Students document local subjects

Students from a Silliman residential college seminar created “Documentary Photojournalism of New Haven,” an exhibit that seeks to document individual student perspectives on New Haven.
Students from a Silliman residential college seminar created “Documentary Photojournalism of New Haven,” an exhibit that seeks to document individual student perspectives on New Haven. Photo by Sarah Eckinger.

In Silliman College’s Maya’s Room art gallery, students have the chance to see parts of New Haven they have never noticed before.

Seven students in a Silliman residential college seminar — taught by documentary photographer Lori Grinker — opened an exhibit displaying their work from the semester on Wednesday. The exhibit, titled “Documentary Photojournalism of New Haven,” aims to provide a survey of individual student perspectives on New Haven through photographs.

Grinker, who is teaching the seminar for the third time, said she chose the New Haven landscape as the subject of the course because she thinks the city has “everything that represents what is going on in this country.” She added that her goal was to help students get out of the “Yale bubble,” which she did not realize existed until students in her first seminar introduced it to her.

“I wanted the course to take them out of the safety of Yale to document things relating to their studies, or things of importance to them,” she said. “I wanted them to jump right in.”

Grinker explained that as a member of the Yale community, most news she hears about life outside Yale relates to crime or poverty. But she said she hopes the show’s viewers will learn through the photographs that people in New Haven can be the same as Yale students, or that even if they are different, they might face similar struggles.

Students’ projects documented subjects ranging from Iraqi refugees in New Haven to a pair of local twins to the Dixwell Fire Station. Semhal Tsegaye ’15, whose project focused on hip-hop and rap culture in New Haven, said the beginnings of the course involved simply going out into the city and taking pictures, before developing a narrower focus to create a series that “told a story.”

“I started off more exploring the ‘hoods’ of New Haven,” Tsegaye said, explaining that she discovered the rap scene and decided to pursue it as her project after meeting budding New Haven rappers. Another student, Ifeanyi Awachie ’14, stumbled onto her project during an in-class photography exercise on the New Haven Green, when she photographed Kacie and Paige Piscatelli, two Gateway Community College students in quirky outfits who turned out to be twins. Grinker suggested that someone follow the twins and document their lives.

“Initially, I had considered more ‘serious’ issues like homelessness in New Haven,” she said. “But I think it’s really relatable, showing two girls who live here.”

Awachie said she wanted her project to force people to confront their assumptions about twins and the complexity of familial relationships. Like many students in the class, she developed close relationships with her subjects — she recently invited them to her birthday party, and both girls were present at the exhibit.

Grinker said she enjoyed watching both the projects and the relationships between photographer and subject develop. She added that it often takes her students — who begin the course “shy and distant from the subject” — the duration of the semester to fully engage with both their photography and their subjects.

Ify Ozoma ’15, who spent time over the summer working on a mayoral campaign in New Haven, said she thinks the exhibit portrays New Haven in a fair light. She said Yale students often view the city with a certain prejudice that she feels the photographers avoided.

“I feel like Yale students either want to be completely separate from New Haven, or help,” Ozoma said. “New Haven has its problems, but we’re not its saviors. We’re just a part of the community, which the exhibit captures — and that’s why I love it.”

The exhibit will be on display until the end of reading period.

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