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

·17 min read

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.”

AN HBS LEGACY

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.”

20 YEARS OF THE HARVARD PORTRAIT PROJECT

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

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

Tony Deifell returned to HBS to recreate portraits of subjects 15 years later. He also asked them to reflect on their original essays.

You also asked some of the subjects to reflect on their original essays 15 years later.

Yes, an instructor wanted to ask some students that were in the early years of The Portrait Project to reflect on their essays, so I ended up coming back to campus. We focused on the Boston area students because of logistics, and I took them back to the same place on campus where I took the original and I would try to recreate it as aesthetically as possible.

How did their reflections differ from their original posts? Was there a theme in the new answers?

Well, they partially write to the original prompt, but in reflection on their first essay. I also do alumni gatherings and we would gather in small groups and talk about what we wrote. It was great because it self selects for a very reflective, cool group of people, and it prompts a very meaningful conversation.

So I’ve heard a lot of responses on how people were reflecting on their original essays, and I got a sense of the overall trend. The same thing came out when we did the class project. Initially, alumni feel a little cautious about reflecting on the material because they’re not doing exactly what they wrote. It’s almost like they should feel some shame about the fact that they didn’t follow through on exactly what they wrote. But when they hear that that’s the case for every other student, the shame turns into this recognition that, “Wow, life has a lot of twists and turns, and things we don’t expect that we have to incorporate into our lives. Our values can evolve, our opinions can change. It’s the exact kind of reflective quality that the project is about, but when you have the benefit of a 10-year gap between things you wrote, it really helps precipitate reflection.

Has the theme or subject matter of these MBAs’ essays changed in the 20 years of the project so far? I know, just through our reporting at Poets&Quants, there is a bigger emphasis on DEI, climate change, and other social issues in business students now than there was probably two decades ago.

Yes, and I want to map it out at some point. In terms of being more socially conscious, subjects like activism come up more frequently; people wanting to stand up for a certain right, or an issue, or to be a voice for a group of people who are not often heard in the media.

Speaking out about identity issues became stronger. I think people going into nonprofits and entrepreneurial realms just became more prevalent. You used to say that people go into nonprofits to do good and go into for-profits to make money. That’s not necessarily the case now.

For example, a guy named Jeff Barkas from this year’s batch, wrote about his grandparents who were very active and could do everything–until they couldn’t. He wrote how his family, all of a sudden, had to get all their paperwork and finances in order and many of his grandparents’ last good days were signing legal and financial paperwork. At a time when you should be spending time on relationships, you’re spending time on paperwork. So, he is starting a for-profit company that serves families like his, to help families prepare for aging so you can focus more on meaningful things. To me, who cares if it’s a for-profit or nonprofit, it’s something that does good in the world.

The other trends that I’ve seen is around gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identity. In my year there were students I knew that they were gay–and I don’t think I knew any transgender students–but they wouldn’t put it in their essay. It was several years before anybody acknowledged that they were gay in the project. Then, that started happening more. Then, more students wanted to sort of wave a flag about it because it wasn’t talked about enough, and their work was about changing these stereotypes and more actively talking about it. More recently, it’s evolved to where it’s just actually woven into the essay. It’s who they are, but it’s not the purpose of the essay. I think that is very reflective of the societal shifts we’ve had.

I would say also that mental health has, in the last few years, gone through a similar pattern as with LGBT+ students. People have begun to acknowledge that as a part of their identity, which is nice, because I think that’s one of the last vanguards of things that people are shedding shame around and are willing to talk about publicly.

What’s next for the project?

One thing I want to do eventually is put together a book, not just repeating the stories and the pictures, but having connective tissue and follow up interviews with the students as well. I have this idea where I’ll just sit down and read all 712 essays, or however many there are at the time, and interview students and write about the lessons the project can offer.

What are you doing now?

I live in San Francisco, and I have a 10-year-old son. I’m running a company called Awesome Box, which is a web service for people to collect photos and stories by inviting other people to participate. Then, it rolls all them up into printed products. So, it’s not like just making an online photo album, but they are collected into a nicely designed box with cards that has a picture on one side and a story or a memory on the other. It’s 100% customized for the customer.

It’s in the realm of things I’ve cared about, which is rallying a community of people to tell stories and to create a meaningful object that will last.

In your original 2002 essay, you wrote about a blind student whose photography helped you see the cracks in the sidewalk you normally just walked over. She mentioned how her cane gets stuck in those cracks and made it difficult for her to navigate in the world. Looking back 20 years later, how would you reflect on what you wrote in 2002?

I love metaphors and how powerful they can be. I encourage students to search for them in their essays, too.

I focused on that metaphor because I knew that it could capture a lot more than even I knew at the time. Me not seeing those cracks in the sidewalk was because of the privilege that I have, and it was me trying to remove the blinders from my eyes and see the world more realistically and authentically.

Looking back, The Portrait Project has actually been one of the manifestations of what I wrote about in my essay. I wrote about cracks in the world that needed repair—especially ones that often go unnoticed. Personal storytelling is a powerful way for people to become aware of cracks, which often comes from privileges we have due to race, class, gender, education and more.

Over 20 years, students in the Portrait Project have told stories with candor and vulnerability that have changed how I, and hopefully many others, see.

See the entire Harvard Portrait Project collection here. 

DON’T MISS: A selection of some of Tony Deifell’s favorite essays and portraits from the Class of 2022.  

The post 20 Years Of The Harvard Portrait Project: Q&A With Creator Tony Deifell appeared first on Poets&Quants.