Michael Farris, the constitutional lawyer who fought hard for the legislation that has allowed the homeschooling movement to flourish across America, founded Patrick Henry College in 2000. A story Farris tells incoming freshman goes like this: He imagines a future Academy Awards ceremony in which the man walking down the aisle to accept the award for Best Picture receives a cell phone call from the President of the United States. The two men were roommates at Patrick Henry College.
This anecdote gets repeated several times in Jona Frank's Right: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League. Essayist Colin Westerbeck refers to it as puerile. In one interview, a PHC student admits that it is unrealistic, but other students find it inspirational. They see in it a concrete example of how the school and its students can realize their founder's vision to change the culture of the United States and take back the country for Christ. PHC, which has been called "Harvard for homeschoolers" and the "Christian Ivy League," is in Purcellville, Virginia, a small town in a bucolic setting within striking distance of Washington, D.C., the destination to which much of its 300 member student body aspires.
Photographer Jona Frank worked with Patrick Henry students between 2006 and 2008, photographing them in their dorm rooms, at school functions, against the backdrop of the Virginia countryside, and in some cases at home with their families. In her previous book High School (2004) Frank depicted the stewpot of the American public school where teenagers create identities for themselves that range from skaters to preppies. These are kids who form themselves into groups, but hold self-expression and individuality as paramount values. Put side by side the kids in High School may look like they come from other planets rather than other streets in the same neighborhood.
What strikes viewers first about the kids in Right is their homogeneity. They have almost all been homeschooled by conservative Christian parents and they have the clean cut, well-scrubbed look of what are still often referred to in suburban communities as "the good kids." A guy's dorm room at PHC may be messy and have the requisite U2 posters on the wall, but these are young men who often wear a coat and tie to class -- not because it's the dress code, but because it just feels right. Freshmen tend to get the look wrong, but by the time they are upperclassmen they have it down. Some female students show up on campus wearing ill-fitting homemade dresses, but they too take on a more professional appearance over time. As they approach graduation, both men and women look increasingly like the Washington, D.C., interns many go on to become. These kids are smart and work hard. The focused, middle-distanced stare they bring to their portrait sessions appears as early as their pre-teen years, when Frank photographs them showing off their home school assignments at the kitchen table.
In their interviews the PHC students are honest and forthcoming, sincere about their Christianity, open about the strengths and shortcomings of their homeschooled backgrounds, and willing to share both their enthusiasms and criticisms of campus life. A 2005 debate over academic freedom caused a 70% turnover in faculty, and the incident has both its critics and its supporters. But looking through the book, the overwhelming impression is that these young people are putting forth a unified front.
For this reason, Frank admits that she found them somewhat difficult to photograph. "[They] have waited to be out in the world," she writes, "waited to make friends beyond their siblings, and here they can. But, in a sense, they are still waiting... The space between, that waiting, is all about potential. It's what interests me when I make a portrait."
As with most photography books, the audience for Right is far removed from the world it describes. Half the customer reviews already posted on Amazon accuse Frank of doing a hatchet job on the college and the students, but this speaks to the insecurities of the reviewers rather than to the project itself. It is unlikely that Frank's book will ever be used as a recruitment tool for PHC, but readers will receive a worthwhile immersion into what Hanna Rosin describes in the introduction as a "corner of the culture that seems so strange and yet so central to the times."
—Charles Dee Mitchell