When Marina Rael signed up for the Hello Neighbor project earlier this year through her art class at South Meadows Middle School, she really just wanted to learn more about photography.

But after interviewing and getting to know several Hillsboro residents who have contributed to the community, she was inspired COURTESY PHOTO: WALTERS CULTURAL ARTS CENTER - The 13 students in the Hello Neighbor program held half-hour group interviews with each neighbor, then chose a single quote that reflected the persons character and put it on their photo banner.

“I never really paid attention to it before,” Rael, 14, said. “This program really opened my eyes.”

At about a dozen schools across Oregon, photographer Julie Keefe has put fancy digital cameras in the hands of middle school students since 2008 and given them an assignment: get to know your neighbor.

The project brings together students and everyday community members for an in-person interview and a photo shoot. The resulting giant portraits have been hung on Main Street in Hillsboro.

The process helps the young people feel connected to their community at a critical moment when relationships with others can make the difference in jobs, school and social interactions down the road, Keefe said.

“As you head toward middle school and high school, that disconnect can happen,” she said.

Hillsboro students’ work will be in the spotlight alongside Keefe’s on Tuesday, Aug. 6, at the Walters Cultural Arts Center. On exhibit will be portraits of students’ neighbors and the students’ portraits, along with work from another Hillsboro photographer, Pamela Brown Wilkinson.

Students’ insights

Thirteen students from South Meadows Middle School worked with Keefe from early spring through the end of June in a series of afterschool sessions and Saturday excursions. This was the second year Keefe has done the project in Hillsboro, and she’s been impressed with students’ insights like Rael’s.

“I love that Hillsboro has so much diversity in it — once you do this program you really realize how beautiful it is — before I did this program I never really paid attention to the people or the environment that I lived in but after interviewing so many people with different cultures and different occupations I realized that there are still some good people out there,” Rael said.

They kicked off with a three-hour session that focused on the nuts and bolts of using the SLR digital Nikon cameras — from focusing to zooming and a handful of other techniques.

Many of the students became savvy in a short time, Keefe said.

“Once you got used to the camera it was pretty easy to use,” Rael said. Getting a great picture took a little more finesse and a lot of repetition, she COURTESY PHOTO: JULIE KEEFE - Students gather around neighbor Jaime Miranda, trying to catch the perfect photo after interviewing him.

“You have to take a lot of pictures to get a good one.”

Interviewing adults

The interviews took place as a group, and all 13 students interviewed an adult for about 30 minutes, Keefe explained. At the end, they decided together on a quote for the banner that reflected the person’s character.

Then the students took the person’s picture.

In the beginning, Keefe was surprised that the students weren’t interested in knowing which one of them had taken the photo she chose to use for the banner — none of them asked.

“It really doesn’t come up,” she said. “I’ve done this with 200 to 300 kids and it really does not come up.”

Keefe thinks the students feel a strong sense of group investment in the effort, a true form of community art.

“The beauty is that all of them claim ownership for it.”

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