Faces of Fremont: Highlighting the Big “Picture” Behind Homelessness


Grace Xu

Under the guidance of Ms. Burton, Irvington students created a photo exhibition to spread awareness about homelessness in Fremont as part of the Faces of Fremont Project.

Walking through Irvington’s campus, you may have noticed mesmerizing large-scale black and white portraits of Fremont residents. The aesthetic photos are part of the Faces of Fremont project Ms. Burton’s class has been working on for the past three years.

The idea originated from the Inside Out Project, started by French artist JR. After receiving a TED Prize in 2011, JR began a participatory photography movement, where individuals and communities could make a statement through large-scale black and white portraits in public spaces to initiate a dialog about important social issues facing their community. 

Drawing inspiration from JR’s movement and the impending homelessness crisis in Fremont, then-senior Grace Xu, pitched the Faces of Fremont project and recruited volunteers from Ms. Burton’s class to launch the project. Through presenting portraits of all Fremont residents–housed and unhoused–Xu and her team hope to remind viewers about the importance of shared humanity, fostering justice, and constructing counter-narratives about being unhoused. 

To create such powerful pieces, Xu and her team spent a significant amount of time planning out logistics through weekly Zoom meetings, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. To fundraise for their cause, the students set up a successful GoFundMe, raising a total of $640, and received a grant from the Fremont Cultural Arts Council. They also posted QR codes through social media platforms to fundraise when conducting photo shoots throughout the community. Given the students couldn’t use wheatpaste, a common adhesive, they collaborated with the Berbawy Makers to create a solution to stick the prints on the school walls using washers. The Berbawy Makers were also instrumental in the printing process, providing ink to create the portraits. 

“The participation itself was a success. I believe the students who participated in the project learned the nuances, importance, and causes of the housing crisis in Fremont and what they might possibly be able to do about it,” stated Ms. Burton, an advisor for the project. 

Upon completing the project, Xu and her team felt accomplished and enjoyed observing the response viewers had to their art. 

“When we see other students look up and point at the ceiling, question, and wonder about the faces, it’s an enlightening moment. Seeing our portraits on the ceiling and Valhalla felt surreal and at the same time, powerful,” recollected Akshaya Ravi (12), co-leader of the project. 

Unfortunately, within four hours, the wind destroyed most of the photos that the students pasted at the front of the school. However, part of the exhibition in the hallway remains safeguarded from the wind and the portraits are still empowering to witness. 

“This taught me a valuable lesson in impermanence and that the process is way more valuable than the product and that’s how I made peace with the disappointment,” stated Ms. Burton. 

Despite the hurdles the students had to overcome to spread their message, they hope to continue the project next year under the guidance of Ms. Burton to raise awareness about the stigma against the unhoused population in Fremont.