For senior T’Ana Selah Smith, photography is more than just a hobby, it is an avenue to take her art and produce a socially conscious commentary on what students experience. As an Advanced Photography student, Smith wanted to create a “message to the world” and produce something that could make an impact. “I wanted this project to be something that starts conversations with people. I particularly wanted to look at issues that are close to the heart, especially for minority students.”
The result of her work is a photography collection that she has titled Speak Back. The collection represents painted messages on students that “speaks back to society about a generalization.” Messages in this collection include those on mental health, body shaming, how gender is assigned to eating disorders, and racial stereotypes, among many others.
Smith said, “Photography is an image that speaks. So I was taking what I believe about photography and capturing that moment and message and making it a message to address things that I also feel very strongly about.”
The idea of painting messages on people came organically to Smith and was an idea that she had been brainstorming for a while. “I wanted to connect with people through this process,” and it was important that each message be specific to the individual. She prompted each subject by asking them “ What do you have to say to society about the presumptions or opinions that it has about your struggles due to your physical being, internal overcoming, identity?” After that, they collaborated on a message that was specific and impactful for each individual.
One student commented on his experiences as a black student. He has experienced on multiple occasions being on the receiving end of untrusting looks. For him, the paint on his back that read “Fearful stares – long and hard. Disregarding my humanity” was a reality that he lives every day. “I chose people that inspired me and who had a message to share. Collaborating with them was an honor.”
Smith’s work was on display at Ames High for two months with the entire collection being recognized with a Scholastic Art & Writing award. She has a long creative career ahead of her. She was recently accepted into dance school and plans to travel to Pittsburg next year to pursue her studies.