Girls are often associated with the color pink from birth. The color has long been a symbol for gender roles and how girls are "supposed" to look, making its appearance in baby clothes, Barbie outfits and eventually prom dresses. 

That's exactly what the Pink Dress Project aims to challenge by providing student photographers with an outlet to represent their peers wearing pink dresses how they want and examine labels assigned to the color.

"It gave me the sense that pink is pretty powerful," said Leeanna Powell, one of the photographers whose work is featured in the collaborative project.

Powell is one of over a dozen students that participated in the project through a photography program led by photographer David Spear at Two Eagle River School in Pablo.

"It's a really strong celebration of young women and women not only as people in the photographs, but also as photographers," Spear said.

The project also features the work of photographers from various youth programs in Mexico, New York, Los Angeles and Pablo, with the subjects wearing the same pink prom dresses in locations that are significant to them.

After appearing at shows across the country, the Pink Dress Project is coming to the new Zootown Community Arts Center at 216 W. Main St. on Friday, Nov. 8, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., followed by a panel discussion about the project on Saturday, Nov. 9, from noon to 2 p.m. at the ZACC. The panel will include Powell and Spear, along with other organizers and photographers from both New York and Two Eagle River School, in addition to members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal community.

The exhibition will be shown alongside a decade of work from Our Community Record, a collaborative project between Spear and Two Eagle River School, a middle and high school that serves Native American students living on the Flathead Reservation. The program, which is through a nonprofit called A VOICE, teaches students to explore their community, culture and history, and preserve it through photographs.

"We've been doing it for a long time and we've built an archive of images that were made by young people from the community, which is not common in photography," Spear said.

Patricia Thornton, the ZACC's gallery manager, said she hopes bringing the project to Missoula will help more communities feel like they can be involved with the ZACC.

"We’re really trying to get a good focus on indigenous people in our spaces and especially youth," Thornton said. "We want to hear their stories, we want to engage with them to make them feel more powerful and make them feel like this is a place for them."

Spear said his classes not only teach students the basics of photography, but also how to connect it with things that are going on in school or around them. The classes give students a context for their work, he said.

Powell said she enjoyed seeing how other students photographed in different environments.

"Some of the students from places like LA and Mexico, the way they did theirs was with their regular clothes under the dress and they took pictures at gas stations and convenience stores," Powell said.

The Pink Dress Project exhibits a diversity of cultures, with female photographers exploring what the color means to them, drawing inspiration from their culture and surroundings in communities in the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Nation.

The project began in Manhattan at the Lower Eastside Girls Club, a free after-school program for girls, where students photographed each other in leftover donated pink prom dresses on nearby streets. Lyn Pentecost, the program's executive director, came up with the idea to ship the dresses to various photo programs, starting with Club Balam, an indigenous girls photography program in southern Mexico, and then the Las Fotos Project in Los Angeles, a photography project for teenage girls — and, finally, to A VOICE in Pablo.

Spear knew Pentecost from when he lived in New York, and the two reconnected when he took students on a trip to New York in 2016. A year later, Pentecost shipped the dresses to Montana, and in early 2018, Spear started shooting with more than a dozen student photographers, with the bright pink dresses providing a sharp contrast to the snowy backdrop.

"One of the things we wanted them to do was to pick out the locations on the reservation that would be interesting and unique to them," Spear said. "We wanted to have the context of where this place was."

The project also focuses on youth representing themselves as they'd like to be seen, and aims to inspire them to "be able to do whatever they want to do."

"It's hard to be a young person in this day and age because of everything that society expects them to be and society isn't necessarily the best example," Spear said.  

The photography program through A VOICE fosters an understanding among students for how their work is seen in both their community and in other parts of the world. The programs through A VOICE and the Lower Eastside Girls Club are now collaborating on a project each year, resulting in more opportunities for students to show their work around the country.

This year's project, called "Water is a Women's Issue," focused on issues about water on reservations. In September, the group traveled to New York for the Photoville festival, where their work was featured.

The trips, along with Spear's teaching position as an artist in residence at Two Eagle River School where he teaches two classes a day, are paid for by A VOICE, which takes donations on its website.

Two Eagle River School houses the archive of photos so they are available for the students if they want to come back and make prints or even do a show. Spear hopes to make them more available to the community by transferring the archive to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Preservation Department when they have a center where they can store them.

"I think it’s really important that this archive is alive and it’s growing and each year we have new photographers working on it," Spear said.