TeKeyia Armstrong
TeKeyia Armstrong did not think her portrait would be included in the "Young Americans" exhibit. "I just went on a whim," Armstrong says. "I am so excited to be a part of this." Sheila Pree Bright

The assignment was simple: Pose for a picture with the U.S. flag and explain what it means to be an American in the 21st century. TeKeyia Armstrong, African American studies junior, told of her ancestors’ forced migration to America and post-slavery struggles.

“We had just learned about the trans-Atlantic slave trade in class, so I made the flag look like a boat,” Armstrong says. “It symbolizes being in the middle of the ocean, between America and Africa. That’s where I feel I am right now, learning about my history and identity.”

The “Young Americans” photo series explores youth and identity through portraits of people ages 18 to 25 posing with the U.S. flag against a white background. The works, by Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright, are on display – accompanied by statements from the subjects – in the UCI Student Center through April 30. The exhibit also has been hosted in Atlanta and Hartford, Conn.

Bridget R. Cooks, art history and African American studies assistant professor, invited Pree Bright to talk to a photography class in January 2008. During her visit, Pree Bright photographed 14 UCI student volunteers for the project.

For weeks, the students had studied facial expressions and posture in photography. Sitting for the flag photos gave them a chance to use what they had learned. “They were able to reveal and conceal information through eye contact and posture,” Cooks says.

Mari Agory, biological sciences sophomore, came to Southern California from war-ravaged Sudan as a child. “If I wasn’t living here I would probably be dead,” she wrote.

Agory draped herself in the American flag, mimicking the traditional dress of Sudanese women. She says it was a way of blending her two worlds.

“I still carry the Sudanese culture with me,” Agory says. “I was pretty excited to be a part of this project because it shows that young Sudanese girls can claim themselves as American too.”

According to Pree Bright, nearly 76 million Americans belong to Generation Y, defined broadly as those born between 1977 and 2002. This makes it the largest and most influential age group since the baby boomers.

“Without their voice ‘Young Americans’ would not have happened,” says Pree Bright. “I really wanted to find out how this generation feels about the country.”