WEGO students display their journeys in photography exhibit


Photo by Diego Valdez

Freshman Diego Valdez’s photograph was one of several on display at Gallery 200 in April.

By Julissa Munoz, Reporter

West Chicago Community High School ESL students presented a photography exhibit, “The Journey Home: Photography by Young Sojourners”, which ran from April 8 to April 29 at Gallery 200 in West Chicago.

A promotional piece for “The Journey Home: Photography by Young Sojourners”. (Photo by Mark Poulterer)

The project started 4 years ago (2018-19), led by ESL teacher Mark Poulterer, who was struggling to keep his students engaged or focused.  He had an idea that students could go out with their phones and take photos of things that symbolized the differences between their home countries and the United States. That year, the students ended up creating a book through an online photo developer; each student was given one, and at the end of the year, they signed each other’s copies, creating a memory book. 

“When I realized the success of the project, I began to think of ways to make the project more meaningful and share it with our community.  I acquired grants from three different organizations and was able to buy cameras and frames, as well as pay for developing the photographs, I learned from the first class that using cameras, rather than cell phones, the students would take the project more seriously,” said Poulterer.

For the 2022 exhibit, participants were told to take pictures that represented them and told their stories as immigrants.

The students who participated in the exhibit are enrolled in ESL 2 – many have only been in the country for about two years. Students in the class come from Mexico, Egypt (but consider themselves Sudanese), Colombia, and Afghanistan.

“I remember it’s for me. ‘The Journey Home’ is for me. It’s a big change in two worlds; my world, and the world I came to and going to start in and I’m going to go into my future. So, my past and my future,” said sophomore Humira Hotaky.

Freshman Diego Valdez said the exhibit is “one way to let the people know how life changes from Mexico and here.” 

A gallery open house on April 8 allowed community members to view the photographs, as well as other works of art by students at West Chicago Community High School and local artists. The photographs were displayed next to a brief write-up, in the photographers’ own words, explaining the meaning behind the piece.

Red bill cranes, as photographed by sophomore Juan Valdez Chavez. (Photo by Juan Valdez Chavez)

“The students have done an amazing job this year of expressing what it has been like for them to leave their homes behind, while attempting to create new homes for themselves here,” said Poulterer.

The photographs offer powerful expressions of what it is like to immigrate to the United States: the loss of one home, and the addition of another.

“What has made this project so successful is how seriously the students have taken it. One student asked a friend to wear the traditional clothing from her country so she could take a few pictures.  She ended up taking over 120 photographs! This is the kind of commitment I have seen from many of my students as they grapple with the losses of their homes. At the same time, they prove their resilience as they develop new homes here, in West Chicago and Winfield,” said Poulterer.

Sophomore Humira Hotacky’s final photograph for the exhibit. (Photo by Humira Hotacky)

Poulterer tries not to “reinvent the wheel” in choosing themes, but does strive to offer students a “unique experience” each year. Previous exhibits have included “Torn: A Photography Exhibit by Teens Between Two Worlds” in 2021, and “Images of Lost and Found: Photographs of Mourning and Celebration” in 2020. 

“The students created amazing works of art as well as connected them to their own lives’ journeys.  We worked with Mrs. Renwick to display them at Gallery 200 at the end of the school year, but the pandemic shut everything down, and the photo exhibit was moved to an online forum,” said Poulterer.

The students put lots of effort and dedication into this project because it meant a lot to them. It was a chance for them to express themselves and show the world their origin and their stories.