20 Years Of The Harvard Portrait Project: Q&A With Creator Tony Deifell

Tony Deifell, right, works with an MBA student on his essay for the Harvard Portrait Project. Photo credit: Susan Young

In 2002, Tony Deifell asked more than 100 of his Harvard Business School classmates to reflect on a question simple to ask, somewhat harder to answer: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Back then, as an HBS MBA candidate himself, Deifell was thinking about a class project on reflective leadership. He came across a poem, “The Summer Day,” by one of his favorite poets, Mary Oliver. The question posed in the last two lines was a perfect prompt for students on the cusp of starting their careers. Deifell, a photographer by training, envisioned a collection of portraits and essays from his HBS section, something that could commemorate their upcoming graduation.

Word spread, and the project grew. In the two decades since, the Harvard Portrait Project has become a beloved school tradition that brings Deifell back to campus every spring to take his signature black-and-white portraits and help MBAs refine their essays. He asks every one to respond to the same simple, yet profound prompt.

To date, 712 MBAs have participated in the project, including 20 from this year’s Class of 2022.

“I thought it would be a cool project for graduation; I didn’t imagine it would last 20 years. But this project struck a nerve with students, and the poem by Mary Oliver continues to strike a nerve,” says Kim Clark, dean of Harvard Business School from 1995 to 2005. “What comes out of this project–with the beautiful portraits and what the students are writing–is an image of Harvard Business School keeping to what–beginning many years ago–we intended for it to be. That’s what you read when you go through the essays.”


When Clark first heard about Deifell’s class project, he wondered why the school would get involved. The more he thought about it, however, the more he thought it was a chance to capture the essence of what HBS students are really about. It’s why the school asked Deifell to expand the project beyond his own section and create a full exhibit for the graduating class.

Kim Clark

“The mission of HBS that we emphasized when I was dean–and what they still do–is to educate leaders who make a difference in the world,” Clark tells Poets&Quants. That is true not just for graduates going into corporate America, but for those entering entrepreneurship, social enterprise, government, communities, or wherever they choose to go.

People who read even a fraction of the essays will find a level of reflection about HBS, about the students and their places in the world, and about the type of future they hope to create that would be nearly impossible to get at in another forum, says Clark, now the NAC Distinguished Professor of Strategy at the Marriott School of Business at BYU.

Clark believes The Harvard Portrait Project will continue to have a lasting impact on the school.

“Not just for the graduating students, but for the students who are coming into the school. They hear about it, they know about it, and it energizes them. It changes who applies,” he tells P&Q. “People who see themselves going into political or government roles, or in the nonprofit world, or who see themselves wanting to make a difference in their country, HBS becomes relevant to them. It broadens the scope of what the HBS mission is today.”


Two decades ago, Deifell had to twist arms and pull teeth to convince some classmates to reflect. Now, students compete to be included in the Harvard Portrait Project. Some 136 printed portraits hang in Spangler Center where MBAs gather to study and along the walls of Dillon House where prospective students come to meet with admissions staff. In 2019, Vanity Fair mentioned the project in its obituary of Mary Oliver, the poet whose two lines at the end of one poem inspired the whole thing.

In honor of the milestone, Poets&Quants asked Deifell to reflect on 20 years of the Harvard Portrait Project and its legacy. That conversation is presented below, edited for length and clarity. We also asked Deifell to share some of his favorite portraits and essays from the Class of 2022, recently published on the Harvard website in honor of graduation. You can read those here.

Tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to Harvard Business School in 2000.

I went to the University of North Carolina, and I majored in both journalism and anthropology, though I ended up dropping journalism. I also did a lot of student activism on campus. I decided to major in anthropology, but I was really eager to do something afterwards that brought those worlds together. Not going in a traditional journalism path or photography path, and not just like some corporate job or whatever, so I mixed them all.

Tony Deifell at HBS. Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

I started a nonprofit, the Institute for Public Media Arts, which focused on media literacy and empowerment in youth. We made grants to colleges to help integrate video into the classroom to get at different identity issues. It was called the -Ism Project–racism, sexism, ect.–and we had a youth voice radio station. So it mixed my worlds of leadership, media making and the study of human behavior.

I then wanted to figure out how to do it at a larger scale, and so that got me thinking about business school. Lucky enough, I got into HBS.

And where did the idea for the Harvard Portrait Project come from?

HBS was an exercise in diversity for me because people were from all over the world. I was interacting with people with many different perspectives on the economy, how money works, and the role of business. It pushed my comfort zones, but in a way that made me both smarter and built more compassion for the integration of different disciplines.

We had a lead class taught by the former dean Nitin Nohria–we just happened to have him before he was dean. We talked about reflective leadership, but then we didn’t actually do a lot of reflection. That had been a large part of my world before; When you work with young people, you do a lot of experiential learning and reflection. It just occurred to me that this was one little, tiny thing I can do to help my section have a cool project, practice reflection, and we’ll see what happens with it.

I happened to be reading Mary Oliver, who was one of my favorite poets at the time, and I came across this poem called “The Summer Day.” It ends with this particular line: “Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

I thought, “What a perfect question.” I decided to just ask people to write a response and to use the talent I brought there–which had nothing to do with business–and that was photography. I started taking portraits of my classmates and asking them to write an essay to that prompt.

Now, it’s like a competition–people submit essays and there’s a finite number of slots. But back then, I just photographed anybody that wanted to do it. Sometimes, it was like pulling teeth to get them to write something. Or they wouldn’t put a lot of effort into their essay because nobody understood what it would become.

That year, 2002, I ended up doing 100 portraits because some other sections heard about it. Then the school heard about it, and they thought they could do an exhibit, but they couldn’t do an exhibit of just one section.

The next year, some students and the school wanted to continue it and I thought, “Okay, let’s go.” I never thought it would be here 20 years from now.

NEXT PAGE: Choosing the right aesthetics + How MBAs answer the question

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