Michael Cheers’ Portrait Academy

By Neelanjana Gautam

For the fall 2020 semester, Associate Professor of Journalism Michael Cheers devised a unique teaching plan for his digital photography class.

The students got to hone their portrait photography skills by focusing on a gamut of models such as the Folklorico Dancers and Day of the Dead performers, the ministerial leadership team at Maranatha Christian Center and the barbers from Barbers Inc. Since the small businesses were hit badly by the coronavirus shutdown, Cheers encouraged his students to donate their portraits to barbers to help them rebuild their social media platforms.

As remote learning posed challenges for teaching skill-based practical courses, Cheers came up with the idea of Portrait Academy, an initiative that sought to fuse student engagement with the community. It was held on three Saturdays in October. For the participating students, the project served as their midterm project as well as an opportunity to build a quality portfolio.

Cheers worked with Josie Lepe, ’03 BFA, ’22 MFA Photography, and his co-instructor on special projects and labs for several years. Following all the protocols of COVID-19, Lepe and Cheers assembled a team of the finest portrait photographers in the Bay Area including Jim Gensheimer, LiPo Ching, and Randy Vazquez, ’15 Photojournalism, who was responsible for tutoring the 14 students who participated in the project.

“Every Tuesday and Thursday Josie and I would critique the students’ work on Zoom from the previous Saturday, and give them positive feedback on how to improve for the upcoming Saturday. Amazing results,” says Cheers.

As a supervisor, Cheers’ task was to ensure the program ran effectively. Along with University Photographer Robert Bain, Cheers captured behind-the-scenes photos of the students engaged in the process of shooting portraits at four different pods including downtown San José, Santana Row, City Hall Plaza and Maranatha Christian Center.

Since his joining San José State in 2006, Cheers has embedded himself in the community. Much like his inspiration Gordon Parks, the legendary portrait and a documentary photographer, Cheers has been sharing stories and struggles of the local community through his documentaries, photographs and op-ed pieces. “I have always believed that any university should engage with and serve the community in which it resides,” he says.


Neelanjana Gautam

Neelanjana Gautam, '21 MS Mass Communication, is a graduate student writer on SJSU's Strategic Communications and Marketing team.

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1 Response

  1. Midge Robinson says:

    Enjoyed the photography and the subjects of the photos made me want to know more about the cultures and subjects.

    Thank you for the innovative teaching and the opportunity to enjoy art and culture.

    Midge Robinson

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