'Through the Lens' focuses on the messages of middle school students

PITTSFIELD — After being inspired by narrative photography portrait projects like Robert X. Fogarty's "Dear World," and Brandon Stanton's "Humans of New York," Miss Hall's School seniors Gabriela Keator and Mikala L'Hote developed their own project, putting the focus on local middle school students.

"Through the Lens" opens in the Crane Room of the Berkshire Museum on Wednesday, with a public closing celebration and reception to be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, May 12. The exhibit is the high schoolers' collaborative senior project that ties in with their internships; Keator has been based at Berkshire Children and Families and L'Hote at Berkshire Museum.

The installation consists of 28 larger format framed black and white portraits, as well as some smaller black-and-white and color photos from behind the scenes of the photo shoots done at the city's Herberg and Reid middle schools.

In signature tribute to the Dear World project, L'Hote worked with some creative middle school students to paint a personal message from each subject onto that person's arms and hands, generating a thought-provoking image with its own distinctive meaning.

"Some of the phrases the students came up with were really deep, and once I learned the story behind it, it really changed the phrase or word's meaning for me," said L'Hote, who also grew up and attended public schools in Pittsfield.

Working in such proximity with their younger counterparts reminded the high school students of their own experiences.

"It's been really powerful," said Keator, who grew up in Lenox. "I remember how when I was in middle school, all I wanted was to be taken seriously, especially by my older peers. It was important for us to come in and not tell them what to do. We wanted for them to know that we're really interested in what you have to say and we really want to listen."

By sharing the students' images and words with the community, the Miss Hall's students say they hope visitors can find a way to relate to the perspective of what L'Hote describes as an "untapped" but insightful population.

"Even with this age demographic, it's amazing what they've experienced," said L'Hote, "But no one really listens to what middle schoolers have to say."

Though they may be familiar to family and friends, the students in the portraits and their stories will be attributed to their initials or self-generated pen names, but each photograph will be accompanied with a little more detail about the message they chose.

"For me personally it is difficult to sort out all of the things that people are constantly telling me or asking of me. My message is simple, and makes life easier, "Be You,"" writes Cameron B.

Another student, Yael S., writes, "As a competitive swimmer, I am constantly looking for ways to beat my time. I guess that is true in everything we do in life. "It's a race against the clock" and that motivates me to do my best and always go the extra effort."

"I felt happy being able to share a part of myself that not a lot of people see," said Samantha B.

The portraits and stories were curated with parental permission. Printing costs were subsidized by Pittsfield's own Aldam Press Inc., allowing for Keator and L'Hote to use their Berkshire Children and Families project grant to buy smaller prints for each student who participated.

Erin Sullivan, Berkshire Children and Families' director of external affairs, said the project was a natural fit for the agency to support.

"Our folks are doing some great things and really trying to bring forth the youth voice," she said, referring to the past year's partnership with Berkshire United Way to share "Humans of the Berkshires," a Humans of New York-inspired effort.

The Miss Hall's students said they got complete support from Reid Middle School teacher Debra Guachione and Herberg Middle School's Beth Trainor, who helped the younger students to think about the messages they wanted to offer.

Middle schooler Allison B. said, "I am always so busy with school and sports, this project helped me realize why all that I do is so important to me."

Jordan S. said, "I think this project is great because it gave us a chance to share a message that was important to each of us."

His message of "Teamwork is the key to success," is one Keator and L'Hote understood clearly.

"I've done a few projects over the years, but nothing like this. I think it's taught me the importance of working with other people who are passionate about something," said Keator, who found L'Hote's passion for photography and art to be infectious.

L'Hote, who said she's always been on the quieter side said, "I would have never approached this project on my own," if it weren't for Keator asking to collaborate.

Both students also said that their project would have never left the table if it weren't for their community partners.

"We have really amazing resources in our own backyard ... You don't have to go across the world to find great stories," said Keator.

"You just have to ask," L'Hote said.


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