Shifting Perspectives through Photography

Phillips Educator Kimberly Willison reflects on the Phillips’s 2023 Summer Teacher Institute, which focused on how photography can empower us to see differently.

Photo of Frank Stewart by Cheriss May, Ndemay Media Group

With the school year underway, it’s a wonderful time to reflect on the powerful impact professional learning can have on the lives of teachers and ultimately their students. A collaboration with the University of Maryland, The Phillips Collection’s 2023 Summer Teacher Institute had the theme of Focal Point: Shifting Perspectives through Photography. The five-day institute inspired by Frank Stewart’s Nexus, attracted over 35 educators from public and private institutions near and far, including many teachers from schools in Washington, DC, northern Virginia, and Maryland, and even some from as far away as Navajo Nation, Chinle, Arizona and Ecuador.

Photography is all about perspective—we see a person, place, or object through the lens of the photographer and also through the lens of our own perceptions. Teachers brought their rich perspectives to the week-long institute motivated by a desire to join a community of arts integration educators, a belief that arts integration can improve student learning, and an interest in exploring photography as an artistic medium for themselves and their students. The participants learned strategies to support social and emotional learning while learning about the Phillips Collection’s artworks, artists, and resources.

During the week, the educators learned from three local artists. Phillips Education Assistant and artist Davinna Barkers-Woode led a workshop about elements of photography including composition, viewpoint, and perspective.

Photo by participating teacher Jon Berg exploring viewpoint and perspective

Phillips Educator, artist, and former special needs art teacher Monica Cohen Lenoff led participants through a workshop to create masks expressing hidden and revealed parts of their identities.

Photo of Reveal/Conceal Mask by participating educator Elizabeth Clarke

DC-based portrait and editorial photographer Cheriss May led an interactive photography workshop about storytelling and shifting perspectives. She provided professional guidance on techniques for capturing powerful moments through photography and inspired educators to make meaningful connections with those they photograph.

Photo by participating educator Amanda Dempsey working with reflective surfaces

Working with some of the themes explored in Frank Stewart’s photographs, the educators considered how photography might be used to explore, refine, and communicate our understanding of our ancestors, our culture, and the world around us. They thought about how a shift in perspective might open up possibilities for seeing our everyday surroundings, ourselves, and others in a new light. They considered how photography might be used to open up lines of communication in their classrooms to allow for deeper interpersonal connections and awareness and acceptance of varying perspectives.

Photo by participating teacher Angela Cirillo capturing elements of culture

As a culminating project, the participants constructed a visual autobiography through photographs to consider how their personal identity, culture, and life experiences impact how they see the world. They examined how varying perspectives, composition, and other elements of photography can empower us to see differently. Through this process, they explored how factors like power, empathy, self-awareness, and respect play into the art of photography.

Reflecting on the Summer Institute, one participant commented, “This was a very enriching experience and one I am so happy to have participated in. I look forward to sharing techniques with colleagues and students.” Likewise, the Phillips Education team looks forward to welcoming students and teachers to the museum this school year.

Fueled by Connection

Development Intern Lucy Phillips reflects on her internship over the summer.

The work of The Phillips Collection is fueled by connection.

In my final week as a Development Intern, I met with Anne Taylor-Brittingham, Deputy Director of Education and Responsive Learning Spaces. Anne explained that the intent of her work is to help visitors find a personal connection to the art. I gained tremendous, meaningful experience and insight during my summer at the Phillips, but this particular conversation gave me the clearest perspective on the impact of my work. No matter the project I was assigned—from researching French corporations, to soliciting support for future exhibitions and summarizing for donors the impact of their contributions to the Frank Stewart’s Nexus exhibition—the intent was to connect people to the art and the mission of the Phillips.

In preparing for the final presentation of my internship, I recalled all the ways the idea of personal connection had impacted my work. One project focused on identifying corporate prospects for a French Impressionist exhibition debuting at the Phillips in 2024. My task was to find companies that demonstrated an interest in the arts, French heritage, or a presence in the DMV and, once identified, prepare a solicitation strategy for support of the exhibition. As I look back, it’s clear that the answer was always personal connection. Understanding company history, mission, and culture helped me understand how to connect. For some it was education and for others it was diversity and social progress. Regardless, to forge a connection with The Phillips Collection, I had to start with learning about them.

Visitors enjoying Frank Stewart’s Nexus during Phillips after 5: All that Jazz. Photo: AK Blythe

The importance of personal connection came into even sharper focus throughout a stewardship report project for Frank Stewart’s Nexus: An American Photographer’s Journey, 1960s to the Present. The materials I created provide a comprehensive recap of the exhibition to engage donors, maintain relationships, and express gratitude—and will also be used throughout the department as a template report for future exhibitions. A scan of the public programs associated with the exhibition makes clear that the Phillips emphasized bringing the exhibition to life beyond the walls of the museum. From portfolio reviews with the artist himself, to a Phillips after 5 in partnership with the DC Jazz Festival, these programs were designed draw visitors in and create deeper and more personal connections to the exhibition. Through this project, I was exposed to and inspired by the work of the Education department, the Marketing and Communications team, and countless other colleagues that brought the exhibition to life through interdisciplinary collaboration.

The key takeaway from my summer internship? The work is fueled by connection. It’s not solely about the masterpieces hanging on the walls. It is about everything else—how these works inspire conversation, progress, learning, empathy and, most importantly, how we connect.

Meet Our 2023 Summer Interns

Our 2023 Summer Interns share what they worked on this summer. We are grateful for their hard work!

Clare McElhaney, Smith College

Clare McElhaney: Library & Archives Intern
Supervisors: Juli Folk & Amanda Acosta

Clare McElhaney recently graduated from Smith College, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in History with double minors in Italian Studies and Archives. Passionate about uncovering and preserving history through archives, she worked as the Library and Archives Intern with the Manager of Archives and Library Resources Juli Folk and Digital Archivist Amanda Acosta. Working with both physical and digital material, she completed a number of projects involving the Exhibition History Files, Member Publications, the Juley Photograph Collection, and various Artist Vertical Files. Her largest project combined previously processed and unprocessed boxes, vertical files, and binders in order to collect and select Exhibition Pamphlets from the 1920s to the present for digitization so that they will be available for future research.

Grace McCormick, American University

Grace McCormick: Curatorial Intern
Supervisor: Elsa Smithgall

Grace McCormick is in her second year at American University’s Masters in Art History Program specializing in American art. Previously she received her BA from Syracuse University in Art History and Newspaper and Online Journalism with a minor in Museum Studies. With her degrees, she has merged her passion for visual art and storytelling. As a museum professional, she works to create meaningful exhibitions that engage with inequality while centering neglected or overlooked voices in this work. To this end at the Phillips, she has been working as a Curatorial Intern with Chief Curator Elsa Smithgall on an exhibition of artwork by William Gropper. She has put together a comprehensive bibliography on Gropper and his work, drafted loan requests, and assisted in developing the curatorial rationale for the show. Grace will be finishing her degree this year upon her completion of her thesis exploring the installation Mickalene Thomas: A Moment’s Pleasure (2019-2021) as a new form of institutional critique that does not focus on what a museum has not done in the past, but rather re-conceptualizes what it can be moving forward. Grace will be starting a new position at The Phillips Collection as a Visitor Services Associate.

June Nam, University of North Carolina

June Nam: DEAI Intern
Supervisors: Yuma Tomes & Shelby Bergstresser

June Nam majored in nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her parents are artists, and naturally, she was surrounded by Korean moon jars and stacks of ceramic bowls in her home. Her interest in the arts never stopped, even while in nursing school. She ran across campus to attend any creative art classes she could fit in between her shifts at the hospital. After working as a nurse through the pandemic, she wanted to explore other avenues of interest. Bringing her to the internship program at the Phillips in the DEAI department, working with Shelby and Yuma. She has a great interest in Korean art, specifically creating a better process for entry of Korean art in museums, broadly making the proposal processes of artists and exhibits more inclusive and accessible, and bringing Korean American narratives into more spaces.

Kiara Bennett, Towson University

Kiara Bennett: Community Engagement Intern
Supervisors: Donna Jonte & Laylaa Randera

My name is Kiara Bennett. I am working as the Community Engagement Intern this summer. I am from Prince George’s County, Maryland. I am completing my last semester at Towson University as an Art Education and Fine Arts double major. I love to paint, travel, and visit various museums in my free time. Museums have always been a safe space for me since I was a child, so having this experience to further my career in museum education was a dream come true. This summer I helped with weekend Family Programs, assisted with art activity programs for Iona Senior Services, and shadowed multiple educational tours. I also worked at The Phillips Collection Summer Camp program for children at THEARC. During the program, I assisted the children with completing a mural for THEARC and taught my own art lesson about how to create stained glass window designs, inspired by Nekisha Durrett’s Airshaft (2021) located on the bridges of the Phillips.

Lucy Phillips, American University

Lucy Phillips: Development Intern
Supervisor: Miranda Burr

Lucy Phillips is a rising junior at American University, majoring in Art History and Statistics. This summer she worked as a Development Intern with Corporate Relations Officer Miranda Burr, gaining a meaningful understanding of The Phillips Collection’s fundraising and donor relations activities. More broadly, her internship exposed her to trends and strategies for arts philanthropy. During her time at the Phillips, Lucy researched prospective donors, personalized proposals, and distributed corporate sponsorship solicitations for a future exhibition. Lucy also created a comprehensive stewardship report for Frank Stewart’s Nexus–a lynchpin for driving enhanced donor engagement, relationship management, and appreciation that will be used as a template for future exhibitions.

Cecilia Moore, University of Virginia

Cecilia Moore: University of Virginia Curatorial Intern
Supervisor: Vesela Sretenovic

Cecilia Moore is a rising senior at the University of Virginia, where she studies Art History and Spanish Literature & Culture. At the Phillips Collection, she interned under Director of Contemporary Art Initiatives and Academic Affairs Vesela Sretenović. Over the course of the summer, she worked on several projects across departments and gained first-hand experience in museum practices and arts administration. These projects included streamlining the website of the Center for Art and Knowledge, conducting research on potential loans for upcoming exhibitions, and assembling an archive of past contemporary art projects at The Phillips. After she completes her undergraduate degree, she hopes to attend graduate school and pursue a career in museum curation.

Nikki Ghaemi, George Washington University

Nikki Ghaemi: Public Programs Intern
Supervisor: Ashley Whitfield

Nikki Ghaemi is a junior at George Washington University where she is majoring in art history and journalism. This summer, she worked as a Public Programs Intern under Head of Public Programs Ashley Whitfield. Nikki worked at numerous programs this summer, designed an activity for Phillips after 5 in August, and participated in a meeting brainstorming ideas for future Phillips after 5 activities. She advocated for greater engagement of Native American contemporary artists and proposed a program to celebrate Native American Heritage Month later this year.