Photography lesson

‘A lesson in nostalgia’: UM students team up to create portraits of their campus community

ANN ARBOR—After transferring to the University of Michigan in the fall of 2020, N’Dea Shelton, a history student in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, was looking for a way to get to know her new classmates from class.

“As a transfer student, I wanted to connect better with this university,” she said. “I wanted to know who was here because sometimes it’s very easy to just live and walk around and pay no attention to anyone.”

At the same time, Michael O’Brien, a first-year MBA student at the Ross School of Business and a photographer, was also looking to understand his new community and the UM culture.

With this shared desire to make meaningful connections, O’Brien and Shelton collaborated on “A Lesson in Longing,” a project that combines photography, interviews, music, and text to produce multidimensional portraits of UM students. The project takes its name from a 2019 painting by Jennifer Packer depicting two figures in a spectral domestic interior.

The two artists were brought together by the UM Arts Initiativehaving served the past semester as Creative Fellows for his “Bridging the gapproject. The initiative aims to broaden access to art and promote artistic creation by UM students in all disciplines, and it has launched “Bridging the Divide” to support and mentor the work of students focused on connection, collaboration and healing Twenty-one students from eight academic units participated as the project’s first creative fellows.

To create the portraits for “A Lesson in Longing”, O’Brien and Shelton developed a two-part process that generated multiple portraits of each subject. First, O’Brien photographed each subject at home. He deliberately chose a technically heavy film-based process for these portrait sessions, a 4×5 camera, in order to slow down and spend time with his subjects. Each photo shoot lasted up to two hours, he said.

These same students were then interviewed by Shelton, who asked them to complete statements such as “I’m on a journey to”, “The world would be a better place with” and “A song that describes my place in life is.” To make his portraits, Shelton then superimposed the responses of the interviewees on photos taken by the subjects themselves from their windows. She also included Spotify codes to the subject’s selected songs.

While O’Brien’s photos capture a subject’s likeness, Shelton’s text images are completely anonymous and will not be displayed side-by-side with student photos during the installation of “A Lesson in Longing” April 8. Brien’s goal in engaging in long portrait sessions, Shelton promised anonymity in his portraits so that his subjects felt free to be honest and open in their responses.

“They’re free to say what they want to say without anyone judging, without anyone attributing their image or their face to what they say,” Shelton said.

Collaborators chose to work with students they might not otherwise have met in order to center the process of building relationships through artistic creation.

“I’m drawn to photographing the communities I’m a part of, basically for the purpose of getting to know them better,” O’Brien said. “I was basically doing portraits of family members, and I really wanted to do portraits of people I didn’t know.”

“On a personal level, I wanted to build confidence by talking to people at this university,” Shelton said. “With this project, people have been extremely willing to share their opinions and pieces of their lives with me.”

Taken together, the images of O’Brien and Shelton depict multiple facets and different perspectives of the students who make up the UM campus community.

“I describe Michael’s role as capturing the person in their environment, and my role was to try to capture the personality of the person that the photo may not show, the words they say and what they feels,” Shelton said.

“A Lesson in Longing” will be on view from 4:30-7 p.m. on April 8 at Nichols Arboretum Reading Center at 1610 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, as part of a special presentation of all of the Arts Initiative’s “Bridging the Divide” projects.

The reception with art, food and music is free and open to the public.