“Portraits of Purpose” Photo Exhibit Reflects on Boston’s History of Social Justice

The BCAE unveils its latest installation.

A portrait of Harry Belafonte featured in new photography exhibit at BCAE.

Photo by Don West

With a mission to educate, inspire, and foster community, the Boston Center for Adult Education (BCAE) welcomes its latest photography installation: “Portraits of Purpose.” Shot and curated by photojournalist Don West, the exhibit features images of prominent activists, change makers, and leaders in Boston’s African-American community.

From its inception, “Portraits of Purpose” was designed to spark dialogue and prompt viewers to think critically about their role in an ever-changing social world. West was first commissioned by the Museum of African American History in 1998 to create the exhibit in conjunction with a “Century Conversation”—an open dialogue on the status of race relations and the African-American experience in Boston. Since then, the exhibit has been showcased in schools, libraries, and galleries across the city, frequently accompanied by a guided discussion on its significance.

Tom Formicola, the BCAE’s director of advancement and special programs, is excited to partner with West, and sees the exhibit as an opportunity to empower visitors while also giving them a sense of the richness of Boston’s history.

“We try to link in with photographers who have a finger on the pulse of what interests the community,” Formicola says.

The photographs, some dating as far back as 1980, depict local leaders such as Doris Bunte, Mel King, and the Bolling family, as well as prominent visiting figures like Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem. With over 100 images included in the exhibit, visitors can become immersed in Boston’s history of social change, with a clear emphasis on African-American history.

“My focus was mostly in the communities of color because I felt that they were not getting a good representation in the general press, in terms of the stories that were being covered and the images that were being shot,” West says. “I wanted to elevate the image of people of color.”

In addition to providing a new platform for dialogue and giving visibility to the lesser-known parts of history, West hopes visitors take away the message that they, too, can create social change.

“It just helps to show people that we all can make a difference,” West says. “Nobody’s going to make this change unless we stand up and do something ourselves.”

The exhibit will officially be unveiled to the public at a free opening reception on February 3 and will be in place through April 2017. For those who want to take the Portraits of Purpose experience home with them, West created a coffee table book featuring photos of the exhibit along with text by journalist Ken Cooper, providing a deeper look at the stories behind the images. Continuing the exhibit’s tradition of provoking dialogue, director Raquel Ortiz will lead a discussion on February 15, focusing on the ongoing pursuit of social justice and its representation in Portraits of Purpose.

Free, Boston Center for Adult Education, 122 Arlington St., Boston, bcae.org.