‘A Lesson in Longing’: U-M students team up to create portraits of their campus community

From "A Lesson in Longing." Photos by Michael O'Brien and text-based works by N'Dea Shelton.
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After transferring to the University of Michigan in fall 2020, N’Dea Shelton, a senior studying history at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, was looking for a way to get to know her new classmates.

“As a transfer student, I wanted to connect with this university better,” she said. “I wanted to get to know who was here because it is really easy sometimes to just live—to just walk and not pay attention to anyone.”

At the same time, Michael O’Brien, a first-year MBA student at the Ross School of Business and a photographer, was also seeking to understand his new community and the U-M culture.

With this shared desire to make meaningful connections, O’Brien and Shelton have collaborated on “A Lesson in Longing,” a project that combines photography, interviews, music and text to produce multidimensional portraits of U-M students. The project takes its name from a 2019 Jennifer Packer painting of two figures within a spectral domestic interior.

The two artists were brought together by the U-M Arts Initiative, having served this past semester as Creative Fellows for its “Bridging the Divide” project. The initiative aims to expand art access and promote art making by U-M students across all disciplines, and it launched “Bridging the Divide” to support and mentor student work focused on connection, collaboration and healing. Twenty-one students across eight university units participated as inaugural Creative Fellows for the project.

To create the portraits of “A Lesson in Longing,” O’Brien and Shelton developed a two-part process that generated multiple portraits of each subject. First, O’Brien photographed each subject in their home. He deliberately chose a technically cumbersome film-based process for these portrait sessions, a 4×5 camera, in an effort to slow down and spend time with his subjects. Each photo shoot lasted up to two hours, he said.Those same students were then interviewed by Shelton, who asked them to complete statements such as “I’m on a journey toward,” “The world would be a better place with” and “One song that describes my place in life is.” To produce her portraits, Shelton then overlaid the interviewees’ answers on photos taken by the subjects themselves from their windows. She also included Spotify codes to the subject’s selected songs.

While O’Brien’s photos capture a subject’s likeness, Shelton’s text-based images are fully anonymous and won’t be displayed side-by-side with the students’ photos when “A Lesson in Longing” is installed April 8. Similar to O’Brien’s goal in engaging long portrait sessions, Shelton promised anonymity in her portraits so her subjects felt free to be honest and open in their answers.

“They are free to say what they want to say without anyone casting judgment, without anyone attributing their picture or face to anything they say,” Shelton said.

The collaborators chose to work with students they may not have otherwise encountered in order to center the process of building relationships through art making.

“I’m drawn to photographing communities that I’m a part of, essentially in an effort to get to know them better,” O’Brien said. “I’d basically been making portraits of family members, and I really wanted to make portraits of people I didn’t know.”

“On a personal level, I wanted to build confidence speaking to people at this university,” Shelton said. “With this project, people have been extremely willing to share their opinions and pieces of their lives with me.”

Taken together, O’Brien’s and Shelton’s images depict multiple facets and different perspectives of the students that make up the U-M campus community.

“I describe Michael’s role as capturing the person in their environment, and my role was to try to capture the person’s personality that maybe the photo doesn’t show, the words that they say and what they feel,” Shelton said.

“A Lesson in Longing​​” will be on view 4:30-7 p.m. April 8 at the Nichols Arboretum Reader Center at 1610 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, as part of a special showcase of all the Arts Initiative “Bridging the Divide” projects.

The reception with art, food and music is free and open to the public.

More Information

The University of Michigan Arts Initiative seeks to illuminate and expand human connections, inspire collaborative creativity, and build a more just and equitable world through the arts. Learn more here.