Jason Riker Photographs a Call to Action Against Youth Violence

June 1, 2013

By Barbara Goldman

© Jason Riker

 Actor Billy Baker of A Red Orchid Theatre ensemble <em>Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance.</em>

Chicago is taking action.  The city means business and is getting involved with the cause of youth violence.  

“Now Is The Time” is a citywide initiative inspiring young people to make positive changes in their communities and schools to stop youth violence, bullying and intolerance. Prestigious arts organizations and institutions as The Chicago Public Library, Facing History and Ourselves  and Steppenwolf Theatre Company  have come together to start  a conversation in and about Chicago’s  neighborhoods.

A Red Orchid Theatre company as part of this citywide initiative has created an original piece based on face-to-face interviews interwoven with original music, songs and stories from three neighborhoods grappling with the question: When does tolerance lead to a dangerous and negative outcome?  Their production of Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance is a dynamic theatrical exploration that has joined this latest call to action against violence and bullying. 

As part of the promotional effort, the theater also wanted photography of their ensemble group for promotion of the project and called in Chicago-based advertising and editorial portrait, fashion and lifestyle photographer Jason Riker. Riker has a passion for storytelling along with curiosity and intuitiveness, and he enjoys collaboration —all the elements that make for great theater. 

Riker met with Lawrence Grimm, Producer at  A Red Orchid Theatre. From the start, he knew this was a project he wanted to support and be part of by showcasing some off Chicago’s impressive kids with a message that has to be told. 

Casting for Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance was posted and shared through various professional and nonprofessional networks. The creative team was looking to cast a diverse group of kids in age, race, gender, neighborhood and experience in theater. Regardless of talent or ability, the ensemble finally came about as a result of those young people who had the most clear and passionate commitment to the issue of youth violence in Chicago. 

Riker captured the energy and essence of the show by photographing the kids in rehearsal where improv begins.  He did a series of individual portraits, bringing out the spark and vitality of the messages that complemented the realism and toughness of the actors. Riker also captured Chicago neighborhoods, which would serve as a penetrating and charismatic backdrop for the show.

The timing for the actual shooting was incorporated into the rehearsals, which made for a tight schedule.  The initial idea of the portraits was explored one night as the kids were coming back from a short dinner break.  Riker took 15-20 seconds of portraits of each kid in the hallway to kind of rough in the concept and have something to review with Director Megan Shuchman and Grimm. After reviewing the images, they came back with the idea of incorporating some keywords developed from the creation of the script. That brought about the idea to make signs with the different words that would relate to the various characters.  

“During the shoot I would offer to each kid the idea of using a word that related to one of the characters they were exploring, or if that didn’t resonate with them, let them pick something that was the opposite,” says Riker.   “The goal was to have them engaged in the process and to explore the idea however it worked for them and their character.”

Aria Raymond of Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance./ © Jason Riker

Eden Strong of Our City, Ourselves: Youth Voices for Tolerance./ © Jason Riker

He even had a blank page, which some used, if they didn’t see anything they liked.  Words such as “antagonist, bystander and intolerator” were put on the signs, and then a different face to each was photographed for plenty of choices.  

 “The space to shoot in was very limited so I went for a compact setup that would give the kids as much space as possible,” explains Riker.  He shot with Canon’s 1DMarkII,  a 24-70mm lense, Profoto D1 Air Kit, Profoto beauty dish, a short roll of seamless and C-stands.  The overall look of the final shoot was bold and honest—just like the kids. 

 “Jason is far from a photographer for hire. His skill is in understanding and contributing to concept. He is incredibly intuitive and collaborative when it comes to the subject of people. He used his instinct and genuine kindness to make every one of our 16-youth ensemble members feel at ease with him and themselves,” says  Producer Grimm.  

The series of portraits are now being used for posters, postcards and the Web and more of the images can be seen here on Riker’s blog.  “Now Is The Time” continues this vital conversation. Jason Riker’s photography has responded to the call to action and attention is being paid. See more work at  his site,


Client:  A Red Orchid Theatre 

Megan Shuchman- Director

Emilio G. Robles – Co-Collaborator

Fatimah Asghar – Assistant Director

Jess Forella – Stage Manager

Mike Pryzgoda – Original Music

Mike Mroch – Set Design

Kristyn Hegner – Choreography

Jason Riker – Original Photography

Lawrence Grimm– Producer


Written and Performed by A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble:

Billy Baker, Ellie Danisch, Casey Alden Edwards, Jaiden Fallo Sauter, Amaya Lorick, Angel Martinez, Julio MUÑOZ, Melanie Neilan, Brianna Palmer, Madison Pullman, Nia Robinson, Kara Ryan, Elenna Sindler, Eden Strong, Aria Szalai-Raymond, Melanie Thompson