Some teenagers may hope to fit in.
But for an 18-year-old who goes by the stage name Youngmichael, it's better to stand out.
“I want everyone to know I'm not the same; I'm very, very different,” he said. “You can't compare me to anyone or anything. I'm just too out there.”
The rapper, producer and dancer is one of 14 young people represented in an immersive photography exhibition called “Portrait Project,” up now through November in the Seaport Culture District, part of a Howard Hughes Corporation initiative that brings art to South Street Seaport through partnerships with cultural organizations. Organized by Art Start, a non-profit that brings arts workshops to homeless and underserved youth, the project presents participants in dreamlike, fantasy settings.
“They were dreaming up their future and they were thinking of things way beyond what their immediate circumstances are,” said Natalie Brasington, a photographer and producer of the project. “Regardless of where you were that day and what trials and tribulations you're dealing with, you get to be whoever you want to be in front of that camera.”
Art Start, a Chelsea-based organization, works with homeless and underserved youth, bringing regular workshops to city shelters and to those with open court cases through alternative sentencing programs. Of those photographed for the exhibition — all participants in Art Start's programming — some were young mothers living in shelters; others were at risk of incarceration. Some were participants in Art Start's application-based six-month emerging artists-in-residence program. The residency includes coursework at esteemed organizations, such as the International Center of Photography and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as resume help, website building and interview training, said Hannah Immerman, co-executive director of Art Start.
Brasington, an Art Start volunteer for seven years and a member of its board of directors, gathered a group of photographers to volunteer for the project. Other art professionals lent their services, including Michael Abrego and Bailey Powell with Fast Ashley's studio in Williamsburg, who provided all the photography equipment for the shoots, a service that allowed the photographers to focus exclusively on their relationships with the subjects of the portraits and collaborate with the young participants, helping them express their individuality and vision.
For Youngmichael, who started working with some of the organization's hip-hop teaching artists at age 15, his portrait shows the scale of his ambitions. In his image, he's rapping on the surface of the moon, surrounded by stars and infinite space, the earth off in the distance, no bigger than a silver dollar. He's flanked by tigers, animals he admires because they rarely roar but are still ferocious.
“The whole idea is to aim for the stars, and even if I miss at least I'll land on the moon,” he said.
Miky Solano, 24, who came to Art Start after an arrest as a teenager, took a more subtle approach to his portrait: he stands alone in a lush, green forest, wearing a zoot suit and holding a trumpet, an instrument he doesn't play but developed an interest in while with Art Start's hip-hop program.
“Some of the sounds that come from the instruments are like the sounds that come from forests or the natural earth,” he said.
In the exhibition, photographs hang on geometric sculptures of unfinished two-by-fours, and an audio loop with excerpts of interviews with each portrait subject intersperses an ethereal music track, with statements like “your heartbeat is the music” and “if you live your life with positive energy, your life will be positive.”
Each portrait, which remains on display in the outdoor gallery on Front Street through November, is accompanied by an autobiographical blurb, with many outlining the hopes for the roads ahead. A 20-year-old woman named Nicola, photographed in a fuchsia ball gown in a lavish suite at the New York Palace Hotel with her young son Malachi, wants a child-proofed home with a doorman and Dr. Seuss books. She hopes to become a registered nurse. Another young woman imagines walking the runway as a fashion model, and elected to shield her face with a masquerade mask in her portrait, shot by Brasington, so no one could recognize her.
Solano now works for Art Start as an assistant hip-hop teaching artist, and recently traveled to Germany to perform and lead workshops with schools and a prison.
“It opened my mind and my eyes even further,” he said. “Just to travel and be in a different country, especially because the reason I went to a different country was because of hip-hop.”
Youngmichael, who volunteers with the organization, said he's encouraging young artists to make their ways as individuals, and embrace their individuality.
“There were a lot of people saying they wanted to be the next Jay-Z, and I'm like, 'that's already taken,'” he said. “There's already a Q-Tip, there's already a Lil Wayne. You should focus on becoming the next whatever your first name is.”
The Portrait Project is up now at Cannon's Walk at 206 Front St. in the Seaport Culture District, and includes free family art workshops every Saturday from 11-a.m.-3 p.m.