Monday, April 7, 2003

Students expose joys of cameras

By Maggie Downs
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Everyone is equal in the darkroom. That's just one of the discoveries made by Cincinnati Country Day senior Jessica Greenberg. The Symmes Township teenager is part of a project that brings together student photographers from across the country to literally take a snapshot of young life.

Sharon O'Hara of Princeton High School took this shot. The assignment: Photograph what it is like to be a teenager today in a way that is personal and insightful.
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Greenberg is one of 60 photography and art history students participating in "Focus: An American Teenage Vision," a joint creation of Cincinnati Country Day in Indian Hill and Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y.

Last fall, the two schools rounded up five others - public and private schools - from New York to California to participate in the program.

Each artist brings to the project a backpack of varied experiences, in addition to a love for photography. The group differs by race, class and culture, but is united by a common goal - to find the perfect shot.

"It was fun to have a camera around your neck and not feel out of place, because everyone was doing the same thing," said Greenberg, 17.

"Boy" was taken by Lee Isaacsohn of Cincinnati Country Day.
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These are students who care as much about typical teen issues as they do aperture settings. And in doing "Focus," they discovered a group of intellectual peers.

"Sometimes artists and photographers can be on the fringe of society," said Kelly Hammond, Country Day humanities teacher and Web master for the project. "Here they found a community."

The photographs are intimate and telling: The pregnant belly of a relative. A bottle of vodka on a bedroom dresser. Two friends whispering.

"It's not unusual to see some of these things in photographs," Hammond said. "But to see that the problems of teenage existence don't know any barriers is pretty surprising.

"This truly bridges class, age, ethnicity and regions of the country."

Students have been meeting to critique each other's work through periodic video conferences, weekly online chats and during workshops.

  Focus: An American Teenage Vision brings together advanced photography and art history students from seven rural, suburban and urban high schools to document teen-age issues of cultural, regional and national identity.
• The Ross School, East Hampton, N.Y. (private co-ed)
• Cincinnati Country Day School, Indian Hill (private co-ed)
• Latin School of Chicago, Chicago (private co-ed)
• Marlborough School, Los Angeles (private girls' school)
• Nevada Union High School, Grass Valley, Calif. (public)
• Princeton High School, Sharonville (public)
• Randolph High School, Randolph Township, N.J. (public)
  Students are working on a book that will include their work as well as essays, poetry and artists' statements. They are also planning a traveling exhibit.
The students' photos will eventually become a traveling exhibit for schools and public spaces across the country. One stop might be the renovated Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center, downtown, which has shown interest in the project.

Images can also be viewed online at the student-created Web site (, which also includes the "Dark Room," a virtual discussion to critique selected student work.

"It'll inspire teens and grown-ups," said Country Day sophomore Virginia Hoffman of Indian Hill. "Maybe then other kids in other places can do the same thing."

The culmination of Focus will be a book of photographs and essays. Proceeds from the book's sales will go to teen charities.

"I think people will be surprised by what they see," said Princeton High School senior Lauren Seppelt of Sycamore Township. "It's our way of showing that teens really care about the world."

The project has been advantageous for the students in a number of ways. For one, the students will emerge with a portfolio of images to prepare them for their college and professional experience.

Students from Cincinnati Country Day and Princeton gather for a video conference with a high school in New York to talk about the project.
(Tony Jones photo)
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This extracurricular activity supplements other schoolwork, since the students have written poignant artists' statements, essays and some poetry to accompany the images.

"We're getting more work out of them than most classes ever could," Hammond said.

It has also forced the students to deal with professional criticism, as Mary Ellen Mark, a nationally known documentary photographer, individually reviewed their work during a February workshop.

Most of all, it has given these artists a sense of community, even if people from that community live eight states away.

"You can really see, as these kids come together, very different lifestyles," said Anna Binkley, exhibition coordinator from Country Day. "This opens their world to a much wider scope. And then it unites them."

The project has already surpassed the original expectations - "We thought the workshop would be it," Hammond said.

Now it's expected to last for at least three years. Graduating seniors have already volunteered to come back next year to help younger students who are just starting in "Focus.'' "For doing some very solitary work, this has been such a bonding experience," Binkley said.


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