“You are the most interesting person at the party.”
I think I laughed out loud when my friend said this, because no, I most definitely am not. But my camera sure is. By holding my camera, I subject myself to a strange, unfamiliar type of objectification. I instantly become the object, not the person, of interest.
I am backstage, watching an a cappella group’s pre-show ritual. I am there as a photographer to capture the moment, but I am also a student—a person—experiencing this moment with them. But I'm not one of them. I can’t sing for shit. Yet, show after show, I know the nuances of their facial features and the rhythms of their body language probably better than they know themselves.
I am at a sorority date night where I am intentionally and physically grabbed, pushed, and pulled. I am even followed into the bathroom. Girls ask me to follow them all night and take candids, and one is so serious to the point that she follows up with a message request the next day to make sure I send her the photos and only post “the good ones.”
I am in the midst of an untamed dance circle at a Fling event. A guy who I have never seen before in my life grabs my camera, tells his friend to take a photo of the two of us, and proceeds to kiss me on the head. Another, seemingly intrigued by my presence, asks my name and Facebook friend requests me.
When I began my freshman year at Penn, I hardly identified myself as a photographer. But I loved the way photography fused a mechanical, scientific process with a subjective, artistic one; the way it offered unconventional access to exploring the world, and better yet, the human mind. With a single click of a button, my camera deconstructed my passion for people—what makes them tick, why they think the way they do, who they are, and who they have become.
I quickly began photographing for more than just personal projects. Throughout these past three years, I sought out the most diverse of experiences: photographing a cappella shows, date nights and formals, fraternity composites, university events—the list goes on.
But, to many people’s disbelief, it has never been as simple as being an automaton that shows up, does its job, and leaves. To be a photographer at Penn is to exist within an incredibly strange limbo between others’ reality and your own.
I take part in the festivities. I dance, I drink, and, in many cases, I do really have fun—even at the events I don’t expect to. I meet new faces, I catch up with old ones, and I observe countless fascinating things happening before me, all through the lens of my artistic vision. And I make some decent money on the side to fund future projects (or my own social life for that matter). What more could I ask for?
But I leave when my job is done. I walk home alone, exhausted. I was not invited to the after party or the late night, nor did I expect to be. I slip out while the audience floods the stage or once I realize everyone is too drunk to hold still for a photo. I know I'll never again see the majority of people I interacted with, the ones I seemingly formed some type of relationship with. Or, perhaps I will see them on Locust—maybe an uncomfortable glance my way or a complete loss of memory of what happened. I know, intimately, hundreds of the faces at this school. But in comparison, few truly know mine. I am immersed in a paradoxical isolation on this campus.
By virtue of me being a peer, a fellow Penn student, I can’t help but think that this isolation is yet another manifestation of the distinct culture that pervades our campus. That treating me with disrespect, physically violating my space, not giving me photo credit, or failing to follow up after I finish the album in record time during finals is just the way it is.
This isolation also seems to be a product of my frequent exposure to Penn’s intense group culture. I hop from one to the next, transcending boundaries and exchanging genuine laughs, interests, and conversations despite barriers of exclusivity. But these interactions tend to stop there because of my inherent “outsider” status. This is also exacerbated by the pursuit of a carefully–constructed image that drives many of these groups. Ironically, I am the beholder of this image. I may not have control over how these groups operate, but I do have some control over how these groups are perceived—which, at Penn, seems to be the most dangerously powerful position to have. We, as photographers, have in large part created the social scene at Penn. It’s a game we play, like it or not.
So why do I continue to do this? Because being a photographer is liberating. I am not an athlete, dancer, or singer, nor am I in a sorority or senior society. I get all the benefits of exclusivity while never having to subscribe myself to a single group or label. I see my environment in my own way, and I feel free to develop unlikely friendships or transcend socially-constructed boundaries; to invite strangers to be subjects in my work because it gives me—us—the space to have real conversation in a setting that otherwise makes it ridiculously difficult to do so.
The camera is my personal bridge between the intricate network of people, places, and things; my escape from the exhausting and often superficial social outlets at Penn. It is my way of deconstructing the image—perhaps the very same image I take part in creating—that oversimplifies our experiences. It is my way of making sense of my own story while giving due credit to the diverse narratives of all those around me.
I am an insider and an outsider at the very same time, existing on the periphery. And so long as I remain a photographer, I will always exist on the periphery.
But the periphery, with its tumultuous ups and downs, is exactly where I want—and choose—to be.