The Photo Portrait Class

The portrait-making class is an opportunity for children teaches children how to create a formal photographic portrait. Then, as part of an on-going art exchange, the children’s portraits (and written messages) are delivered directly to Syrian refugee children…who will respond in kind.

The art works created in this class are part of a greater effort that aims :

  • to help war refugees with psychological support
  • to create empathy with refugee children
  • to spread awareness of needs of refugees
  • to educate the public about the refugee experience.

Part of our program is an art exchange between refugee children and non-refugee children. The artwork created by children in the portrait-making class is part of that art exchange. The exchange helps refugee children by giving them experiences that help with common psychological issues of the refugee experience, such as feelings of isolation, social rejection, inability to express and handle feelings, and more.

The portrait class is a good way for children to communicate without a shared language (the Syrian refugees speak Arabic). Sharing pictures makes the children more real to each other — there is a face to go with their writings and drawings. The pictures the children share are teaching moments, ways to learn about children who are not so different, but living in different circumstances.

The art program is also a good way to teach about refugees — the activities work well to anchor other lessons about geography, language, and history. The refugees’ art is an interesting way to learn about refugees from their own perspective, going beyond an outsider’s observations.

The portrait-making class is a lesson in art history, culture, and art-making skills. Children learn about historical and modern portraiture, and they can discover and discuss how people present themselves and others. A powerful benefit of the class is that it gives children new skills that allow them to see and present themselves in a new and positive way.

For the refugee children, there is also a particular benefit. Not only can they establish a closer connection to their counterparts — that’s why we like photos of each other! — but they can see non-refugee children from across the world as their equals.

One of the difficult aspects of the refugee experience is that people are redefined in their host countries as “refugees,” and their other identifications (school, city, culture, family, job, etc.) are stripped from them. In their new cities, they are known simply as “refugees,” and they are generally in a second-class social position. The portrait exchange lets them identify themselves as more than “a refugee,” and this kind of psychosocial support is very valuable.

The art exchange is also part of an awareness campaign that seeks to educate Americans about the effects of war on children, and specifically to create support for Syrian refugee children. The campaign uses the artwork created by refugee children and those they correspond with to create a real, human connection to the refugee children. Instead of focusing on them as refugees, the public can see them as children, like their own, and seeing them in the same context as American children equalizes and humanizes them.

As art education, we discuss what makes portraiture special. We teach the basics of classical portrait lighting while allowing the children to discover the portrait photography through their own experimentation. We use tools every child has access to: a phone camera (or point-and-shoot) and a household lamp. Picture taking has become so ubiquitous, and this class fits nicely into children’s daily lives.

In terms of children’s well-being, this class is an opportunity for children to present themselves in new and attractive ways. They are encouraged to discover how positive their photo can be, and they are given the tools to make themselves (and others) “look good.” The portrait style also allows them to see themselves as “dignified” and “important”, because that is what the classical European portrait is designed to do.

You can see examples from this class in the archive of children’s artwork, at in the “Artivism Archives,” under the “The Berkeley School” heading.


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