The photograph is subtle, but it makes a statement. To the left, a uniformed soldier salutes the American flag, while to the right, his son plays with GI Joes. Taken by a local middle school student, the photo recently placed second in the nation as part of the National PTA’s annual Reflections contest.
Mychael Willon, a seventh grader at Toano Middle School, took the photograph last fall for the school’s PTA Reflection’s contest. The theme was "Heroes Around Me" and Mychael mulled over several possible ideas for submission before finally deciding on one.
“My dad’s in the Army, and they do so much,” Mychael said. “He’s my hero, he always has been.”
His father, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael W. Johnson, works at the Pentagon, and he said Mychael first came to him with his idea as he was coming home from work.
“I was still in my fatigues and when I came home, Michael was outside and ran up to me and said ‘You’re my hero dad, you’re always around me, and I know what I want to take a picture of,’ ” Johnson said. “He told me to salute the flag, put the phone on a timer, picked up a few GI Joes and staged the rest.”
Mychael's photo submission, titled, "The Heroes Around Me Are Real," competed against hundreds of other photography pieces from thousands of PTAs both locally and across the country. According to both of them, they were surprised by what began happening in January.
“It won the school level, and then the district, and that was pretty exciting,” Mychael said. “I think I cried a little after it won at the Peninsula District level.”
It won Best in Virginia in March, and the National PTA announced the winners of the national competition on May 1, with Mychael’s piece coming in second.
“The funny thing is, he didn’t even let me see the photo until he’d already won his first award. It’s a great shot, it’s pretty cool, and we’re very proud of Mychael,” Johnson said. “It really means a lot that he wanted me for something like this, it says something to me, and the photo clearly said something to the judges too.”
Though it’s not the first time a Toano student’s PTA Reflection’s project has done well, Mychael’s photo is the first who has ranked nationally, according to school principal Tracey Jones.
"It’s always a pleasure to have students recognized for things done beyond these walls, especially with PTA Reflections, which is something they have to take some initiative to do outside school hours,” Jones said. “There was a great theme this year, and Mychael took that theme and ran with it, and he’s being nationally recognized for his creativity, and we couldn’t be prouder of him for it.”
Mychael and his family have been invited to participate in the student exhibit at the 2019 National PTA Convention & Expo June 20-23 in Columbus, Ohio. While they’re all looking forward to that, Mychael says his recent success in photography hasn’t changed his goal for the future.
“I’m very proud, and I love photography, but I want to join the military,” Mychael said. “I want to be an officer in the Army, just like my dad.”
That’s a sentiment that surprises even his father sometimes.
“He says it all the time, I’m gonna be like you dad, and he was able to apply that to photography like this, and the results speak for themselves,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely proud of him, and Mychael still manages to surprise me sometimes.”
Sean CW Korsgaard can be reached at 757-968-1529, by email firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @SCWKorsgaard.