I started taking myself seriously as a photographer in ninth grade. My high school photo teacher, Mrs. Cruz, said I had a “good eye,” so I spent the summer of 2010 carrying around my mother’s Canon film SLR from the 90’s. I got ten rolls of film developed and was hooked –– whenever I traveled or found myself bored with friends, I had the camera.
My freshman fall at Yale, I took an introductory black and white film course. I learned that photography took more than having a “good eye” –– it meant having something to say. Then my one of my best friends went missing, and there was little to say about the horror I experienced. So I took photos about how I felt.
At home over breaks, I shot photos of my high school friends, trying to capture the unfathomable nature of Christian’s death. I thought my art would get me through the pain. Then it would be better, and I would no longer hurt.
I put down the camera for most of Yale. I made other things. I performed poetry, I wrote plays, I wrote essays, I made collages, I made drawings, I made paintings, I carefully curated Spotify playlists and then I started posting a lot on Instagram. I told myself that I am a writer first and a photographer second, when in reality the medium is not as important as the impulse to say something.
On Wednesday afternoon, Thomas Roma came for a lecture at the School of Art. Roma is a photo legend. He founded the Photography Department at Columbia University and taught at Yale decades ago. He showed us some work, told stories, lectured, told more stories and answered questions.
During my final semester, I am taking my first photo course since 2012. My work is inevitably tackling a tough subject: I’m only photographing survivors of sexual violence. My mom doesn’t know that, but I’m sure she’ll sigh when she hears about it. She isn’t an artist, and she has a hard time understanding my impulses to create work that is emotionally taxing. Last semester, she insisted that I write a “happy play,” so I wrote a play about the death of a friend and called it “The Happy Play.” In my defense, it was funny.
I do not think artists must be depressed. I think good art is about resilience. Roma insisted that we call ourselves artists because we were hurt in some way, and art is how we compensate for that pain. He spent most of the lecture discussing his recent book called “In the Vale of Cashmere,” in which he photographed gay men cruising in a Brooklyn Park. He revealed that it came from a place of profound pain; the photos are a tribute to a friend who died from AIDs. He acknowledged the emotional weight of the subject, how much it drained him.
I asked him how he created work that was so heavily influenced by trauma and grief without being overwhelmed by it.
He said, “What makes you think I wasn’t overwhelmed?”
I laughed and said, “Then how did you do it anyway?”
He said, “I think you answered your own question. I did it anyway.”
Roma’s informal talk was an honest one, and he continued to explain that the subjects of his photo books (he’s published many) are often accidental, but they gain power from the pain he has endured. He believes artists tackle difficult subjects because we create meaning from those experiences.
I know many people who do not feel the impulse to create art. But I think what Roma said can still resonate for them.
As my Yale career draws to a close, I am most impressed by the resilience of my classmates. There’s no denying that people here do what seems like impossible, insurmountable tasks. They write 100 page theses, they run professional-level student publications, they perform cutting edge research, they produce full-scale theatrical productions, they write heartbreaking poetry. If Yalies do anything right, we take our lives seriously.
In part, my freshman photo project aimed to put my pain behind me. It didn’t. I don’t think it’ll ever go away. Roma told us that the most painful things in life are always present, and that’s why we do something with them. We try to cure diseases, we fight to eradicate racism, we protest hurtful behavior, we write.
As he mused following my question, Roma recounted the story about a friend who lost his son in an accident. His friend told him, “It gets less worse.”
We do hard work here. When we leave, it won’t be any less hard. But for artists and civilians alike, it will get less worse.
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at email@example.com .