The High School Photo Project

October 4, 2011

This summer, I had the good fortune to attend The Gold Coast Art Fair in Chicago’s Grant Park. It was a hot, humid day and it took a lot of energy to walk around and view the art in all of the different tents. As I stumbled upon one tent in particular, I saw photos of various high school students in front of blackboards with their favorite quotes. I couldn’t explain it, but seeing the photos really mesmerized me.

So I asked Chicago photographer Linda Erf Swift about her project and if she wouldn’t mind answering some additional questions. It came as no surprise to me that Linda was a friendly and accommodating interviewee. I hope you enjoy her photos and the stories behind her project…

How did you get started with the High School Project? What gave you the idea for this project (how did it come about)?

I have always liked being around teenagers and hearing what they’re thinking and saying. I taught high school and middle school Language Arts for several years; did social work with pregnant teens; and when living and working at a west side community center, my favorite part was my group of teen girls. Even before returning to school for a BFA at the School of the Art Institute, I photographed adolescents with their most prized possessions. I worked on that project for over five years, in three countries and several American states.

Before the 2008 election, I thought it would be interesting to know what teens were thinking about the possibility of the election of our first African-American president or the first female vice president, as well as their outlook on the declining economy. I photographed teens in rural Ohio, suburban Chicago, and the Hyde Park/Kenwood community on the south side. I handed out the same paragraph to each of the kids asking what they were thinking and suggesting their answers address the election and the economy. Not one student mentioned either the election or the economy! And the kids who brought quotations turned into the most interesting photographs.

Our son didn’t like it when we changed family rules for his younger sister, so I used to answer his objections by saying, Wouldn’t we be pretty stupid parents if we made the same mistakes with both of our children? Well, the same goes for photography, so I learned from the kids and the next year I asked them to bring a quotation they believed said something about their identity. And there you have the beginning of the current iteration of the High School Photo Project.

Was the book always part of the project or did that come later?

The book wasn’t always in my plans but I found the kids fascinating and I wanted to share them with more people. I believe the thinking of teenagers is habitually hidden from the general public. We have access only to the extremes of adolescence that the news media chooses to share. We learn about the basketball star, the computer whiz who hacks into someone else’s system, and the gang member who shoots an innocent bystander. Sometimes, but usually not, we will see a short paragraph about a student who excels in science or math. In the High School Photo Project, I try to let kids speak for themselves and present themselves to the camera as they choose. In this way the students have an opportunity to communicate their individual identities and the concerns accompanying their often-ignored voices. The book and exhibitions of these photographs help get that message out to a wider audience.

Which is your favorite photo in the project and why?

I don’t think I can choose just one. In some cases I feel a strong connection to the student or the words they’ve chosen. In some, the resulting image just captivates me. Two examples of that are Rosie and Kyle. Rosie (see above) has an ebullient personality, which I believe you can see in her portrait. But she is, in many ways, a very serious young woman as well. On the questionnaire I ask students to fill in, she answered the sections about community and political involvement in the following way: I care about not getting shot at the bus stop while I’m on my way to school or work, about how I dress when I go through certain neighborhoods because we are out here being picked off like scabs. It’s a scary thing, this world we live in today. And it’s Okay, as an 18 year old kid, I’m not concerned, although I should be, about healthcare reform or prisoners in Guantanamo or our relationship with China. I’m concerned that millions of people in our country are being picked on publicly; that when I’m ready to settle down, I won’t be able to marry in the state I live in; that saying I’m gay is still more effective than, I hate you. How could I not love a young woman like that? She is carrying the weight of the world on her 17 year old shoulders and yet is willing to stand up on a chair and get her picture taken while baring her soul to me, to my viewers, to those willing to listen to her.

Kyle (see photo below), a quiet young man, had waited patiently while several other students were photographed. When he approached the chalkboard, he started to take his sweater off, saying, I want my tattoo in the picture. The teacher in the room said, You know Ms. Kirby (the Principal) won’t choose your picture for the hallway if you show your tattoo. Kyle and I were not deterred. We agreed that I would photograph his tattooed arm and then I’d take more shots with his sweater back on. At the time, I had no idea that cropping the photo would lead to such a compelling image, but that’s part of what I love about photography. Even the photographer can be surprised. The tattoo says, Many are called but few are chosen. Matthew 22:14 Chosen 1

Have you kept in touch with any of the students you’ve photographed?

Not many, but a few. Rosie attends a university in downstate Illinois and I have a friend there who is a retired professor. I put the two of them in touch with each other and they meet occasionally for breakfast. It’s nice to know Rosie has a guardian angel in town if she has questions or just needs a knowledgeable adult to talk with. This summer I tried to help Lana (below) find work as an intern in a medical office. It didn’t work out but she is planning to use those contacts next Spring so they can start the process earlier than we did this year. Cross your fingers on that one! She is a pre-med student at a Big Ten university and chose to be photographed in the Chem Lab at King College Prep. She quoted Muhammad Ali and I admired the self-confidence she voiced with her choice of words.


What did you learn from doing this project?

I was surprised by how many of the quotations are related to music and dance. Other lessons were more reinforced than learned from scratch. Kids are inventive, funny, and sensitive. One girl didn’t like her picture so she asked that the principal not hang it on the wall at school. Some are incredibly organized and send me an e-mail when they can’t make our appointment. Others just don’t show up. Some of the boys want the girls to write their quote on the board, as they don’t want to exhibit their less-than-stellar handwriting. That’s not allowed!

In looking at your resume, I see that you haven’t always been a photographer. What did you do for a living before you became a photographer and how did that influence your work on this project?

My first Bachelors degree was in English Comp and Education. That led to several years of teaching middle school and high school English. I then earned a Masters degree in Social Work. At my first job after grad school, I had more administrative responsibilities than I liked and not enough contact with the families our agency served, so I returned to teaching for three years. I had really missed the day-to-day contact with the same kids. That is such an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. My next social work job was with a legal assistance project at the Cook County Jail. Not surprisingly, that was quite an education for me! When their funding ran out, I worked in the Maternity Unit at Children’s Home and Aid Society of Illinois. My clients were mostly women who were pregnant and unhappy about it. I facilitated some adoptions, worked with a group of young mothers and met with many others who struggled with the decisions around their pregnancy.

During my fourth year there, I married and got pregnant with our first child. After that I pieced together part time jobs that allowed me to have a flexible schedule and spend more time with my family. I was a landlady and building rehabber for 17 years, the construction-liaison (between school staff and the construction crew) when my kids’ elementary school was renovated and a large addition was added. When our son went to Kenwood Academy (one of the public schools in the H.S. Photo Project), I followed and worked several days a week as a liaison between the school and the community. My own children were not always happy to see me at school as often as they did, but from the parental point of view, it is a great way to know what is going on behind the scenes and avoid potential landmines. My husband says, you can take Linda out of social work, but you can’t take the social worker out of Linda and that is probably true. I believe all of my previous jobs have contributed to my involvement in the H.S. Photo Project.

What kind of camera did you use for this project?

I am a Canon person. I started with a Canon EOS-20D and now also have a Canon D5 Mark II. I would love to have a zoom lens for the Mark II 5D but they are so expensive and, I think, prohibitively heavy. I’m working on a solution to this situation.

Did you spend a lot of time editing (and touching up) your photos?

The major adjustment I have to make in post-shoot production is the color correction. I am shooting in schools using available light. There are times when sunlight is coming through a window and the light fixtures in the room are fitted with old incandescent bulbs, with fluorescent tubes, and others with new CFL bulbs. That is a lighting nightmare and often leads to way too much yellow in the photograph. My idea of a good adjustment in Photoshop is one that does not change the meaning or the intellectual / emotional tone of the image but does take away something extraneous that might distract the viewer’s attention away from the image.

Teens have pimples. I don’t make them disappear. Schools have dirty floors and pockmarked walls. If the situation is so distracting that you won’t look at the student or their quote, I will clean it up enough so that your senses are not overwhelmed by scuff marks and scratches. But I always leave enough of what showed up in the original shot to present a realistic picture to the viewer.

Looking forward, do you have any projects that you’re working on now? Do you have any exhibitions coming up?

My Painted-with-Light series is currently on display at Linz and Vail, 2012 Central, in Evanston. It is a coffee shop with fabulous gelato. My work will be there until October 15, 2011.

Your readers can view my website: and should feel free to e-mail me at swiftimages at I do 4 or 5 art fairs / exhibitions a year and would be happy to add folks to my e-mailing list. The next opportunity to see the H.S. Photo Project on display will be the first weekend in December. The details on that are:

Holiday Art and Craft (7 women artists who’ve been doing this show for about 35 years + me. I’m one of the newcomers)
Saturday, December 3rd and Sunday, December 4th
11:00 a.m. 6:00 p.m.
4745 S. Kimbark, Chicago
(approach from Woodlawn Ave. as Kimbark does not go through to 47th St. It’s about 6 blocks west of Lake Shore Drive)

Feel free to come. We serve homemade cookies and are all friendly and interested in meeting new visitors.

Linda, I wanted to just thank you again for allowing me to feature you and post your photos. As someone who usually learns about high school students through negative news stories, it was refreshing to see your photos capture a different side of the story. I love the fact that your photos give a voice to high school students who want and need to be heard. It’s also good to learn that your project will continue and evolve as you introduce us to more students. To preview an excerpt of Linda’s book, please visit The High School Photo Project on Blurb. If you are interested in purchasing a book, please contact Linda by email and she will send you directly.

1 Sherry Hughes October 20, 2011 at 8:49 am

Awesome. Linda has given a voice to those who didn’t feel they had one. These unique individuals have shown that they do have thoughts and feelings and emotions that are quite raw and far deeper than they are typically given credit for having. Congratulations on showing that through these wonderful photographs.

2 Tim October 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Hi Sherry: Thanks for stopping by and sharing! Yeah, I think Linda has done a great job giving a voice to our youth in an incredibly artistic way. I’m looking forward to more photos!

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }