Four girls from Brookland Middle School in Northeast Washington, D.C. spent one of the coldest days of 2018 making minor adjustments to an upcoming photography exhibition that they curated, using images they and their fellow students shot, which offer an alternate view of city living.
“Everyday DC” opened Jan. 9 at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in Northwest D.C. and features photographs from 117 middle school students attending the District of Columbia Public Schools.
At the second-annual exhibit patrons can see photographs of people waiting for the Metro, a girl standing in an overpass that crosses an expressway in Southeast D.C., as well as Union Jacks surrounding a silhouetted woman wearing an afro. A view of the Washington Monument as seen from the Adams Morgan neighborhood is also on display.
In essence, the exhibit bypasses the political theater that has gripped the city and become a media mainstay.
“There’s more to D.C. than big buildings and important people and monuments and stuff,” Lauryn Tharpe, another eighth grader at the middle school, told reporters.
The project began with visual arts teachers from 12 middle schools who taught a photojournalism unit, which was designed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit that awards international reporting grants to journalists and devises educational programming for schools.
The Everyday Africa Instagram account offers another perspective of Africa through the eyes of roughly 30 photographers living on the continent. It inspired “Everyday DC,” said Fareed Mostoufi, the Pulitzer Center’s senior education manager— Pulitzer Center grantees Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill founded @everydayafrica.
Those photographs push back against stereotypes of Africa by showing Africans, people going about their lives, in a dignified way, whether they’re slow dancing, eating, attending church, braiding hair and much more.
The two-month Everyday DC unit, funded in part by the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, asked students to create a visual narrative of daily life in all four quadrants of D.C. Teachers launched the unit by asking students about their impressions of Africa, how the media depicts it, then reviewing @everydayafrica to see whether the photographs mirror their thoughts and the media representation.
After that, the students reviewed news clips and images about the District to see how the city is depicted in contrast with how they experience D.C. They saw images of D.C. and had to guess if they were taken here or elsewhere.
As a result, students’ opinions on Africa and the District evolved.
“It’s not that much different from where we are, but it’s just in a different part of the world,” Brookland eighth grader Alexis Thomas said of Africa.
The next things students studied were photography’s artistic and technical elements — in Brookland Middle School’s case, they also studied legendary photographer Gordon Parks’ work — took digital cameras out in the field to practice their photography skills, and when it was time to shoot pictures for the exhibit, they used their camera phones. The Everyday Africa founders assisted students as well.
The Brookland eighth graders curated the exhibit with help from Betsy Johnson, a curatorial assistant from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Under her tutelage, the girls learned how to arrange the 126 photographs into a cohesive story. The girls picked the 10 photographs that would represent Brookland, wrote up the exhibit’s introductory text and arranged all of the photographs into various themes including bricks, nature, color and people.
“The small things in pictures can matter,” Tharpe said. “So the process was kind of fun but hard at the same time figuring out, OK what pictures are going to go together? How do they tie together? What are they explaining about Everyday DC?”
The 2018 exhibit is larger in scope than last year’s, which featured 80 students from seven middle schools.
Thomas hopes the free exhibit inspires visitors to take more pictures. The girls said people should come to support the students and see D.C. youth in another light.
“We worked hard for this and we took our time taking pictures and placing them,” said Bridney Takoh, a student curator and exhibitor from Brookland Middle School. “And it looks good.”
“Everyday DC” runs through Jan. 26. at the Pepco Edison Gallery.