Photographers are a competitive bunch. We’re as competitive with ourselves as we are with each other, and that cycle can actually be damaging to creativity. In fact, we need community.
Three years ago, I had an opportunity to help build a different kind of photo community in an environment apart from the high-pressure stakes of assignment work. It manifested itself in a project class called C.O.R.E. (Create, Observe, Reflect, Engage) at the Syracuse University S.I. Newhouse School of Communications.
Under the program, a group of photography masters students meet twice a year to learn to use the power of image and voice to gather, craft, and share stories with integrity. It’s more of a community than a class—built to help photographers produce serious projects that have an impact on their lives and the wider world.
This year, the group won a competition to exhibit their work at Photoville in Brooklyn. Here, we present a selection of those images, curated by me and former National Geographic picture editor Susan Welchman.
These photographers are young, at the beginning of their careers, and still learning what it means to be observers of our world—professional, collaborative, ethical, and real.—Lynn Johnson, National Geographic photographer and fellow
Michelle Fox was shot in the face six years ago by her ex-husband. The shooting, ruled an accident, took away her eyes, nose, and upper palate and left her unable to see or smell. She now wears a facial prosthesis. I met Michelle last year, when I was assigned to photograph her for the daily newspaper where I worked as a photojournalist.
In the time I’ve worked with Michelle, I’ve observed her strength and vulnerability. While she continues to struggle physically and emotionally, she is an involved parent of two young girls, is starting her own business, and works hard to live a healthy life.
Photographing Michelle is a privilege. I feel a responsibility to tell her unique story in a respectful way that captures her courage and portrays her as the remarkable woman she is.—Michelle Gabel
I came upon the black baby dolls hanging from a tree in Baltimore, on the outskirts of a peace march after a night of unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man who died in police custody following an arrest. The tree was striking. I found it quite symbolic of the hopelessness and despair so many people in Baltimore had expressed. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, yet so much discrimination and inequality is still visible in 2015.
I was drawn to this project after photographing the cycle of events regarding race and the Black Lives Matter movement throughout the country. It has had profound impact in the way I think about race relations and disparity in the United States and has pushed me to think critically about how history has shaped a culture of discrimination that still persists today.—Andrew Renneisen
As I traveled back to Haiti, searching for a sense of belonging and attachment to my roots, I came across the story of a man seeking a similar path: an understanding of identity. Venel, a Haitian albino, works with great fidelity as a housekeeper and gardener for my grandmother. He and his twin brother, Luinor, live between two worlds, between black and white, rich and poor. Their strong bond, forged on the fringes of Haitian society, results from a feeling of rejection in their youth, as they were told that they were not their father’s children. Yet today, Venel seems to have reached a deeper layer of acceptance. “I would feel differently if I had created my body,” he claims. “But it is God who made me, and I accept his creation.” Ultimately, it is not where you come from, but who you believe yourself to be, that truly matters.—Cristina Baussan
This is Charlotte. We met the summer I began “Sweet Crude,” a project about the impact of the oil boom on the rise of domestic violence in Williston, North Dakota.
This image was made that first summer. Moments before this photograph, Charlotte said, “You know what’s nice? Being able to leave the house and go to the store … without asking.”
Working on “Sweet Crude,” and this image in particular, has taught me about the debilitating nature of the basic, and sometimes overlooked, methods of control in abusive relationships. It has also taught me about the importance of being patient with your stories—I cherish the weight that is added to stories as they grow older.
This summer, Charlotte checked back into the shelter where we met. I spent weeks photographing as she looked for a job, navigated the legal system, and searched for a home in one of the most competitive housing markets in the U.S.—Annie Flanagan
I always photograph myself. I am the easiest model for me to work with, but I rarely ever want it to be noticeable that it is me in the image. In most of my self-portraits, my face is obscured or left out entirely, not because I don’t like my looks, but because my pictures usually aren’t about me. They explore themes that go far beyond one person. Concealing adds an air of mystery and allows for anyone to take my place in the viewer’s mind. This photo, “Patience,” was the catalyst for such work, taken as part of an assignment in my first college photography class. I was really drawn to the idea of creating my own set and blending into it.—Kristen Tomkowid
San Juan County, Utah, is the quintessential landscape of the cowboy. It’s easily recognizable because it has been the iconic backdrop for many Westerns and Hollywood movies. Ranching families here grow up riding the canyons, “pushing cows” to new rangeland, roping calves, and rounding up horses that run loose on the range. Some are fifth-generation cattlemen, descendants of the original Mormon pioneers who settled the area. They are deeply connected to their faith, their families, the community, and the land. They are also closely monitoring lobbying efforts to create a national monument on federal land that is now available to them for grazing—a decision that would dramatically alter their livelihoods and lifestyles.
I have been photographing here for my master’s project since 2013 and am often overwhelmed by the kindness, sincerity, and generosity of the people I’ve met. I never take for granted that I have been invited into their lives. I have learned, though, that access doesn’t guarantee good pictures. In a long-term story, it can be tempting to relax as people get to know you, so I continually remind myself that I have a responsibility to maintain a level of intensity that matches their trust. I hope this will translate into a body of work that adequately captures the spirit of the people and the place.—Jenny Swanson
This image shows Eduard getting a monthly haircut from his father, Coroncoro, one afternoon in Islote San Bernardo, Colombia. I first visited Islote, the most densely populated island on Earth, as a tourist. That initial visit showed me that Islote lives contradicting truths: the reality sold to visitors and the reality of everyday life—dueling storylines in one tiny place. Working on “había una vez,” or “once upon a time,” a project for my masters, provided a crash course in the nuanced world of identity, and the people of Islote taught me that there will always be a difference between what we feel we are, what we tell people we are, and how people perceive us to be.—Manuela Marin Salcedo
Observing how children experience life on a farm is fascinating. Children have a natural ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In this image, Hosanna was tagging alongside her dad during the afternoon chores when her imagination abruptly carried her into the henhouse, much to the curiosity of the hens. A farm presents a vast imaginative canvas from the simplest realities.
Two years ago, Hosanna’s family moved just across the county line from where I grew up, a beautiful part of upstate New York flush with farmland. While real estate development has displaced much of the rural landscape in the region, Madison county, where Hosanna’s family lives, has attracted an increasing number of young, first-time farmers. A significant number come from Amish communities in the midwest, for reasons including health concerns as well as a desire to be more connected to the family and the land.—Alexandra Hootnick
I’m intrigued by the impressions reality leaves behind, and I produce work that is unique to that vision. One of my most recent projects is exploring a photographic technique I call “Cubism-Lighting”. This technique implements long exposure photography with colorful lighting to reveal the vicissitude of time. The process has the ability to expose and naturally composite multiple expressions into a single image. The result is an un-manipulated surreal, sometimes ethereal photograph. Though the process still needs refinement, this photograph represents a milestone in exploring what certain long exposure techniques have to offer opening up a new form of impressionistic photography.—Alec Erlebacher
In 2012 I went searching for a story about a successful high school student. I didn’t want an all-state athlete or a 4.0 scholar, but someone who was going beyond and reaching people in a different way. After church one day I asked the preacher if he knew of someone like this. Without hesitation he said, “Gena Buza.” After meeting Gena, I quickly understood that there was something very special about her life mission. After a car accident twelve years ago left her paralyzed with little hope of regaining the dexterity in her hands, she overcame the odds and is now an artist and photographer with a beautiful and unique perspective. It’s been three years since we met. I have journeyed with her through surgery, her sixteenth birthday, prom, and high school graduation. But the importance of her story doesn’t lie in the big moments—it’s in everyday triumphs and the faith she has in her purpose. In this photo, Gena prepares to pose for a portrait of her back. Gena has had five surgeries since the accident; her next surgery will be the most extensive yet.—Taylor Baucom
Photos from Syracuse’s CORE program will be on view at Photoville in Brooklyn, New York, from September 10-20.