SMAD professor's workshop helps refugees find focus

Media Arts and Design

By Charlotte Matherly, staff writer

A year ago, Mubara Mayar was living in Kabul, Afghanistan. Now, she’s living in Harrisonburg and pursuing photography. And she was among a group of area students — including seven from Harrisonburg High School — who spent a month this summer practicing that art by taking pictures under the guidance of Elisabeth Kvernen, an assistant professor in SMAD.

Now the fruits of that work are being shown in an exhibit at the Smith House Galleries in downtown Harrisonburg. The exhibit, “Here + There: Exploring Multi-layered Identity Through Photography,” focuses on the dual identity of refugees. It is showing through Sept. 24, and the gallery is open for walk-in visits Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibit is also available online

“The idea was to show images that combined ... their life here and their life somewhere else,” Kvernen said. “[It’s] sort of bringing to light that multinational, multi-place identity that we have here … in our community.”

With $2,300 in funding from the JMU faculty senate, Kvernen taught two classes each week for about 15 students. Typically, she said, they’d go out on the JMU Quad and take pictures on their smartphones. Then, they’d talk about the photos and photography basics, such as point of view and leading lines.

kvernen-elisabeth-200px.pngKvernen said the idea for the class came from a personal project. She moved to Harrisonburg from Vietnam a year ago. And now, Kvernen said, she’s exploring how multinational people “combine those worlds and those lives and identities in one place and one person.”

Madison Everett, a senior graphic design and SMAD double major, assisted Kvernen with the workshop and said she saw the high school students’ confidence grow throughout the course. The students were shy at first, she said, but by the end of the month they “really started to explore” the artistry of photography and editing.

Some students were especially into it, Kvernen said, and a few are even considering photography as a career after taking the class. 

She also said one of the most important aspects of the workshop was the chance to interact with other people — both for her and the students.

“It was kind of the first in-person thing a lot of us had done in a long time,” Kvernen said. “I think it’s just the chance to get to know them is really what I appreciated the most.”

Mayar said her favorite subject to capture with her camera is the sky.  “Isn’t it so beautiful?” Mayar asked. 

And while her work is being shown in a downtown gallery, she said her favorite part of the class remains the experiences of taking photos on JMU’s Quad.

“It was kind of adventurous,” Mayar said. “We all were so excited.”

Kvernen said she hopes to run similar workshops in the future and help more students realize that working in the arts can be a viable career.

“Some of them have an interest in this area, so helping support that and encourage that expression is part of it,” Kvernen said. “They can have their work in a gallery … This is important, and so we’re trying to invite their families and communities as well to sort of validate that.”


Prof. Elisabeth Kvernen (far left) poses with
her students from the summer workshop.

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Published: Monday, September 20, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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