What happens when about 60 students and faculty from a Park Slope middle school hop in a photobooth that’s built into a truck, make silly faces, and print them out on 3- by 4-foot sheets of paper? You can see for yourself right now at MS 51 on 5th Avenue, where the Inside Out Project teamed up with the school’s photography department on the very first Back2School version of the large-scale, international project.
That the Inside Out Project, which was started by French artist JR as a way to reveal and share untold stories and images of people around the world (and which has been spotted in the neighborhood before), chose MS 51 as its first school to work with is a pretty amazing coincidence, as photography teacher Amy Flatow has been integrating JR’s work into her curriculum there since 2011.
“The project is all about connecting communities, and I’ve found it incredibly inspiring,” Amy says. “And watching his TED Talk, seeing that anyone in the world could participate — that was moving to the kids. Having been familiar with his work, I jumped on the opportunity and asked the principal, and everyone was super responsive.”
The Inside Out Project decided to work with schools for some pretty logical reasons — they had an awesome photobooth truck sitting around, which they’d used for their Times Square project, and kids are really fun to work with.
“Our team wanted to take advantage of the photobooth truck we have here in the city and engage some of the local students in the project,” says Rhea Keller of the Inside Out Project team. “We love working with kids and getting out of the office, so bringing the project to the streets to schools is a perfect match.”
The truck, which is a a fully functioning photobooth with a small space in the back where the pictures are taken, was set up during lunch one day earlier this week, and 6th, 7th, and 8th grade photography students waited to participate.
“It was a pretty long line, but they were excited to to stand on it!” Amy says.
After the photos are taken, the large portrait is printed out the side of the truck and is ready for pasting, in this case to the walls of the school. The Inside Out Project teams says it’s always entertaining to watch the reaction of the kids when they see their friends’ portraits come out on paper that’s often bigger than them.
“The best part is always seeing the faces the kids make in the booth when the curtain is closed. We had a lot of playful portraits that made for a colorful installation, even though the posters are printed in black and white,” Rhea says. “It was great to see them connect the dots and have a hands on experience in their own community.”
“I like that part of project and his work is about making a commitment through facial expressions,” Amy says. “By showing a face, not necessarily a smile — it’s these in-between moments that are more interesting. It’s showing lighthearted silliness and diversity.”
And it’s not just students — the principal, other staff, and even Amy are up there (you can see Amy on the 4th Street wall, tope row, fifth photo in, sticking her tongue out: “I look like one of the students, though,” she jokes ).
“It can be daunting to have your face printed on 3- by 4-foot panel,” Amy adds. “But it was a nice group.”
While those in the photos enjoyed the process, people passing by have also been enthralled by the giant images, and while they were going up, many engaged with the group.
“They stop and wonder what is going on, and after a little explanation, stories of the neighborhood start to come out,” Rhea says. “We heard about the history of the school and the community, which is a rare treat from the true locals. That’s where the inspiration of the project really comes alive.”
“The reactions have been great,” Amy says. “A teacher saw a man she didn’t know take a minute to stop and closely examine each picture, chuckle a bit, and then walk away.”
What they’re seeing in these dozens of photos is a range of people — different ages, different races, all kinds of different backgrounds — which is part of the beauty of the project, and part of what drew Amy to it in the first place.
“As a New York City public school teacher who’s taught elsewhere in the city, MS 51 is the most diverse socio-economic, religious, and ethnic, environment that I’ve worked in, and that’s reflected in this project,” says Amy, who’s been at the school for five years, and has been teaching in NYC for 10. “We have kids from so many different neighborhoods, not just Park Slope, so you get a sense of the diversity in the school. In classroom I often remind them to look at all the faces, to notice how different they are. That’s an amazing thing. Not everybody gets to experience that. And it’s almost taken for granted because they’re so used to it, and it’s nice to celebrate it in this way.”
Students in her photography program start out on analog equipment in the 6th grade, shooting on and developing film and processing photos on darkroom equipment, because despite the ubiquity of digital cameras these days, Amy believes it’s important for kids to see photography as art, that it’s “more than just hitting a button.” In later grades they do move on to a digital lab, which, when Amy started, had no computers. Now they’ve got 33, with a goal of 35, so that each student will have one to work on.
The program has already had an impact on some of her first students, who are now in high school. Amy recently ran into a former student who’s now in the 11th grade, who said she’s currently doing an internship where the lessons she learned in photography have proven to be an incredibly helpful base.
“They’re taking these skills and applying them to whatever their interests are — web developing, art, etc.,” Amy says.
As for her current students, they’ll get to enjoy seeing their faces up on the walls of their school for probably about a year, as the project is meant to be semi-permanent.
“Having it up and seeing it change becomes a part of the process — it’s active cycling, rather than static,” Amy explains. “Who knows, maybe my kids will photograph that over time!”
Even before they start documenting the project’s changes, though, the students are already getting a lot out of it, from being a part of something that’s taking place on just about every corner of the world.
“After focusing on the technical element, seeing the creative component, they’re realizing it’s more than just about them, more than about diversity — it’s about New York City, the United States, and it goes on internationally,” Amy says. “Being a part of a project with such a scope is part of the lore of being included in the launch of it.”
To see the work of the students in the photography program at MS 51, check out their website, and to help them raise money to reach their goal of 35 computers in the classroom, make a donation online. And if you know a school that might like to participate in the Inside Out Back2School project, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos besides lead courtesy of Max Flatow.