Senior art major explores themes of diversity through photography.

By McKenzie Van Loh

Ben McKeown grew up in suburbia. He attended a private Christian school. He worshipped at a traditional Lutheran church. When he first set foot on Bethel University’s campus freshman year in the fall of 2014, the people he met were not much different than his friends from high school in Richfield, Minnesota. Most of his friends were white with a similar culture.

When McKeown had the opportunity to study abroad in Australia at Bond University in the fall of 2016,  he eagerly boarded the plane in hopes of experiencing something new.

During orientation, McKeown went to a coffee shop with some other new students from Bond. They came from places like Pakistan, China, Kenya and India. While hearing their stories, McKeown realized these students were not just news articles from a foreign country.

“I have a tendency to make my experiences the standard in my mind. I’ve grown to take people at face value and not put expectations or assumptions on them.” Ben McKeown, senior

“These are actual people that I can know,” McKeown said. “It’s just because I’ve never tried to step outside my community is the reason I’ve never met people like these.”

After getting to know these students, McKeown couldn’t help but ponder the separation he had lived from other people. He decided to investigate this topic further through his graphic design senior seminar project.

“I have a tendency to make my experiences the standard in my mind,” McKeown said. “I’ve grown to take people at face value and not put expectations or assumptions on them.”

McKeown created his display in two parts. The first is a collection of portrait photographs of more than 50 people taken by McKeown. The photos are blurred and put into a video where they cycle through rapidly. The video is projected onto the wall.

“I blurred them to say ‘when you make assumptions or generalize someone or allow stereotypes to define who they think they are, you diminish who they actually are to this unclear shape you can see,” McKeown said.

Student observes artwork by Ben McKeown at the art students’ senior seminar show opening Feb. 2. Photo by Jake Van Loh

The second part of the display is a collection of framed portraits that McKeown photographed of himself. These photos are not blurred. However, McKeown layered a piece of frosted paper over each portrait with scribbled words he fears people will perceive him as.

“I’m pretty reserved generally and I have a small group of friends so I fear people would perceive me as cold or distant, but I don’t think I am those things,” McKeown said.

“Art so often is not really seen as a device for social change,” art professor Kenneth Steinbach said. Steinbach finds it rare to see students from a more privileged background genuinely deconstruct their identities and examine their perceptions.

“We’re really proud of these kinds of ideas in the art department because it does represent somebody who is using the craft and the field of art to really examine the world,” Steinbach said.

While deconstructing his identity and pondering his perceptions, McKeown believes being aware of Bethel’s “bubble” is a good first step toward living a life where people aren’t just news articles.

“I don’t mean to dramatize it like you have to study abroad, cause [diversity] exists here,” McKeown said.

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