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A student looks at artwork on display in the Ohio Civil Rights Commission's office lobby in Columbus.

Exhibition Shows Important Issues Seen Through Students’ Lenses

Students attend the opening reception for the 2019 Ohio Civil Rights Commission Student Art Exhibition. Photo by Katie MonahanWhen Erin Seccia, a senior at Kings High School in Kings Mills, Ohio, heard that her school was offering a course in “retro photography,” her interest was immediately piqued.

“As an eighth-grader, I was like, ‘Oh! What’s that? I’m into that,’” she said, recalling enrolling in the class her freshman year. “That (title) made a lot of people want to take it.”

But by the end of the semester, Seccia determined that the class’s name, while intriguing, didn’t do the art form justice. Through her work in the darkroom, she found that analog photography isn’t something confined to a past decade.   

Maura by Erin Seccia, Kings High School“Film is not dead,” said Seccia, who is planning to attend the University of Cincinnati in the fall with a major in graphic design and a minor in Spanish. “It’s so much more than just snapping a photo on digital.”

Seccia isn’t alone in her stance on the subject. In fact, bringing film to the forefront of photographic instruction is exactly what two Ohio organizations hope to share with students through the Cleveland Print Room’s Project Snapshot and Manifest Drawing Center’s Envision Project.

For 16 weeks, Seccia and other Cincinnati-area students enrolled in Manifest’s program, where they mastered the fundamentals of analog photography while exploring visual storytelling through black-and-white prints. Meanwhile, about 200 miles away in Cleveland, students participating in Project Snapshot were receiving similar instruction, learning how to process film and take photos using Pentax 35mm cameras.Lost by Maya Peroune, Shaker Heights High School

The results of these endeavors were displayed in the third annual Ohio Civil Rights Commission Youth Art Exhibition, an annual photography show presented in partnership with the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission (OCRC). Focusing on a theme of contemporary civil rights issues, selected photos by 30 students from both programs were installed in the Commission’s office in the Rhodes State Office Tower, where they will be displayed for a year.

“It is truly amazing to see how much this program has grown over the past three years. This exhibition, which started out as an idea for creative collaboration by OAC board member and OCRC commissioner Juan Cespedes, has blossomed into a beautiful partnership that allows talented young artists from two corners of our state to come together to create something meaningful,” said OAC Executive Director Donna S. Collins. “Through their reflections on the issues impacting their daily lives, these students teach us how an open mind and willingness to expose ourselves to new experiences can make us all more compassionate and considerate individuals.”

Breezy by Maya Peroune, Shaker Heights High SchoolMaya Peroune, a sophomore from Shaker Heights High School who participated in the Cleveland Print Room’s Project Snapshot this year, said the program changed her view on subjects such as homelessness. She recalled chatting with one of her subjects, a man named James, while taking his photo and reflected on the story he shared with her.

“He started telling me about his life and everything, and I found out he was a Vietnam veteran,” she said.  “Most people, when they see someone on the street asking for money, they think it’s a scam and they’re not really trying to work for anything, but he’s on the street and he’s a veteran. It gave me a lot of respect for people who are homeless.”

Peroune’s second photo in the exhibition depicts her friend’s struggles with self-identity and how she grew from the experience.

“I took this picture because it is like she is trying to find something. My friend was going through depression, she was trying to figure out her sexuality, and I wanted to embody her trying to find herself in this picture,” Peroune said. “I wanted to show in this picture that she has found who she is, and she is beyond that.”

Shawn by Erin Seccia, Kings High SchoolSeccia’s photos also aim to convey messages surrounding issues impacting her peers. The two pieces selected for the show are portraits of her friends paired with images of objects that she felt encapsulated causes about which they are passionate.

“(Maura) is going to be famous one day,” Seccia said, pointing to a photo of her friend while complimenting her writing. “She cares about women’s issues, and just everything surrounding feminism …. I really wanted to illustrate her as who she is and the issue that she cares about juxtaposed with the book because she is a writer.”

Her second piece shows her friend Shawn showing off one of his impeccable makeup looks. The photo is accompanied by the words “beauty knows no gender.”

“I kind of cut that off to leave people wondering, ‘what does that say?’ because I wanted people to stand there and look at it and dig deeper into it,” Seccia said. “Shawn loves to experiment with makeup. He always has a new eye look on, and it is so impressive. I love how he isn’t afraid to be who he is.”

From race relations and immigration to mental illness, LGBTQ rights, and the oversaturated news cycle, the exhibition addresses a variety of topics. Through accompanying artist statements posted next to their work, the students provided insight into their process and intention.

Cut Your Losses by Destanee Cruz, Lincoln West Global Academy. Artist statement follows. This piece connects to a series based around not only abandonment, but also how race can keep you away from your family. Judgement against the color of your skin, what family you were born into, you. Cutting this judgement out of your life will do you better than piling your losses.

Defending Venezuela by Mykola Ellis, Lakewood High School. Artist statement follows. My piece is from a protest in Cleveland against corrupt government. In this piece in particular, I think the viewer should acknowledge the Americans standing for another country’s governmental situation. This connects with the retaliation focus in human rights.

Masked By Glass by Sylvie Ballou, Lakewood High School. Artist statement follows. This piece emphasizes the inaccurate and suffocating ideals society has set in place for women and how we are willing to overcome these expectations.

Friends by Owen Rodemann, homeschooled. Artist statement follows. Last year, a bill was passed to build a bike path beside the Cuyahoga River. Unfortunately, it caused a clearing of a  homeless camp. These two men were from the camp.

White Silence Equals White Consent by Jayden DeVaughn, Ohio Connections Academy. Artist statement follows. This sticker was half-destroyed in Columbus. A bold statement isn’t always well-received.

In his remarks during the exhibition’s opening reception on May 17, Ohio Civil Rights Commission Executive Director G. Michael Payton commended the students on their work and their motivation to bring important issues to light.

“There’s a lesson in all of these photos here, and I think the lesson is that when you pursue excellence, good things will happen to you. Whether you decide to be a photographer, a mayor, whatever it is, it’s about applying yourself on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “I am honored to be a leader of an organization that has this gallery because these images talk about what my agency does, and that is to address civil rights concerns. It is emulated through the photos you have taken.”

For more information about the Cleveland Print Room or Manifest Drawing Center, visit and

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Amanda Etchison, Communications Strategist
Featured photo: A student looks at artwork on display in the Ohio Civil Rights Commission's office lobby in Columbus. Photo by Katie Monahan, Communications Strategist

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