A photo today is hardly reflective of our world, but rather a display of our ideals. Profile pictures are the best photos of us, not what we look like on a day–to–day basis. Snap stories (or now Instagram stories because of the terrible new update) tell the stories of our best days, not the days we spend hours pouring over missed readings within the confines of Van Pelt. There’s a missing ingenuity in these captured images, an ingenuity that Isabel Zapata (C ’19) reclaims through her photography.

Photography for Isabel began through drawing. By middle school, her eye for the arts took her to YouTube, where her artsy videos garnered her over 600 subscribers—a big deal for a middle school student (even a college student or, honestly, anyone at any stage in their life). Over time, in high school, Isabel began experimenting with photography and the editing process. This experimentation was not just experimentation with techniques but also with concepts. For example, one of her photos had a model coming out of the picture frame, but their legs were cut off. 

But it was here at Penn where her photography became serious, where Isabel Zapata Photography came into being. It started through studio photography classes and engaging with the community of photographers at Penn. A former photographer for Street and photo director of Penn Appétit, Isabel took on similar roles across her extracurricular activities, allowing her to connect with those with shared backgrounds and interests. 

Photo Courtesy of Isabel Zapata

However, what separated her from the others was what she did outside of class and outside of her clubs. During her freshman year and into her sophomore year, Isabel was part of another group of students, who published “33 to 40,” a recreation of a student fashion guide specific to Penn’s culture. Just last fall, she, along with Sarah Holland (C ’18) created “RAW,” a publication centered around mental and physical health in terms of food for college students. Through photo essays, research articles, and personal submissions, the content ranged from approaching food as a low–income student to food availability to poetry about thighs. All of this goes back to how she captures truths and realities through her photography, no matter how harsh and closed off they are. 

While these projects form a large part of Isabel’s work, another part comes from either class projects or even just for fun. Sometimes it’s a text to a random friend, asking “Hey, wanna go outside?” Other times, they’re projects for classes. In fact, one of her most interesting shots was for FNAR 591: The Body & Photography. The assignment was to spend ten minutes with older nude models in a one–to–one space, the time spent doing whatever it was that would be interesting. After all, it’s not everyday anyone has the opportunity for that intimate setting with older nude models. 

Photo Courtesy of Isabel Zapata

“I’m pretty surprised by how willing people are to get naked for me,” Isabel laughs. She’s referencing another one of her projects for class. The objective was essentially to sell something. After deciding that her product would be lipstick, she turned to the presentation. Because she needed a white background, she came up with the idea of a model in a bathtub filled to the brim with milk; the lipstick would be the only color standing out from the photo. In a way, even conceptually, Isabel’s work is a reflection of that ingenuity previously mentioned, stripping her models bare.

While she’s still trying to figure out her own niche within photography, that ingenuity and rawness is clearly part of her style. “I love photographing people when they’re not smiling,” she says. The reason behind this is that it represents the most honest side of them. To her, “it’s more important to represent someone how I see them,” not “how they usually try to portray themselves through social media.” Especially with the façade of success we too often encounter, Isabel’s photography in this sense tries to break down that barrier. “Once you’re on the other side of that, you can get a photo where they think they look beautiful, where they didn’t realize that they could look that.” It’s her way of making people comfortable with themselves and how they look. 

Photo Courtesy of Isabel Zapata

Her success as a photographer at Penn has since instilled a desire to pursue photography professionally. As of now, she is among the handful of event photographers at Penn, which provides her with her main source of income now. But to get a taste of what it really means to be a professional photographer, this summer, she plans to be a full–time independent photographer as she travels around Colombia, Italy, and Germany. The goal, though, is to become a photographer for National Geographic through an anthropological and ethnographic view, which, as a biology major, would allow her to combine her interests in humans in nature and photography. Having lived in eight different countries around the world, Isabel has also seen the differences in standards of living motivated by environmental health and pollution. 

Isabel Zapata Photography has since then been a springboard for her at Penn. She’s connected with photography communities both on and off campus. Because of this, she’s met people from across the spectrum, sharing different tips and techniques, each time improving her own abilities as a photographer. So reach out to her. Whether it be for an event for Greek life or for her own projects, she’ll capture the most honest side of you. Clothed or not. 


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