Photography club partners with the Phillips Collection for “DC is Beautiful”

Sophia Ibrahim, Features Editor

Jackson-Reed’s photography club’s exhibit at the Phillips Collection, entitled “DC is Beautiful”, is on display until Sunday, April 10.

The club’s leaders, seniors Wengfay Ho and Olivia Biggs, worked with Erica Harper, then head of PK-12 Initiatives at the museum, to put together an exhibit inspired by artist Alma Thomas, whose work was featured in a Phillips exhibit, “Everything is Beautiful”, last fall. 

A DC native, Thomas was an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. The ten themes displayed in the student exhibit, chosen by the members themselves, were aimed at portraying different scenes around the city that make DC beautiful. 

The club spent five months preparing for the showing. The team at the Phillips Collection lent the club a well-known type of film camera called a Holga camera, as well as the necessary film. 

“Almost every member had about six photos in the exhibit,” Ho said. Interestingly, due to the nature of film cameras, students tended to feel that only about half of the photos they took were viable for showing, and even fewer ended up in the actual exhibit. 

“With these film cameras, you cannot see the photo until weeks later, when it’s been developed. This also meant that it was a lot harder for you to capture what you wanted to capture,” Ho said. “A lot of students had failed takes that they planned to put in a certain theme that didn’t make it, so they had to rearrange [their selections].”

Biggs and Ho spent the last year making the photography club more structured. Last spring, they organized an online gallery to exhibit student work. “I definitely think that helped prepare us for the Phillips exhibit,” Biggs said. “It was the first time we had what felt like a real leadership role in developing a project. It prepared us with how to lead a group of people and actually feel like leaders in the club.” 

The two seniors had one-on-one Zoom meetings with staff members at the Phillips Collection and relayed the messages, descriptions, and visions for the exhibition to the other members of the club. Both Biggs and Ho were recently interviewed by local radio station WAMU about the exhibit. 

With the Phillips Collection exhibit on the horizon, the club focused on “building a collection” of photographs, instead of having new themes every week. According to Ho, this change came with challenges. “While we were doing the Phillips Collection, each week was building on the last so it was very difficult for new members to join.” However, Ho emphasized that the club is beginning to go back to normal now that the planning for the exhibit is finished.  “Now that we’re done with [the exhibit], we have a lot more flexibility with new people joining because we’re doing weekly prompts and such. We still have casual shooting and editing days now.” The club even does shooting trips together, with their most recent excursion being photographing around Dupont Circle.

Ho and Biggs stressed that being a photography aficionado is not a requirement for joining the club, and mentioned that one member of the club is actually more interested in graphic design than photography, and often works on a 3D ship model during meetings. “In the real world, there aren’t many opportunities for you to have complete freedom, and being in clubs like this at school allows for that. We have very few requirements, and it’s totally okay to shoot as you please and do what makes you passionate,” Ho said.

Alma Thomas’ lasting impact on DC’s art scene was both central to the exhibit and visible within every detail that went into planning the collection. Ho remarked, “I think they were really trying to emphasize her legacy as a teacher as well as an artist, and as DC students, we were trying to help them honor her memory and connect her artistic legacy to her educational legacy, as well as her impacts on DC overall.”