The faces that peer out from within the colorful matte borders appear aloof, detached--sort of like the glossy people in magazines. But 14-year-old photographer Erica Stewart knows better.
The subjects of her black-and-white photos are people she sees every day, classmates at Sousa Middle School in Southeast Washington.
And no matter how cool they look in the photos, she knows firsthand how silly they can be in person.
"Parris--he's kind of crazy but real smart. Kaleda--she's always laughing and acting goofy. Barbara is nice the majority of the time," Erica confided, describing the true personalities of the people featured in her eighth-grade photography project, "Our Faces: The Faces and Expressions of My Friends."
She took the photos as a way to dispel stereotypes about Southeast and to make people "think three times" before judging her and her friends based on clothes or Zip code.
Stewart's photos will be accompanied by the works of three other young shutterbugs in an exhibition that will run through this month at One Judiciary Square in Northwest Washington.
A group project also will be on display, showcasing photos taken on a day trip to New York City.
Erica and 15 other students participated in FOCUS, an after-school photography program started by third-year teacher Jason Kamras, who was looking for a fun way to apply math concepts. The students use fractional comparisons to determine shutter speeds and apertures, ratios to mix chemicals and linear measurements to compose, crop and frame their work. Kamras also requires the youths to write paragraphs describing how they feel about the pictures as a way to bolster writing skills.
"They get a bad rap every day," Kamras said of his students, some of whom he gives rides home or takes to McDonald's after school. "A lot of people who work in Washington never cross the Anacostia River. They think of everything across the river as one homogenous ghetto. I wanted my kids to have the chance to show themselves through their own eyes."
The other artists in the show are Devon Morgan, Barbara Wilson and Christopher Lane. Christopher chose his basketball teammates and other friends to pose as models for his project, "Around the Way: Hanging Out With My Boys."
In one photo, six young men try their hardest to look tough yet suave as they pose in front of a chain-link fence. They are all wearing matching Hawaiian-print shirts and fade haircuts, their hands joined in brotherhood. This one is Christopher's favorite.
"The expressions are good," he said. "They look cool. The shirts--I like the designs. Palm trees, bottles, cars. It looks like they're on a beach."
While their friends were taking advantage of the first summery days of the year, Christopher, Erica and the other FOCUS participants remained in the school's darkroom--a converted classroom--for hours, hunkered over smelly pans of developing fluid and listening to TLC on the radio.
The students took the school's eight cameras home for a weekend and then stayed an extra two hours at school many days of the week for three months.
The results, the students said, were worth the free time they gave up.
"I thought it was amazing when the picture formed," Christopher said, recalling the first time he developed his own photos and watched as fuzzy blobs magically evolved into the arms, legs and smiles of his friends.
"I didn't think it was that hard, but we did do a lot of work," Erica said. "I know I can take this on as a career."
She knows her newfound expertise may surprise some.
"When people see you, they don't know what type of skills you have," she said.
To Kamras, the exhibition is a milestone.The program is paid for through a public school grant and uses darkroom equipment donated by Penn Camera, but it took the teacher more than a month to find a location willing to show the students' work.
When he told the students the exhibition had been approved, they were wide-eyed, Kamras said. They distributed 200 invitations to parents, teachers and friends for the exhibit's July 1 opening.
"There's a buzz around the school," Kamras said. "They were very excited to know that somebody wanted to look at their photos.
"They can show the rest of D.C.: 'This is who we are.' That they are more than the evening news."
CAPTION: Students' photographs will be exhibited this month at One Judiciary Square.
CAPTION: Above, Erica Stewart, 14, seated by one of her favorite photographs, says her goal is to dispel stereotypes about Southeast Washington. She made portraits of classmates. Below, teacher Jason Kamras, center, critiques one of the prints made by Barbara Wilson, right, and Erica in the Sousa Middle School darkroom.