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

Tony Deifell taking a portrait for the Harvard Portrait Project in 2017. Photo credit: Evgenia Eliseeva

And you still return to HBS every year to do the project?

I go back every year with the main purpose of giving students feedback on their essays. It becomes a kind of philosophical conversation a lot of times because we’re asking students to talk about what they want to do with their life. I ask more prodding questions and help them improve their writing. And then I do the portraits, mainly to maintain a consistent look and feel. Certainly they could have hired different photographers over the years, or students who have a knack for photography can do it. But it wouldn’t all hold together as a collection or as a body of work.

Yes, one thing I find striking about the portraits when viewed as a collection is how stylistically similar they are, but also how different the individual faces. How did you come up with the look and feel when you started the project? Why did you decide to do black-and-white portraits?

I wanted to do black and white partly because, in the beginning, it was less expensive to do. I was still shooting film in those days, and so I only took six shots per person. Now I take hundreds.

Black and white photography also simplifies an image when you want to focus on something, and I really wanted to focus on people’s eyes and the granular, more subtle expressions that they had. My curatorial slant on the project is contemplation because this was about reflective leadership. But contemplation can have many nuanced emotions within it. It can have joy, a kind of seriousness, it can have curiosity. You’ll notice that these aren’t big smiley pictures for your mom, and I’ll tell students that when I’m taking pictures of them. It’s part of a collection that serves a larger purpose, which is for the school and for this time in life. 

Other aesthetic decisions were to always shoot horizontally, and I always look for a place on campus where the viewer can be like, “I think I know where that is.” I look for the abstract shapes on campus with big columns, big windows, lines of lights. The background is almost just as important, in a way, for the whole picture because it brings out the contrasts. I really look for the way the shadows, lights and shapes play in the background.

Do you think MBA students answer the question differently in their essays than, say, if you were doing this in the law school or for any other group of people?

I do a similar project called “Why Do You Do What You Do?” which actually partly grew out of doing the Harvard Portrait Project. It’s a similar question around purpose and asking somebody to be reflective about their purpose. I’ve done that with lots of different groups, and it does generally change. For instance, I did it at Google at the director level, and the answers were largely about technology and the role technology plays in the world. And then I did it with a group of environmental activists and it was about the Earth.

At HBS, I would say it’s fairly diverse in terms of some of the subject matter. People will talk about environmentalism or gay rights, but it’s always in the context of what HBS prepares you for–which is not just the business world, but leadership. HBS does a good job of preparing students’ mindsets to be the leaders of their organizations, wherever they are. So it can be very ambitious, and I encourage that. There was a classmate in my class who put in his essay that he wanted to be president of the United States. Then he wanted to take that part out because, you know, it’s probably not going to happen. I was like, “No. Put a stake in the ground. It doesn’t matter if you actually end up being president. It says something about you right now and what you care about.”

One of the things that’s interesting is that there is at least one professor who ended up incorporating the Portrait Project in her class, Over time, it went from like a really quick temporary exhibit at graduation to the school really embracing it. Now, you find the portraits on the walls of every study room in Spangler Center; it fills all the walls of Dillon House, which is the admissions building. So whenever a prospective HBS student comes to campus to do an interview, they get to read all these essays and see the portraits. It’s also integrated into the introductory curriculum and into the capstone.

That’s just been great to see, but I think it’s also helped the project have an impact on the culture of the school.

NEXT PAGE: How reflections have evolved in 20 years of The Harvard Portrait Project

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