When I think of Portland, I see androgynous hipsters in denim, drinking fiery espressos under grey skies. However, My Story, a Portland-based mobile arts organization, is changing that picture for me.
Since 2006, My Story has given low-income Portland youth the opportunity to explore their world and their community through photography. Today, they work with approximately 200 young people annually. However, My Story didn’t expect to turn into quite a successful operation. The group’s humble origin entails posting a simple ad on a local list service that read, “Free Photography workshop for Portland Youth.”
After that initial ad, Alex Ney, program administrator for My Story, recalls, “We expected to get responses from local schools. What we did not expect was to have our inbox flooded with responses from Resident Service Coordinators at low-income housing developments around Portland.”
Today, the vast majority of My Story’s workshops are taught on-site at housing developments, and primarily serve low-income and refugee youth.
Earlier this year, just as spring was beginning to emerge from under the cloud cover, I found myself in Portland for the first time. In between perusing vintage shops and tea tasting, I spent a lot of time just cruising around and people watching. I saw that Portland was home to a huge diversity of families from all different backgrounds and ethnicities.
My Story also saw Portland’s diversity and wanted to share that with the rest of the world. So they developed “We are Portland,” a mobile portrait studio that puts young photographers behind the camera to take formal portraits of their families, friends and neighbors.
Funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” Grant, “We are Portland” brings all the trappings of a professional portrait studio to the neighborhoods where their students live. My Story has brought the project to Somali, Russian, Ukrainian and Bhutanese communities in Portland.
With cultural barriers being broken down and new conceptions of community formed, the atmosphere at these free family portrait days is joyous and celebratory.
The portraits from these sessions are striking in their content and form, revealing the diversity of families who call Portland home. Families of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds gather in front of the grey backdrop and are directed and becalmed by My Story youth participants. The resulting images are both intimate and professional, painting a picture of Portland that is revealing without being exploitative.
As Ney says, the portraits generated by “We are Portland” challenge misconceptions about Portland’s demographic make-up, and showcase the city’s changing demographics.
Through the act of portraiture, “We are Portland” is giving Portland youth the ability to become community builders in the place they call home.