The Memory Project: Afghanistan

The Memory Project: Afghanistan
Geoffrey Bowman

In the Autumn of 2018, photo teacher Chris Carroll was subbing art classes up at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, CT. He was struck by a series of headshot paintings being created by the class that day. They were lovely little portraits of boys and girls of the same age as the students, painted with a striking red background. Inquiries revealed that this was part of the Memory Project, and the paintings were of children from Pakistan. 

The mission of the Memory Project is kindness.  From their website: "We invite high school art students to cultivate global kindness by creating portraits as special gifts for children around the world. These portraits help the children feel valued and important, show them that many people care about their wellbeing, and provide them with a special childhood memory for the future." 

Mr. Carroll introduced this project to his photography class, and the photos arrived in the spring of 2019.  Cheyenne '22 immediately felt a connection with the refugee child who stood in front of a camera back in Afghanistan.  The child's name is Yaida.

"We were given the child’s name, age, and favorite color," said Cheyenne.  "The photo I was given pictured a girl named Yaida, and her favorite color was blue. In my project, I surrounded Yaida with blue flowers and wrote her name in a unique font. Lastly, each student traced a letter to the child in Arabic and filled in their name, age, and other information."

For Mr. Carroll and the students, this was a powerful exercise in love and perspective:  

Our Saddle River students are photographers, so we work in Photoshop or Illustrator rather than painting. Each student is matched with a subject and receives their name, age, and favorite color as material to use to create their portrait. With so little to go on, students are forced to dig deep in their imaginations to try to create something unique, new, and that their partner will like. 

This project is powerful and profound in several ways. Students consider the lives of someone who looks an awful lot like them, yet lives in profoundly different circumstances. In piercing the bubble of everyday life, doing something simply as a gift of love to a stranger helps us access a part of ourselves not often seen. The opportunity for a mitzvah, the Jewish concept of a good deed done anonymously and with no ulterior motives, is profound and intense. Our students enter into this with a seriousness of purpose and world-wide consciousness, taking them right out of our everyday world and into a place of selfless grace.

After students create their portraits, 8x10 prints were made and then returned to their original subjects. While the logistics are too complicated to allow for individual tracking of work, a film is made every year of overjoyed school children receiving what, for many, is the only gift they’ll ever see. And to gaze upon a portrait of themselves, created by friends across the world, well, I dare you to watch the film made of the handing-over and not wet an eye. 

Mr. Carroll and his photography students will continue with The Memory Project again this year with a group of boys and girls from Nigeria.

For more info on the Memory Project: