Featured Course

What's Your Story

A blend of selfie culture with community archiving, this course is a multi-year effort by the Photography and Imaging Department to create a portrait of the people of Los Angeles across a breadth of communities. Designed as a city-wide project with volunteer participation, students take professional portraits of passersby at cultural festivals and give them a black-and-white print. The visibility of that comes with sharing your story is integral to this project, which first took place at Leimert Park's Juneteenth celebration.

Interview with instructor Ken Marchionno

ArtCenter: How would you describe this class to a prospective student?

Ken Marchionno: We wanted to give students a deeper connection to the community by offering their expertise to the world. Our students have a special skill set, and we wanted them to consider the responsibility and joys of sharing it.


What's Your Story Portraits

Our instructors prepared us for the challenges of a professional photo booth and allowed us to collaborate independently. I was amazed at the impact photographic prints can make; it was a beautiful, emotionally rewarding experience.

Amanda VillegasPhotography & Imaging

AC: How did the idea for this course come about?

KM: Over the years, I’ve seen increasing student interest in social practice, and since much of my artistic production involves community engagement, I felt the need to develop a photography-driven course that married my experience to student need. A large part of what I do involves gifting prints to what some would call my subjects, but they are actually my collaborators. 

I regularly make formal portraits for the people I work with, and despite the ubiquity of cameras, cellphones and the self-portrait, I have seen how cherished those prints become. So, when I thought about how to engage our students directly with the community, it seemed ideal to have them leverage their skills to create portraits for the people of Los Angeles.

AC: What inspired the direction you took with the curriculum for this class?

KM: One important focus of the class, which is co-taught by Manjari Sharma and open to all majors, was to engage with a cross-section of our city. To allow our students the broadest experience, portrait booths will be set up at a variety of culturally based festivals and events across the L.A. basin. Not only does this allow them a breadth of experience, but the archive of images approaches an equitable representation of the L.A. area.

We also wanted participants to feel empowered. Subjects were invited to view all of their photographs and choose the print they felt best represented them, personally, on our website, and in future exhibitions and planned publications. We are currently in conversation with a few local venues to show the work and run a series of panels. Additionally, we send a link so subjects can share a story to accompany their photograph. People can also opt out entirely and have their images erased immediately.

If you have a skill, you must consider your commitment to society. Sharing our talents can bring a lot of joy.

Ken MarchionnoInstructor

What's Your Story: Behind the Scenes

AC: What are some of the assignments and materials that challenge students to break new ground creatively?

KM: The challenge for students was taking portraits in a more structured situation, which can limit your creativity. They say that photography is the window to the soul, so students really had to foster a relationship with their subjects, see their subjects openly, and allow that to come through the camera. 

AC: What were some of the most surprising outcomes for you and the students?

KM: I don't think any of us were prepared to be so moved by the participants' level of appreciation, excitement and pride. In a digital era, we take pictures all the time, but a professional portrait is different. When a little boy saw his print, he grabbed it and hugged it — the 13X19 portrait was almost as big as he was. 

AC: What are some of the most important concepts and ideas you hope students take away from the experience/classwork?

KM: That we're all citizens of the world. And if you have a skill, you must consider how you use it and your commitment to society. Sharing our talents can bring a lot of joy.

AC: Since this is an ongoing project, what's next for the course? Which events might you photograph next?

KM: There's no homework in this class, other than reading about portraiture and representation. For Leimert Park, we discussed Juneteenth, why it's celebrated, and what it means to those in Los Angeles. We plan to run this class for at least a year, setting up booths at a variety of festivals and cultural events. We've already set up a relationship with LA Pride for 2023, and plan to bring in speakers from the community so our students can learn more about the history of Pride and what it means to the community.

student photographing a plate of noodles from above

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