Friday, December 18, 2009

This Week in Being We, The People

If you've been following our blog you know that the National Constitution Center has been developing a photo exhibition in conjunction with students in Philadelphia and students in Kabul, Afghanistan. The students were given cameras and told to take pictures that portrayed 6 themes: participation, expression, myself, commerce, work, religion.

Since this summer students on both sides of the world walked the streets of their respective cities and clicked away. The Afghan students captured compelling images of the elections on August 20th, while in America students took stunning pictures of protests, as well as their homes, families, and places of worship. Each week a selection of photographs was uploaded to the shutterfly site, where everyone involved with the project could look at the pictures and exchange comments as the exhibition began to take shape in real time. This week, the leg work is finally done. The photos are uploaded and the foundation is laid for the next phase of this captivating photo discourse.

It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and ten National Constitution Center staff members are finding this to be true. Charged with helping the students write narratives about each photograph they wish to submit to the jury, NCC staff are trying to find those "thousand words." NCC staff have been working one-on-one with the student photographers to help them find their voice and recount the alternately heartbreaking, uplifting, and banal narratives that express the students' lives and explain their pictures.

Staff from different museum departments have lobbied and worked to participate in the project and come from a range of positions including HR, facility rentals, PR, education, and programming. Each shares a uniform desire - to be a part of something that reaches far beyond the walls of the museum in which they work every day, and indeed, all the way to Afghanistan, where students in Kabul are doing the same thing, and where the exhibit being produced will also be displayed.

Walking through the office at 3:15 pm, one can observe Karen Fink, Director of HR at the NCC, and an army veteran, discussing photographs with a student who aspires to join the military.

Or listen in on Sayeh Hormozi, Program Manager for PennCORD, as she hears the riveting story of the young man with whom she works. "It's incredible how a simple photograph of a man holding a baby is so much more than that when you listen to the lives these students have led. In moments, the innocuous man becomes a villain and the baby a beacon of hope," she said after one such session.

In reflecting on his time with his student partner, Hugh Allen, the Center's Vice President of Government Relations, observed that "her narratives always enthrall the reader in the photo while also opening up a window into what drives her to achieve - things like her faith, friends and family. Tying her beliefs to her photography almost seems instinctive."

The experiences of Jeff Stern, International Engagement Manager for the Center, have been no different. His student, an immigrant from Africa, is taking pictures as an American student. "For our purposes, she's categorized as one of the Philadelphia kids, but really she's experienced things--civil war, life as a refugee, and confusion about the conflicting roles religion can play in a young person's life--that resonates with the stories coming from the students in Afghanistan," he said.

As the quest to fully develop this international conversation through images continues, one thing is certain. As these photographs have brought students from different corners of the world together, they have also engaged the staff that works with them. The stories of these students share a universal appeal and poignancy with which everyone, regardless of department, seniority, or background can identify.

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