Vermont Arts Council

It’s About Family

Michelle Saffran makes photo-based art. Often, she blends more than one image; sometimes she manipulates, alters, or defaces photographs. Michelle does not always work in portraits, but she has proven herself to be the right artist for making pictures of students and families at the Integrated Arts Academy (IAA) in Burlington. The images from the K-5 school are fun and forthright. They are unaltered and shine with love.

Michelle was hired four years ago to photograph all of the students as part of a residency examining race. Pictures were made of each student wearing “literally the same t-shirt.” The shirt, Michelle explained, “leveled the identities, you couldn’t get extra information from the clothes.” That project was designed to point out similarities in people. When IAA asked her back in 2017 for the Family Portrait Project, the focus was individuality. This time a chair and the lighting were constant; families were the variable.

First: What is a Portrait?

Before the family pictures were taken, students learned about photography, exploring different types of portraits and talking about lighting. They considered composition: How could the angle of view be altered? What about taking the shot from above the subject?

Michelle saw students gain a broader concept of what makes a good portrait. She perceived students beginning to “understand that you didn’t necessarily have to smile — that creating a portrait of someone goes a little bit deeper than having someone stand there and smile.” Students started to see that a successful portrait reflects personality and experience. Michelle used the word “genuine-ness” and reflected on her own work. “In my own portraiture, that’s what I’m looking for. Maybe a softness to the eyes, or a spontaneous sort of expression. Something that not only portrays some aspect of the person, but the strength of the person.”

And What is a Family?

The IAA celebrates the vibrancy and diversity of community; these concepts are central to learning. The administration offered: “We care deeply that all of our students and families feel welcome at IAA … When all families feel welcome, children aren’t singled out, excluded, or bullied because their family is ‘different.’ When children experience being an integral part of a school and classroom community, they perform better and contribute in positive ways. We believe that students can only achieve academic success when they work together in a safe and caring environment.”

Participants in the school-wide portrait project read and responded in writing to Todd Parr’s “The Family Book,” a colorful volume explaining, “Some families have two moms or two dads,” and “Some families have one parent instead of two.”

The PromptThe Family Book, Todd Parr

Teachers directed, “You are going to write a paragraph that introduces your family to the rest of the IAA Community. You are going to include information on all the seven ideas that you see below, but don’t stop there! SAY MORE! Include details that will really help us to know your family.

I have a family. So do you. So does everyone.

My family includes … We are from…  Something special we do together is… A special food we eat is… One word that describes my family is… A special celebration or tradition for my family is… We help each other when we…”

The Magic

The responses ranged from charming: “My baby brother is the best brother you could have for now. I don’t know how he will be later,” to strict reporting out: “My mom eats Kim Che but I don’t,” and descriptions of telling conversation: “Right now my dad is in Africa and he’s coming back soon and when he does, he’s not going back. That’s what my mom says.” For Michelle, the beauty of the project emerged as the images came to life. “It became really clear to me as I was working, there’s  a lot of trust.” She began to sense the work “seemed to capture something beyond a studio portrait,” and recalls, “All the families touched me in their own way. I was particularly touched when a family came dressed up; it made me think that having a portrait made of their family was serious and important to them. One family had never had a picture of them all together before. They were crying — it meant so much to them.”

Forty-eight of the portraits with writing are on display at the Arts Council through Art Walk on December 1. The pictures will then be returned to the families.

more about the project

more about Michelle Saffran

Susan McDowell

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