who we are, the faces of the kids.”
For the exhibit, each of the participating photographers, who come from three of Fisher’s classes, has been tasked with taking professional studio portraits of their peers in four poses: looking straight at the camera, looking upward toward the sky or the heavens, eyes closed in solemnity and displaying joy through laughter.
“The last one is supposed to be upbeat, to show our humanity, to show who we really are,” Fisher said, explaining that each wall of the gallery will be dedicated to one of the four criteria, so that one wall is staring straight at the viewer and one wall is entirely looking upward. There will be approximately 120 portraits on the walls.
Additionally, the gallery will have props to make it look similar to a memorial site and visitors will be asked to leave notes about their experience in the gallery and their feelings regarding school safety. But the focus will remain on the photos, which, though they are of CHS students, are meant to be reminiscent of their peers across the nation who have been killed in gun violence.
“I want every image not just to be a headshot, but to be unique,” Fisher said, adding that he pushes his students to take many photos in order to find the one that looks best and truly brings across the emotion. “You shoot 100 images just to get the one.”
While the students are expressing themselves and their opinions, Fisher has also crafted the exhibit to hone their photography skills. Each photo shoot takes place in his CHS studio, where students learn photographic techniques and how to “use light as a form of expression.”
Fisher is very hands-on in the editing and processing phases of the project. He looks at all photographs taken by the students and helps them select the ones that are among their best and most expressive.
“Sometimes I see things that just don’t register for them; I open up their eyes to what I’m looking for,” Fisher said, while working with senior Malikah Shillingford. “She has some favorites and I love it when we both agree on a selection, but I also love it when I find something that they missed.”
According to junior Max Edwards, the project has helped him become a better photographer and has helped him to break out of his shell.
“We started it after the Florida shooting happened. We are trying to catch all the faces,” Edwards said. “Now I’m asking people if I can do pictures of them, so it’s helped me.”
This project has taught junior Eliot Dix how to get the most out of his photography subjects.
“We’re trying to evoke different emotions by using physical and verbal cues,” Dix said. “We’re getting their personal emotions about the topic.”
According to junior Isa Rivera, this project is a way of being in the now and really exploring the complexities of people and their emotions.
“It’s about the expression and feelings of human faces and capturing the real moments,” Rivera said.
The exhibit is also a comment on social media and how people choose to portray themselves, Shillingford said.
“It’s just about showing different kinds of students, the differences in their facial expressions, how we portray ourselves on our profiles,” she said. “It just shows the people of society.”
According to senior Gabe Berman, though the exhibit deals with the issue of gun violence, he also sees a positive aspect to the project, reaffirming that all life matters.
“It’s just expressing that the whole epidemic of school shootings is more than tragedy,” Bergman said. “It’s about shining a light on the people and their lives, not just their deaths and the tragedy of it.”
Senior Sabine Wancique agrees that this project brings a positive look to this dark topic.
“It’s not just about gun violence, but about the people themselves,” Wancique said. “Everyone has a different personality and brings something different into the world. Everyone has a purpose and when you kill them, you take that purpose from the world.”
Color photos by Yael Katzwer; black and white photo courtesy of Jon Fisher