Photography program encourages local students to savor ‘The View From Here’

Sarah Onyinyechukwu Okeke has a passion for photography and a keen understanding of how a photograph can connect people.

The thing about photography that I particularly love is being able to capture a moment and then other people being able to feel exactly what you felt when you took the picture,” said Okeke, a first-year student at Southern Connecticut State University.

Last year, while a senior at Achievement First Amistad High School in New Haven, Okeke participated in The View From Here: Accessing Art Through Photography, an inaugural four-month photography program offered by the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) and the Lens Media Lab at the university’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH).

Sarah Onyinyechukwu Okeke photographing a room
Sarah Onyinyechukwu Okeke

The course, which was taught entirely online due to the pandemic, aimed to deepen the students’ engagement with photography by connecting lessons about the history, methods, science, and artistic possibilities of the medium with the development of an artistic practice. It was initiated by Martina Droth, deputy director and chief curator at the YCBA, and Paul Messier, the Pritzker Director of the Lens Media Lab, a cutting-edge research facility at Yale’s West Campus focused on the preservation and interpretation of 20th-century photographs.

The two hatched the idea for the program while working on an exhibition and book examining how photography and the political and cultural circumstances of picture-making during World War II brought together German-born artist Bill Brandt and British artist Henry Moore. They were inspired by the Studio Museum in Harlem’s longstanding Expanding the Walls program, which connects high school students with art professionals to learn about photography and explore issues of culture, community, and history.

Collage of works from "The View From Here" exhibition

Martina and I were aware of the power of photography to connect people, whether through the popular press of the 1940s or through the lens of a smartphone,” Messier said. “We saw The View From Here both as a way for us to engage in contemporary visual culture and to empower local students to think about photography critically and intentionally within that culture. Plus, we were fed up with the isolation of the pandemic and looking for a new platform to connect and engage with the community.”

High school students and first-year college students from the greater New Haven area were invited to apply to the program. Twelve students, including Okeke, were selected from a large pool of applicants.

An interdisciplinary team of YCBA photographers, educators, curators, scientists, and art conservators taught the course, providing the students professional critique and mentorship. Primarily using their smartphone cameras, the students created images — ranging from landscapes and cityscapes to portraits — that offer a unique view of individual experience while also weaving together a story of collective isolation during the pandemic.

Selections of their work were projected through the YCBA’s windows on High Street from sunset to midnight each evening from Aug. 16 through Oct. 10, 2021. The students also had an opportunity to meet their instructors, and each other, in person during an opening event for the outdoor exhibit.

People viewing the exhibition projections outside of the Yale Center for British Art

The exhibition is now on display in the Yale West Campus Conference Center and an opening reception is being planned. It is also presented on the YCBA’s website, where personal statements written by the students are exhibited with their photographs, speaking to community, family, and a shared sense of space.

I hope the students will take away from this course a sense of self confidence in their own artistic abilities, their own artistic discernment,” Droth said. “I know from conversations that I’ve had with some of the students that they see photography differently now.”

For her part, Okeke called her experience in the program and the opportunity to see her work projected onto the YCBA’s building “life-changing.”

In all honesty, it did change my life,” she said. “To think that … somebody from New Haven, somebody who goes to a charter school down the street has the ability to have their pictures [projected] on the building, it’s a very emotional feeling. It makes me happy. It makes me proud. And it makes me feel accomplished.”

People viewing exhibition projections outside the Yale Center for British Art

This year, the course will be held in person at the YCBA and Lens Media Lab from Sept. 15 through Dec. 15. Visit the YCBA’s website to apply. The application deadline is April 2.

The other students in the program’s first cohort were Mason Detrani of Hamden High School; Julie Hajducky of Achievement First Amistad High School; Luke Izzo of New Haven Academy; Tyler Mitchell of Wilbur Cross High School; Shakshi Patel of High School in the Community; Emily Pruitt of West Haven High School; Jazlyn Rivera of Hill Regional Career High School; Maryam Shabazz of Engineering and Science University Magnet School; Laila Smith of New Haven Academy; Kierstin Turnbull of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School; and Jessica Weber of Gateway Community College.

Droth and Messier developed, organized, and taught the program with James Vanderberg, educator for high school, college, university, and community outreach at the YCBA; Robert Hixon, senior imaging systems specialist at the YCBA; and YCBA photographers Richard Caspole and Bernie Staggers.

The exhibition was developed by the program organizers and Dylan Vitale, a museum technician. Graphic design was provided by Melissa Leone B.A. ‘21 and projection design by Christopher Evans ’20 M.F.A.

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