VIRGINIA — Jona Frank was walking across a campus parking lot, en route to cover another assignment, when a startling sight forced a sudden stop.
Parked before her was a late model Geo Metro, covered in bumper stickers supportive of conservative causes, including a centrally placed, “Bush Cheney ‘04.”
But it was one in particular that awoke the storyteller and photographer in Frank, causing her to grab her camera and begin snapping away, capturing the most telling shot of a sticker that read, “Smile! You could have been aborted.”
It was the perfect way to visually communicate the prevailing pro-life view at Patrick Henry College, a small evangelical school in Virginia where the Santa Monica resident spent approximately four semesters examining the student body in the conservative educational community, publishing photographic works in her new book “RIGHT: Portraits from the Evangelical Ivy League.”
“They are pro-life and it says it in one shot,” Frank said.
The shot of the bumper sticker-adorned car is part of a group of photos that have been pulled from the book and featured in a new show at the Sherry Frumkin Gallery, called “Church and State.” The gallery is located at the Santa Monica Art Studios.
The photographer and filmmaker spent two-years capturing the lives of students at the college in Purcellville, Va., a nine-year-old institution that was founded by Michael Harris, who also started the Home School Legal Defense Association. Many of the students at the college, which is nicknamed “The Harvard for Homeschoolers,” were not educated in a traditional classroom.
Her shots show a school community where many students wear business suits and aspire to a career in politics, interning for the White House and lobbyists.
In some cases, Frank attempted to capture the students’ lives at home, photographing their families and snapping shots during homeschooling sessions.
For a photographer who lives in perhaps one of the most progressive cities in the state, visiting the college was a different experience.
“It’s great to meet people who make different choices and (learn) why they make those choices,” she said. “When you go into a project like this you have to test yourself and test the ability to suspend your own belief.
“I did not set out to denigrate them.”
The idea for the project came to Frank when she read an article in the New Yorker about Patrick Henry College, thinking of what it would be like to take a closer look at the young Republicans.
“The students at the school really felt that they had a hand in re-electing (George) Bush in 2004 and they became known as foot soldiers for Bush, which is something they were proud of,” Frank said. “The more time I spent there, the more I thought what was happening there was unusual.”
“Right” is Frank’s second published book of her photographic works, following her 2004 series on social hierarchies in high schools across the country.
The book, called “High School,” examines how students dress themselves to communicate for the group to which they belong.
“It’s the whole notion of what it takes to fit in,” said Frank, who visited 18 schools for the project.
She is currently working on a book about California boys, a project that started three years ago.
Originally from Cherry Hill, N.J., Frank is an award-winning photographer whose work has been exhibited across the globe, including the Getty Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. Her photos have also been featured in The New York Times Magazine and Newsweek.
She became involved in photography as a freshman in college when she began taking shots with her Nikon camera, which later got stolen. After receiving her master’s degree in film production at USC, Frank moved to San Francisco where she lived for 11 years, making documentary and short films.
In 2003, Frank and her family moved to Santa Monica where her studio is also located.
For Frank, her time with the students at Patrick Henry College showed her how philosophically diverse society is.
“You don’t have to go to the far reaches of the earth to find cultures and places that are very different from your own,” Frank said. “This was a world unto itself.”