Photo by Grace Cernohous.
Photo by Grace Cernohous.
Photo by Elizabeth Deyo.
by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Imagine walking up to a complete stranger and asking whether it would be all right to take a photo of them. More than 40 Winona State University (WSU) students in fine art photography classes did just that for an assignment. The resulting photographs are now installed in downtown Winona storefronts so community members may enjoy a free art exhibition safely and ponder what the photographs illustrate about living amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Junior business administration and studio arts major Ajay Jorgenson recently transferred to WSU, and he appreciated having the opportunity to walk around Winona as he took photographs for the Pandemic Portraits Project, he said. He
was able to see what stores are downtown, observe people out and about and meet people.
While taking photographs, he enjoyed interacting with people from out of town who were visiting Winona, from those who own a boathouse and were taking a walk along the river to people playing basketball at a park. “Just seeing the diversity in our community was great,” he noted.
Sophomore I-design major Lydia Velishek noted that she enjoyed going outside her comfort zone by talking with strangers about taking a photo of them.
In one instance that she found memorable, people were very excited to have photographs taken of them earlier on in the morning. “I thought it was interesting how some people love having their pictures taken and some hate it,” she shared.
Senior studio art major Amanda Chapman-Vruno enjoyed going out into Winona safely and meeting new people while taking photos, she stated.
“As a college student, I tend to hang out with college students,” Chapman-Vruno said. “But it was nice to get out in the community and talk with people I don’t normally speak with and to notice stuff I didn’t before.”
She particularly appreciated taking a photograph of a group of people playing basketball and a photo of someone with an American flag on their wheelchair, she noted. She also enjoyed seeing storefronts transform into galleries as she assisted with installing the exhibition, she said.
A more difficult part of participating in the project was taking photos of a diverse group of individuals that included people who are not college-aged, Velishek shared.
Chapman-Vruno said it could be a bit discouraging when people said they did not want photos of themselves taken.
Asking people whether it would be OK to take a photograph of them was a more challenging aspect of being part of the project, Jorgenson said. “I’m an introvert … so it was kind of difficult for me to walk up to someone and say, ‘Hey, can I take your photo?’ But it was nice I had to do that for this project and put myself out there as well,” he shared. “And of course, I had some people say no, which was fine. It was putting myself out there and being OK with being rejected.”
Velishek gained a better understanding of Winona while taking photos, she said. “I’m only a sophomore, and this is my first time living here outside of the dorms, so I feel more like a community member now,” she shared.
She noted that she hopes community members who see the photos recognize the diversity in Winona and realize that they are photo worthy.
As a result of taking part in the project, Chapman-Vruno said she came out of her shell a bit. “As I said before, as college students living on your own in a new town, you tend to associate with people your own age,” she shared. “It taught me there are a lot of people out there that are just as nice.”
She hopes that those who see the photos gain a sense of the diversity in the community, she stated.
Jorgenson gained a feeling of community from participating in the project, too, he said. “Winona to me is a pretty big town, bigger than where I grew up, so I figured it’d be more diverse than my hometown, but … just seeing everyone out and together, even in this pandemic time, and seeing everyone socially distanced and safe, but still having fun and being around community and people,” was nice, he noted.
WSU Assistant Professor, Gallery Coordinator and Art Collections Coordinator Roger Boulay is teaching several fine art photography classes this semester. As he considered how students could safely connect with others and produce images regarding the pandemic, the project emerged.
Discussions about what constitutes a portrait that was taken successfully and how much of a person’s face should be seen in a portrait are ongoing, Boulay explained, and taking photographs of masked individuals added a dimension to interpreting the portraits.
The project was inspired by the work of Wing Young Huie, a renowned photographer known for his exhibitions in St. Paul and Minneapolis storefronts. Students took part in a virtual workshop with him.
Boulay is grateful for the store and building owners who allowed the photos to be displayed in their spaces, he said, and he hopes the exhibition is viewed by a wider audience than it would have been if it was at the gallery on the WSU campus.
After completing the project, students went to Third Street and reviewed the exhibition. They wrote their thoughts down and submitted the work to Boulay. They wrote about being excited to see their photos in public, appreciating how the exhibition covers a large swath of Third Street and being interested in how the various portraits fit together based on their colors and the styles of photography they represented, he shared.
“I think … there are unmasked portraits in the groups, so I think one question or one point of contemplation that’s unavoidable is, ‘What is my own personal masking policy?’ ‘When do I wear a mask and when do I not?’ It sort of forces you to think about that,” Boulay said.
The photos also inspire one to consider the diversity of the Winona community, he said.
“There are over 100 photos for sure on display, and so what ages, what races, what walks of life of people are in these portraits, and does that to people and the public reflect Winona, and if not, why not?” Boulay noted.
He aims for the portraits to become part of a record of the pandemic through archiving them at WSU’s library.
The exhibition may be located on Third Street in Winona through December 9. There are photographs at the southeast corner of Third and Main streets, 67 East Third Street, 119 and 121 East Third Street and the southeast corner of Third and Walnut streets.
Winona State University students took photos of strangers for an exhibition that is now in storefronts on Third Street. In the photos, life amid the pandemic is documented.