A few years ago as part of a school-wide walk around the building, I found myself staring at the portraits of past students. (In case you didn’t know, I’m also a high school English teacher.) I asked myself, “What does it take to get your photo on the wall here?” The answer became clear. To be designated the Outstanding Graduate, you almost always had to be white. If you were a student of color, excelling at a sport was the only way to have your photo hang for posterity. If you had special needs or unique interests and talents beyond the classroom or athletic field, then you’d have trouble finding representation anywhere.
That pattern troubled me. But I didn’t really know what to do about it. I was just one teacher, and those decisions weren’t mine anyway. So what could I do to help? What could I do to foster more equitable representation, especially considering the massive demographic changes Westerville had seen in the last decade or two?
With those questions on my mind, I began searching for answers. I came upon an article in The New York Times about a town in Georgia that seemed to feel a similar demographic change, and resulting tension, that we seem to feel here in Westerville. You can find the article here. Essentially, a photographer created building-sized portraits to portray the changing demographics of the town. The portraits were hung on the sides of buildings so that the citizens could not look away from the faces, new and old, of the town.
I thought to myself, “Why not do something similar here?” Then Covid shut everything down, but I kept this idea on the back burner, waiting for the right time to make it happen.
The Project Gets the Green Light
At the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year, I mentioned the project to one of our new administrators, and she said, “Make it happen.” So we did.
The images you see here are the first installment of what we are calling We Are Warriors. The mix of photos accurately represents the racial, gender, and age breakdown of the students at North.
When the students sat for their portraits, so many said that they had never looked that good in a photo. Ever. One said how much of a confidence boost the entire project was for him. Another said that she had never had a photo of herself that she liked until this project.
With such a diverse group of students, one of the worries that some of the students with darker complexions mentioned was that I wouldn’t be able to photograph them well. They said that they had too many past experiences where they just looked too dark because the photographers could only seem to photograph those with lighter skin. I told them, “Don’t worry. I know exactly how to photograph you.” The results speak for themselves.
The Impact of Representation
The portraits are displayed along Locker Street, the main thoroughfare at school, with this description:
“At Westerville North, we believe our diversity is our strength. We Are Warriors is an on-going portrait project to show the dignity, beauty, and value of all of our students. The portraits you see along Locker Street represent who we are. The portraits show North in all of its beautiful color, culture, heritage, ability, and more. This project is about being seen. We want all Warriors of the past, present, and future to see themselves in these portraits. As the project continues, we know you’ll see yourself and trust you’ll agree that every single person at Westerville North has dignity, beauty, and value. We Are Warriors.”
Each portrait is poster-sized. The impact is undeniable.
What’s especially impressive is that despite having no protective surface or frame, the posters have remained pristine since their installation in April. The students see the importance and impact of such representation, and they respect the goal of the project.
As the years go by, we will fill the remaining lockers and then replace the photos of graduates with current students.
Here is an article published on the school district website about We Are Warriors. You just have to see the photo included for one of the best reactions you will ever see. You'll also see an example of just how big each print is displayed.
Portraits With Meaning
I have always strived for representation and social justice in my work. Whether it was my response to George Floyd’s death with my Black Lives Matter project in the summer of 2020 or my Be a Man project to examine our definitions of masculinity in 2021, I want my work to shed light on important issues and ideas.
I also want my everyday portrait work to be full of the wonderful colors, shapes, and sizes that we see everyday. I am grateful to have such an impact on my community. I hope that my work has had a positive impact on you, too.
If it has, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know the impact my photography has had on you.
Oh, and one more thing: remember when I said earlier that the typical Outstanding Graduate has almost always been white? The Outstanding Graduate for 2021-2022 is in this blog. Scroll up and find the young woman in orange. That’s Grace, and she’s our Outstanding Graduate. She’s an amazing student with a bright future. She’s a rapper and musician as well as a certified medical assistant thanks to her hard work at Fort Hayes Career Center. Look for amazing things from this year’s Outstanding Graduate!