In the photo, Isabella Yu (W’21) and three friends stand against the silver wall and the bead curtain at Center City’s RUMOR nightclub, their arms around each other. It’s Halloween and Isabella is dressed as a bumblebee, complete with striped leggings, yellow suspenders and off–kilter antennae.
The photo of Isabella and her friends sits in a public Facebook album of over 200 shots from the frat’s downtown, documenting the supermen, sailors, and space cadets who paid to be in attendance. In the stylized photo, Isabella hovers somewhere between the reflective flash and blurry red swooshes of light in the foreground.
“Even though I didn’t look that good in it, I just thought it was such a fun memory of the night,” Isabella said, looking back on the photo months after she put her bumblebee costume away.
In January, Isabella found herself in another Facebook album, this one from the launch party for Penn fashion magazine, The WALK. The event was held in the Psi Upsilon (known more commonly as “Castle”) fraternity chapter house on Locust Walk. This time, the event was free. Isabella poses with smiling friends as yellow and orange streaks flit around the frame.
Braden Saba (C’20) photographed The WALK’s event. He also shot Alpha Phi sorority’s winter formal and Kappa Alpha Theta sorority’s date night in the fall. He’s among the students called upon to document social events at Penn: Greek life parties, expensive downtowns, club formals, and other occasions with dressed-up guests who want digital mementoes.
The look of Penn’s event photography albums, like the ones Braden uploads, are easily recognizable. Many bear the same colorful light streaks, which skitter around the periphery of the image. Evan Robinson (C ‘14) remembers that he was the first event photographer ever hired by a group at Penn. He was contacted by the off–campus group THEOS to take photos for their annual Woodser Party in 2011. Although the photos are meant in part to serve a souvenir for the attendees, they can also a visual reminders of social circles defined by class and status. However, in the past seven years, event photography has spread from small groups of frat brothers to unaffiliated clubs at Penn—the WALK magazine, the Wharton Public Policy Initiative, the Assembly of International Students, and others. For a fee of $300 to $500 per night, these groups can hire an event photographer to ensure that they—and their Facebook friends—know they had a good night.
Daniel Gonzalez (C’20) first saw the professional event pictures on his Facebook timeline at the start of freshman year. As a member of the first–generation low–income (FGLI) community he was initially bothered by the photos. He quickly associated them with wealth—expensive clothes, pricey alcoholic drinks, and venues that were a costly Uber ride away.
“It definitely seemed like a place I couldn’t reach,” Daniel said. “But the more I think about it, the more I’m like, would I really be interested in this if I did have the money?”
Daniel has found a niche on campus that doesn’t involve professional photographic proof of his social life. But he’s seen some of his FGLI peers make financial sacrifices to be part of these events as the social boundaries of Penn have become easier to navigate.
“I feel like a lot of us started off feeling like, ‘that’s a thing they do,’” he said. “But now that’s even a thing some of my friends do."
Sometimes he gets tired of seeing these photographs on his Facebook feed, and he unfriends the person—especially if they’re a distant friend from NSO.
Raisa Shah (C ‘19), another FGLI student, isn’t bothered by the streak-filled photos. But they do remind her of the wealth disparity that exists at Penn. “It’s just them living their life and me living mine, separately.”
Raisa finds it hard to contextualize wealth from a single club formal photo. But she notices the clothing in the photos, especially if a participant has gone to many formals and is dressed differently for each.
Raisa points to extracurricular clubs with expensive dues or costs associated with attending formals. Though the events may be less socially exclusive—you don’t necessarily need to know a brother—they could be cost prohibitive.
“We’ll never have a formal or event or date night event without a photographer,” Arjun Patel (C’20) explains.
He’s on the social committee for Phi Gamma Delta (known more commonly as “FIJI”) fraternity and helps to plan the fraternity’s formal events. An event photographer has become a must–have: “It’s become an essential part, almost as important as having a DJ.”
"I’d say Penn likes exclusivity — like, who doesn’t?” remarks Hallie Gu (W’20), the Alpha Phi sorority’s internal social chair. "That’s how human nature is. The event you didn’t get to go to always looks really fun.”
But both she and Arjun emphasized that the groups hire photographers to create tangible memories of the events. Posting the photos on Facebook allows the guests to relive the evening, to retrieve forgotten memories blurred by the open bar.
As an event planner, Hallie feels social pressure when coordinating her own formals—she makes sure that the photos present the right image for the group. When students see event photos online, she said, they know who took them. And if they present the guests as messy or the venue as shabby, her group’s image could suffer.
“Having those kind of photos to be like, ‘I went out,’ that goes a really long way,” Hugh Reynolds (C’20)—who has attended Greek and Collctve events—said. “There are people who don’t go to that many parties and they don’t have those to put on their social media feed.”
Blake London (C ’18) is uninvolved in Greek life and observes the events from the comfort of social media. But seeing displays of party culture online never affected him much.
“As a financial aid student and someone who is very much not able to go to events like that or live that lifestyle,” he said, “honestly, it doesn’t feel that exclusionary.”
Blake found his home in the theatre and arts communities at Penn, where he befriended many event photographers. He looks at their pictures on Facebook but doesn’t necessarily associate them with class and wealth.
“I don’t really feel excluded...I’m just kind of like, ‘Yep, this is a group looking like they’re in formal wear.’”
Event photographers themselves consider how their work could glorify expensive parties and contribute to perceptions of social exclusivity at Penn. Matt Mizbani (C’19), a former DP Video Producer, didn’t join a fraternity his freshman year. Before he started shooting parties as a sophomore, he felt excluded from the scenes he saw on social media too.
“It was a small ethical dilemma for me where it was like, ‘You’re creating FOMO. You’re creating all these feelings for people who might not be at these events by capturing them and making them look so great,’” Matt explains.
Matt enjoys his job. He compares photography to going out, because he’s gotten to know the participants well from being a constant fixture at their parties. He’s been allowed to invite a date (though he declined) and occasionally drinks enough to be hungover the next morning. Alcohol does not impede his abilities, as taking pictures is now an act of his muscle memory.
Even so, attending downtowns and formals has shown him the income disparity among Penn students. His attendance at Penn is predicated on his financial aid package, and he would not be able to go out without his photography business. However, he suggested the photos themselves are not broadening any economic divides—parties will exist with or without documentation.
Braden, still a newcomer to event photography, recognizes individuals may post his work for social media points. Unhappy subjects have even badgered him to delete pictures from event albums. However, he views his role as capturing happy moments, not dealing social currency. Matt agrees: “The idea of photos, at least for a lot of people that hire me, is that we should capture this just to have it and save it.”
Matt conceded that his glossy photos may not be fostering inclusivity at Penn, but he doesn’t think eliminating photos from Penn’s social scene would close any rifts. He also believes his subjects might have good intentions.
“It takes going to one event to understand the fact that, yeah, this is all fabricated,” he explained. “The concept of ‘The Scene,’ proper, in quotes, doesn’t really exist.”
Still, event photography has grown into a student-run business at Penn with , a creative-oriented group for Penn’s “new culturati," facilitating gigs for fledgling photographers. This is a recent venture, as it wasn’t until Evan’s senior year in 2014, he said, that most fraternities and sororities sought photographers. Just four years ago, he had no competition from other photographers and his rates ultimately reached $400 to $500 per event before he graduated. During "formal season," he balanced fourteen consecutive nights of photography with his classwork.
Evan pioneered the event photography market at Penn, but many other universities already have similar photography practices in place. Duke University, for example, has its own student business that dispatches photographers to shoot date nights.
But the concept of event photographers is foreign to many other universities as well. Tufts senior Anna Dursztman scoffed at the prospect of paying a photographer $400 to document her sorority’s formal. Tufts students would see this as an unnecessary display of money and status.
“Why can’t people take pictures on their phones?”
*An earlier version of this article stated that Arjun Patel was the social chair of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Arjun is a member of the social committee. 34th Street regrets this error.