At a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, Fredric Roberts ’65 gave students a lesson in following their dreams.
“Don’t give up on awful careers,” Roberts said to the audience of about 25, describing his own unusual career path. “Just have a goal in mind.”
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Roberts worked as an investment banker on Wall Street for 30 years. But in 2000, he retired from a career in finance to become a photographer. Since then, he has toured around South and Southeast Asia, from remote areas of India to Bhutan, close to the Himalayas.
In a 40-minute conversation, he taught students how to take a picture, instructed them not to donate goods to children in developing countries and gave advice on how properly to choose a career. Students interviewed said Roberts was engaging and he intellectually challenged his audience.
Roberts said his philosophy when traveling in developing countries is to “take only photographs, leave no footprints.”
He said students should be wary about gifts they give to locals, especially to children. Children sell the gifts they receive for money, he argued, and their parents often forbid them from going to school because selling goods is more profitable than getting education. Instead, he suggested, people should donate items that benefit a community rather than one person. He once donated money for a well to a village he had been visiting, he said.
When asked why he chose to concentrate his work in Southeast Asia, Roberts simply said he was drawn to the region. He chose not to capture European images, he said, because they are “white and wear regular clothes.”
Despite being affiliated with scholarships to support the arts, Roberts recommended that students not study photography, but instead pursue a liberal arts education.
“I am living proof that any idiot can use a camera,” Roberts said, adding that the prerequisites for becoming a photographer include understanding “who you are, what you feel and what you think.”
Still, Roberts cautioned students not to enter photography as a profession without proper financial backing. The cost and the “tendency to get burnt out” can be impediments to photojournalists’ success, he said.
In his travels, Roberts said, he was able to meet a range of different people, from unpleasant colleagues to the more interesting subjects he photographs.
All six students interviewed at the talk said they found Roberts’ advice to be useful and direct.
“An unique element of Roberts’ work is the philosophy and passionate thought he puts behind each image,” Sophia Clementi ’14 said, referring to the fact that Roberts rarely manipulates his photographs. “The technique he uses to take his pictures may be unconventional, but it produces beautiful works.”
Harry Yu ’14 said Roberts spoke in a surprisingly negative tone about his work, but that he appreciated his honesty.
“He just gave random bits of insight that you were not looking for but are definitely true,” Yu said.
Though Roberts said he thoroughly enjoys his career, he encouraged students to enjoy experiences and not necessarily capture every moment.
“You have the best camera already,” Roberts said. “You do not need to take pictures of everything.”
The Tea was held in conjunction with an exhibit of Roberts’ photography, called “Humanitas: Images of India,” that is on display at the Whitney Humanities Center until Oct. 23.