Mobile Learning Institute at the National Portrait Gallery


Discovering identity through portraiture

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In June, 22 young people participated in the National Portrait Gallery’s IMAGINE=IMAGE summer program.

Using digital media — cell phones, social networks, and graphics software — and taking the power of portraiture as their subject, students explored image-making by creating portraits that reflected key aspects of what makes them who they are.

Day One

The facilitators began by familiarizing the students with the NLI Connect network, so that the participants could create their own avatars and complete their personal profiles online. This gave them the ability to both share information about themselves with the group and begin to consider the topic of identity.

Students were then guided through the National Portrait Gallery collection to learn how and why portraits are created: who commissions them, what a portrait can say about its subject (sitter), how different artists approached their works, and how symbolism, lighting, and background are used. Detailed analysis of several works allowed participants to begin to gather the information necessary to create their own portraits. The staff guided discussions on various elements of portrayal to help students determine which aspects resonated with them personally. The exercise encouraged participants to think about how they would want to be portrayed — in which setting and pose, in what clothing, and surrounded by which objects.

The day ended with an exercise in which the students were instructed to think of someone whom they admire and to take pictures of each other with their mobile devices to try and capture images that would be evocative of that person. The teams uploaded the images to the NLI Connect social network to inspire further discussion.

Day Two

Day Two began with an exercise that encouraged students to think of three adjectives that other people, such as teachers or coaches, would use to describe them. With their mobile devices, the participants took photos that reflected these adjectives and uploaded the photos to the NLI Connect network. This gave them the opportunity to begin the process of visualizing formal elements of portraiture and editing their images, as well as to think critically about their choices.

Day Three

Students continued pre-production by learning about and experimenting with portrait labeling. A professional photographer offered an engaging presentation about the career of portrait photography and discussed art direction and the editing process. The photographer took portraits of each student, with the participants deciding where in the museum they wanted to be photographed, what they wore, and the sort of image they wanted to convey.

Day Four

On the final day, the students each spent the morning choosing their favorite photograph from those they had taken on Day Three and then framing and labeling their portrait. In the afternoon, the group showcased an exhibition of their self-portraits in the courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery, sharing them with their peers, their families, and the public.

Digital media practices enabled participants to record their observations, make rough sketches of their ideas and test them, reflect on what they saw and understood about themselves, and present their ideas and work to others.

The experience also provided opportunities for participants to recognize the utility of using media to collaborate, reflect, and test ideas, as well as for curating and exhibiting those ideas to an audience.

Creating self-portraits provided an ideal scaffold for the students to explore identity and the power of image-making. The participants’ greater understanding of how and why portraits are made served as a launching point for closer examination of themselves and the people around them.