Portraits show Kitchener teens how much they’ve changed — and stayed the same — in the past 10 years

A year-end portrait project empowers a group of graduates from Cameron Heights Collegiate Institute in Kitchener, Ontario, with a stronger self-image as they move toward the next chapter of their lives.

The photos are images side by side: portraits taken in the last months of group 12 and portraits taken ten years earlier when the students were in group 2.

It came together after teacher Conan Stark learned that students in his 12th grade photography class had been the subject of an elementary school field trip in 2012.

At the time, he had brought another class of Grade 12 students to Williamsburg Public School to take photos of the students in his wife’s Grade 2 class.

“We went there — just for a day — to teach my students about photojournalism, a kind of on-location photography,” he told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo.

“Jump ahead to this year, earlier in the year I found that some students were now in my 12th grade photography,” he said.

“So it was really this circular moment that came along quite by accident.”

Similar, but different

Anne-Katherine Le (17) doesn’t remember the photographers in her class, but she does remember the activity she did the day the photos were taken — and the determination on her face as she creates a craft.

“I remember that exact photo where I cut the snowflake, because I was using left-handed scissors — and I’m right-handed. So I remember being a kid and really having a hard time cutting the snowflake,” Le said.

Nardos Felefele in grade 12 (left) and in grade 2 (right). Felefele was among a group of children photographed in 2012 by Conan Stark’s photography class, who then entered his photography class at Cameron Heights Collegiate in 2022. Coincidence inspired a portrait series. (Submitted by: Conan Stark)

Many students enjoyed highlighting the similarities and differences between then and now, such as 18-year-old Nardos Felefele.

“I usually don’t get box braids, but lately I’ve had a bit of a kick,” Felefele said. “And it just happened to coincide perfectly for when we took the picture for this. And I was wearing black too, and I look just like my younger self.”

Le also thought about her haircut.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever get bangs again,” Le said. “I rocked them a bit in second grade. I feel like I’m so alike and so different at the same time.”

Core personality and identity

The portraits side by side also gave Stark and his students an opportunity to explore the idea of ​​core memories, identity and personality.

A man with shoulder-length brown hair looks at the camera.
The portrait project came about after teacher Conan Stark learned that students in his 12th grade photography class had been the subject of an elementary school field trip in 2012. At the time, the senior students were taking photos of the students in his wife’s Grade 2 room. class. (starkconan/Instagram)

“The more I looked at the photos and talked to the students in front of me, I began to realize that they had grown a lot, but their core identity was still intact: the same energy, if you will, a similar smile, a tilt of head, a calm,” said Stark.

Both Le and Felifele said they see their personalities shine in the photos from 10 years ago.

For Felifele, she can recognize the sass that she says is still a big part of who she is today. Le sees the seeds of her interest in fashion and design begin to sprout.

“I cared a lot about the way I looked: even that shirt — it says ‘rock star’ on it. I threw a huge fit all over my hair in the morning before I went to school in the morning, as a kid. So now, with the dyed hair , in makeup and fashion as a whole: I can see it,” said Le.

As part of the project, Stark asked his students to write a message to their younger selves. The reports were mostly positive and he was happy to hear echoes of what he has tried to convey over the years as a teacher.

“As a teacher you are not so sure whether it fits, but I do hope that for them: that they continue to keep that positivity,” he says.

Message to younger me

Felifele’s says the message she would send to her younger self is that she should feel safe standing up for herself.

Two photos taken ten years apart.  On the left a young woman wearing a black shirt and looking at the camera with a small smile.  On the right, her younger self looks shyly at the camera in a group photo.
Tatiana Oltianu in class 12 (left) and in class 2 (right). Stark says the more he looked at the photo series, the more he began to see their main personality traits: a smile, an energy. (Submitted by Conan Stark)

“Especially as a woman, and as a woman of color – I wish I had known sooner that standing up for myself would be the most important lesson, and that’s how I move forward in life: making sure my voice is heard, and I expect not that anyone else will do the talking for me,” Felefele said.

Le, meanwhile, would give her 7-year-old self an extra dose of courage.

“Growing up was really, really, really scary for me. Every year I went up a grade I would be so scared of everything, and so anxious all the time,” Le said. “Growing up isn’t that scary. Change isn’t so bad and sometimes change is for the better. Even if some change is terrible – but you grow out of it.”

Oh, and one more thing:

“Never get bangs again.”

Two photos taken ten years apart.  On the left, a young man is wearing a yellow t-shirt and smiling for the camera.  He wears braces and glasses.  To the right, his younger self is also wearing glasses and a blue turtleneck.
Gurik Minhas in class 12 (left) and in class 2 (right). The 12th grade students also wrote messages to their younger selves, which Stark said were mostly positive and encouraging. (Submitted by: Conan Stark)

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