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Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League Hardcover – October 15, 2008
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PHOTO FINISH: HIGHER CALLING
In 2005, the photographer Jona Frank came across an article in The New Yorker by Hanna Rosin, about Patrick Henry, an evangelical college in Virginia. The article, which Rosin later expanded into the book "God's Harvard," discussed the school's commitment to preparing young Christians for careers in politics. Frank was intrigued by the descriptions of the students most of whom had been home-schooled prior to enrolling at Patrick Henry who aimed to "glorify God with their appearance," and who seemed possessed of an assuredness beyond their years. In 2006, she headed to Virginia, and during the next two years she spent time photographing students at Patrick Henry and their families. The resulting catalogue, "Right," presents a visual world of simplicity and organization clothes are plain (but for the occasional stars-and-stripes tie), walls mostly bare. Frank finds her subjects' vulnerability. They are, she writes in her epilogue, at "the pivotal moment between exploration and discovery," about to enter a world "at odds with the homes they grew up in." The New Yorker
The timing of the release of Jona Frank's new book Right could not be better. The general election is rapidly approaching, and the outgoing administration has relied heavily on Evangelical Christians and the Christian Right as a base of power. Although John McCain is reportedly struggling to capitalize fully on the relationship the Bush Republicans built with Evangelicals, the group remains an important factor in the presidential race.
But while the election year drama provides the perfect milieu into which to publish a book like Right, the electoral influence of Evangelical Christians is only a small part of the story told by Frank in her portrait of Patrick Henry College (PHC), which has been called "Harvard for Homeschoolers."
Michael Farris founded Patrick Henry College in 2000 with a goal of creating an Ivy-League-style institution for homeschooled far-right-wing youngsters. As Hannah Rosin, author of God's Harvard, a book about PHC, notes in her introduction to Right, the college is charged with educating the people that will "Shape the culture and take back the nation" for the Christian Right. "The students who held demigod status on campus fell into two types," writes Rosin of her first observations of the college, "the ones who received perfect scores on their SATs, and the ones who were chosen for White House internships. They were some of the most anal, competitive kids I had ever come across, and the atmosphere on campus was intense."
Frank, who has devoted much of her career as a photographer and filmmaker to documenting cultures of adolescence, began her series of portraits of PHC students after reading a story Rosin wrote about the college for the New Yorker in 2005. "I felt like I had walked into a strange time warp," writes Frank of her first visit to PHC, where students wore "pressed shirts and patriotic ties," and were "incredibly articulate and specific always respectful and courteous."
The PHC students Frank photographed do possess a certain throwback sensibility compared to what we might envision as the look of contemporary college students. There are photographs those of Juli Schuttger and her family, for example in which the students look completely shut-off from the "outside world" of "typical" American youths. Outward attempts at individuality and style are nearly absent from many of the portraits. But in many ways the young people in these photographs seem completely of the moment: When else but now would a 20-year-old sophomore domestic policy major named Jordan wear a stars and stripes lapel pin that also happens to be shaped like a stealth bomber?
Frank has included multiple photographs of many of the students, even delving into the family lives of four. In a majority of th
About the Author
Jona Frank's photographs are in the permanent collection of the Getty and SFMOMA, among others.
Hannah Rosin is a journalist and authority on Patrick Henry College.
Colin Westerbeck is a leading photography historian.
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The fact that students of this school seem unaware of that fact suggests that Jona Frank's bias may, in fact, be proof of her artistic integrity. I will do some research about this school, now, however.
In the meantime, it should be noted that the photos are technically excellent, showing all the elements of a refined and sophisticated aesthetic. And that, arguably, is of higher moral worth than the smug, militantly propagandized educational abortion that characterizes so much "Christian" education. (Yes-- I am biased, too-- I tutor kids at two Christian academies. They have been stuffed with more lies than any other kids I've encountered.)
Even with a strong point of view I feel that Ms Frank created a strong work and is to be commended.
My husband picked up this book from his work's freebie table - direct from the manufacturer to the freebie table. I can't imagine anyone wanting to buy it.
In flipping through the book, it quickly became apparent that this book had an agenda - though in several places the 3 main compilers, Jona Frank (JF), Hanna Rosin (HR) and Colin Westerbeck (CW) claim they do not. They find the subject of Patick Henry College PHC) "interesting." Uh-huh. They've done their best to lead the reader to think "freaks!"
But in fact, when I started reading, the compilers' intentions had the opposite effect on me - I began looking for the bias (shockingly apparent thoughout) and how they were trying to lead me, and instead it created a protective stance in me for these students.
I have heard about PHC but don't know much about it. I do not know anyone that has attended there.
Hanna Rosin (HR), who wrote a similar piece for The New Yorker, cannot grasp that the people who attend PHC have a legitimate world-view. Because "the 3" have a different world-view, they cannot identify with the homeschool movement and PHC's goals, so they ridicule it.
So the students dress like adults instead of "normal," entitled, only-want-to-have-fun teens who frequent our public school colleges (I live near one). HR herself said her college experience was so different that she couldn't wrap her mind around it. It didn't "fit our nostalgic memories of college life." She explains further:"bare flesh, towels on the lawn, music. But alas, none of this was in evidence at PH."
It is as though HR is trying to sound a warning "Careful! Righteousness is afoot! These freaks are actually getting jobs! They are smart and articulate - but not fun! And I don't like it!" The majority of the essays and interviews reflect negatively on PHC. Obviously a slant job.
HR believes that men wearing goatees are rebellious: "a gentle, accepted nod to the demonic." How Disney-esque. She says JF has shown us the "subtle patterns, the common uniform of the school" - umm, see Jona Frank's other work, High School, which shows how typical high school students dress. Go to the mall. Go to the store. Go to any jobsite. PEOPLE DRESS ALIKE. You can be a Pepper too. DUH. She's trying to make students wearing suits to be odd. Maybe THAT should be the norm - maybe our public schooled students should follow PHC's lead and GROW UP. Stop the perpetual adolescent syndrome of most of our sports-crazed men. Do something worthwhile instead. Dream big, like these PHC students.
HR is so sick that she says "I remember once watching Jona set up a shot on the lawn and noting that her subject, a freshman, did not fidget at all. He followed her instructions and posed as she asked. Yet the resulting picture seems quite natural, because posing is a natural condition for them." How ridiculous & insulting! People who don't fidget are at EASE with THEMSELVES! Are you a fidgeter HR? I bet you even raised fidgety kids.
HR attacks a student's 7 y.o. sibling. She doesn't think he's having enough fun because he's a serious kid. He's creating houses from cereal boxes and HR thinks he'd have more fun watching t.v. Odd. She points out the sign behind him that says "Dishes are clean." But she omits the words "dishes are" and says the sign caputres the spirit of PH - clean. Odd.
HR points out that in one family a school day occurred in a bedroom and that photos on the wall of the kids "look like slightly altered versions of each other" like in a catalog of sizes. I hardly believe that every day homeschooling occurred in a bedroom. They obviously have a large home. No adornments on the wall - they put their $ elsewhere, like the gorgeous living room in which we see them reading. And yes, family members look alike. Families generally do.
HR seemed to be picking on a very beautiful young woman named Juli. Personally, I'd rather have Juli as a friend, or even as a First Lady, than HR. Go Juli! I hope you are First Lady one day. You'll do the world a lot of good, whomever you marry. You will have one lucky husband and many children - good for you for knowing you want to stay home and be a homeschooling mother.
I find it interesting that there are no pictures of HR, JF or CW. Perhaps, if there were, we'd find a "nod to the demonic" in their eyes?
Kimbell's rant is typical of most teens. I'm sure that both she and her parents will be highly embarrassed to read her interview. Guess what sweetie? ALL children are spoon-fed their beliefs - some pray 5 times a day, some have a weekly shabbot, others go to a church building, but most just swallow the humanism dished out at public schools. It is rare for most poeople to question what they are taught, or think for themselves, UNTIL they are on their OWN! Your experience is universal - it isn't because you were homeschooled. Your process of growing up was not delayed - you were on schedule. However, perhaps the people you encountered at PHC had already been through the process, thus leaving you with the feeling that you were behind.
I was impressed with everything that Jeremiah Lorrig said. I hope he'll run for something one day. I trust him from what he said.
Colin Westerbeck - You contradict yourself. You say that these kids are "innocents" but then state that "they have carefully rehearsed public personnas." Ridiculous. They don't have enough life experience to have carefully rehearsed public personnas.
Elisa's pose does not look rehearsed. She looks confident and beautiful. Rachel's bedroom isn't a mess - she's packing! Kudos to Kirsten for winning. And I'll bet, CW, that you didn't wear a perfectly tailored suit when you were 20 (or even now?). And you've never worn a Jerry Garcia tie? Come on, you know you did.
I doubt that these students "posture" any more than any other college kid. And just because David and Shant were photographed in the same spot doesn't make them look alike. You are reaching. Bringing up the Academy Award story again was silly - can't you tell it was done tongue-in-cheek?
CW, you are surprised by David because YOU are biased. You are right though, that many homeschooled kids are courted by Ivy League schools.
I find it funny that CW doesn't believe he'd have been successful in living life if he hadn't been "exposed to the rough and tumble of social life in high school." I'm in my 30's and somehow sailed though public h.s. without a rough and tumble social life. In fact, I think I'd have excelled even faster if I'd been homeschooled.
CW's entire essay is just off-base and shameful. Picking on the students, their siblings, and their families. Jonah Frank - why don't you do an expose on HR & CW - and yourself? You can all photograph and write commentary on each other.
JF - Your quote from GW doesn't seem to apply to your work - you are attributing high praise to yourself in using it, yet all of your photos feature people's worst angles. You mean to tell me that the families and children never smiled in your presence? Then maybe they didn't trust YOU. Your work proves you aren't very good at putting people at ease and taking flattering photos.
However, I did think that you were the most genuine of the writers, and you were right-on when you said "We make assumptions about people based on how they choose to ornament their bodies. With the slightest gesture or the simplest pose, a purpose is suggested, a choice made, a conclusion reached. In a split second, we presume truth and create a story." That is exactly what HR & CW did thoughout. They presumed truths and CREATED STORIES.
I recently encountered homeschoolers at a homeschool day at our local aquarium. I too found them enchanting. Like you said, homeschoolers are "incredibly articulate and specific - always respectful and courteous." What a difference from the day I went to the Smithsonian on the public school tour day - that was horrifying! The contrast was remarkable. Perhaps I'll homeschool my 3 y.o. one day.
I applaud Elisa. Sounds like she'll be pursuing not a career but marriage and family. After 20 years of being outside the home, I finally had enough sense to "come home" and work for my family, protecting our interests. What a difference! I think we are the only people in LA without alarm clocks. Life is blissful - we aren't busy or stressed. You're making the best choice, Elisa, Sherri & Juli! You'll never regret it.
JF, you said Elisa is sure of herself, yet you craved freedom. Sounds like Elisa, through homeschooling, LIVED Freedom. There isn't a need to escape commitment like the rest of the "normal" world, because mom being at home and being homeschooled seems to breed a state of freedom and contentment. Either that or it's their belief in Christ that allows them to be free of the bondage you experienced.
Re your statement "It has to be a lot of pressure to have a daily conversation with yourself about how you will impact the world." I can tell you it's NOT a lot of pressure to have a daily conversation with yourself about how you will impact the world. You impact it daily, whether you have the conversation or not. I know that how I treat my husband and raise my son affects not only my son, but his future wife, his children, and his grandchildren. Why not have the daily conversation and add some REAL purpose to your life?