Tanvi Bajpai
October 15, 2015 6:00 am

For most students, school projects are tedious and time consuming busy work teachers give if they’re bored of grading tests and quizzes. Once submitted and graded, they are either thrown away or shoved into some archaic closet in the basement or attic, never to be seen by anyone ever again.

However, last school year, Aasha Shaik, who is a current senior at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North (my old high school; GO KNIGHTS!), decided she actually wanted to produce a school project that wouldn’t be forgotten. When her Photography teacher assigned her an essentially “open-ended” final project, one where each individual student would get to choose what the theme of their photographs would be, Aasha saw her opportunity.

While most people in our class (myself included), chose more technical aspects of photography (such as lighting, color, or subject) to focus on, Aasha decided to use her photos to bring light to a cause she felt passionately about combating: societal oppression.

She made a survey asking people about any types of societal oppression they’ve experienced in their day-to-day lives; the questions on the survey covered topics such as beauty standards, mental health stigma, racism, and everyday sexism, as well as a fill in the blank section which asked, “I need feminism because _____.”

The survey also asked if the responders would be willing to model for her photo project. After posting the survey on her Facebook page, Aasha received an overwhelming number of responses; more than 150 people filled the survey out, and about 80 of them indicated that they would be willing to model.

Weeks later, just in time for the project’s deadline, Aasha created and complied the “From The Horse’s Mouth” Project. For the project, volunteers wrote oppressive things that had been said to them on a whiteboard. Their responses were as varied as the people who participated, but seeing them put a face to the problematic things that had been said to them really drove the issues home for everyone who saw Aasha’s project.

Aasha’s goal was to bring light to the forms of societal oppression that people in our own community face. She especially wanted to highlight the hurtful things that people say that they might not realize are hurtful or oppressive.

“A lot of times, we don’t think about the things that come out of our mouths if they’re not blatantly mean or rude, but even the little comments can have a huge impact on someone’s day – or even life – and so I wanted to highlight that potential impact. The hope was that people would be more cautious with their words, particularly around those issue areas.”

“My intention is not to upset my viewers, but rather to increase awareness about the impact of our words, because often, we don’t realize the power of the things we say on a daily basis.”

Aasha’s project also showcased the variety of reasons why students in our community felt they needed feminism, a cause that is especially close to her own heart: “Being a passionate feminist, I also incorporated feminism into my project because I feel as though the term ‘feminism’ has been pushed into a very negative, radical connotation recently, and so I wanted to highlight the ways that all people do, in fact, need feminism in their day-to-day lives. I also tried to incorporate some more light-hearted and fun photographs because again, this is not meant to be desolating.”

Aasha has recently made a Facebook page for her project, and is hoping to continue adding photos to it, and possibly extend the responses to include more people from around her hometown and other schools in her district rather than just her high school.

Her older sister Aleesha, who is a Johns Hopkins University graduate and current Drexel University medical student, is also in the process of creating a project called Homeless but Human, which is set to be a sister-site to Aasha’s page.

Projects like Aasha’s show the profound impact that something that starts as a simple idea can have on a community. I can’t wait to see the photos she continues adding to it and the effect it has on the school and community at large.

(Images via Aasha Shaik.)

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