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Lansdowne High visual arts project spotlights faces in the crowd

Hugo Lopez never thought he'd see his face on the wall of his school, but toward the end of his freshman year at Lansdowne High School, there he was, in a 36-inch-by-52-inch, black-and-white portrait — eyes shut, tongue out.

The 15-year-old figured if he was going to take advantage of this opportunity, he'd show off his goofy side.

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"To me, I look amazing," he said, shortly after he applied papier-mâché glue to the portrait on the brick wall near the school's driveway.

The portrait is one of 15 that line the walls of the school. It's part of a project assigned by photography and visual arts teacher Alexandra Harter and aligned with the Inside Out project, a global collaboration that promotes the idea of using portraits to make statements.

The project was initiated by French artist JR during a talk at the TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., in 2011. Since the talk, which won the $1 million TED Prize, the global project has included 260,000 participants in 129 countries. Themes, according to the project's website, range from hope, diversity, gender-based violence and climate change.

Nearby, a Black Lives Matter project featuring 42 portraits of Morgan State University students, staff, faculty, a graduate and a baby was organized by the school's visual arts department. It was done in April 2015 and was featured by the project as a "best of" entry.

At Lansdowne High School, the students were charged to write a mission statement for their project, known as the Face2Face campaign.

"The Face2Face campaign strives to inspire and change preconceived societal differences faced by all aspects of Lansdowne," it reads. "It encourages all to look past the stereotypes and reveals the diverse personalities and distinct people that make up our community."

Harter wanted to portray the school in a favorable light through its students. She did the portrait project a few years ago but never got the posters printed. This year, she was able to follow through.

She asked her 15 photojournalism students to take pictures of people who best represented the school. She gave them directions on how to take portraits and get fun expressions.

Harter knew that from the beginning her students were enthusiastic about the project.

"I think it's important for kids to recognize that this a good place and to see the positive things in it," Harter said.

The students — a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors — went around the school to take photos of their peers. The class then narrowed the more than 100 submissions to 30, then again to the final 15.

Tara Pope, a senior, took a photo of her friend, fellow senior Nicholas Heckathorn.

She was excited about the project because she thought it would be a way to bring people in the school together.

She also worried everyone would be taking photos of the same thing — people smiling. So she set out for something different, something with more emotion.

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In her photo, Heckathorn is in a tuxedo and looking up.

"I told him to do something crazy," she said. "We had mock interviews [that day], so he was already dressed up. It was perfect timing."

After graduation, Pope plans on studying photography at Community College of Baltimore County, so having her work on display is something she is excited about.

Junior Briona Vennie looked forward to the project after seeing another school do it. She also has an interest in pursuing photography as a career. Shooting photos of her peers was her favorite part.

She feels honored to have her work on display in such a public fashion.

"It feels really nice to see that people can see what we all can do and what I can do," she said. "It was really fun to make the people comfortable and try to break out their best self."

Harter is hopeful the photos will stay up through the summer months and for the start of the new school year. Nature is the only force that will stop that from being the case.

As Hugo and his classmates continued to put up the portraits, he was proud to see his face on the wall and what it stood for.

He's excited about the idea of the incoming freshman class coming from Lansdowne Middle School, located a short walk away, seeing what their new school represents and who the faces on the wall are.

"That's me," Hugo said. "That's the fun side of what the school is."

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