See page 18 in the print magazine or on issuu for the full photo spread.
It was a late evening in September, and I ran into you on the corner of York and Elm. I wasn’t drunk, but you were, a little. You did not pick up on my hesitation when you asked me to come back to your room, only a block away, to hang out and talk. I didn’t know you so well, as I had just been settling into my first year — did I know anyone yet, really? — but I was curious. Curious about you, who you were, what your life was like at this school.
As you and I walked to Ezra Stiles and wound up a few flights of stairs, you didn’t ask me much about how my night was before running into you. You opened the door to your suitemates playing video games, and even though I wanted to stay, to see the way you interacted with friends, to let your friends witness the way you and I interacted, you walked straight into your room and closed the door behind me. You had an agenda: You turned some music on, took off your shoes, your T-shirt, your belt. I watched, beginning to wonder, to panic: Are we not going to hang out and talk?
At Yale, I heard about classmates hooking up, already infatuated with new partners; to me this was a spectacle. I had just gotten out of an emotionally abusive relationship that lasted all of high school and felt like I needed years to begin to imagine intimacy for myself. How could anyone be ready, so soon, to be with someone new? To be sexually or romantically vulnerable again?
You began to kiss me, pulling me onto your bed. I tried not to show that I was uncomfortable. You positioned yourself on top of me, draped a flimsy blanket around us (our bodies) and worked to undo my jeans. You felt smooth, warm — “Just let me think, only for a second,” I wanted to say. I really needed a couple more hours, maybe months or even years, to think. How could I even begin to communicate my (many) feelings about sex to you, right then, under that blanket and under you?
“What are you doing?” you asked me. I kept still. I told you I wanted to stop. “You can get out, then.” You turned on the light, threw on your shirt and opened the door for me to go. “Next time, stop me before we get here.” I left and stood in the empty stairwell; I caught myself pulling out my phone, as if to send you an apology. For what — ruining your night? Failing to follow your script?
We began “Tangent,” our photography project, in October of our sophomore year. We were two strangers trying to figure out what intimacy could look like. That fall we focused on nonromantic relationships — seven pairs of friends, roommates, twin sisters — because aren’t we told too often that intimacy is romance?
In the spring, we both studied abroad, and when we came back we found our peers honing in on cases of sexual misconduct: investigations into Delta Kappa Epsilon’s sexual climate, Saifullah Khan’s acquittal and the silence around the allegations against professor Thomas Pogge. We were infuriated that Yale could overlook violations of the most basic standards of interpersonal relationships. That social groups could continue to host campuswide parties without having deeper, consistent conversations about what a good social interaction could or should look like in their space. That people were not working enough, getting creative enough, to imagine what they really wanted from sexual experiences and nonsexual ones, friendships, day-to-day interactions and chance encounters at Yale. “Tangent” had asked us to be more aware of the power we (should) have to create, or opt out of, intimate moments and to push the boundaries of our perceptions of intimacy at the basic levels. So when we resumed “Tangent” this year, we expanded it to include romantic relationships.
The partners we photographed allowed us access into their private moments as they transposed feeling onto Yale spaces: Miguel and Christian with their bodies a breath apart on the corner of College and Wall streets, Genevieve and Jordan reuniting in the early light of Sterling’s Egyptian Room, Sofia shaving Genevieve’s head on a back porch on Lynwood Avenue. I remember leaving these seemingly random places, turning off my camera and wondering how other rooms around campus were being occupied in those same moments. What conversations were people having, and what silences were taking place?
Later as I was editing these photos, putting Genevieve’s slight exhale into Adobe Photoshop’s layers, I couldn’t help but think about that night of my first year: “You can get out, then.” These photographs, our work, represented — became — a subtle railing against the script I had been asked to follow. His script, fully imagined and performed with power, did not allow me to explore intimacy as something that could change across moments, that I could re-evaluate from the stairwell to the bedroom. This script, layered with (internalized) misogyny, had almost prompted me to apologize for not having sex with someone, for not being “intimate” enough. Maybe his script is not really his, at all — maybe it is written into the very libraries that we center our campus around, sometimes in different words, but always the same language. What language are we passing down?
The truth is, as photographers, we are used to feeling intrusive. The camera works to bring us together, but it can also interrupt closeness in our daily lives — do you remember the last time you had one pointed at you? That slight panic of “What do I do with my hands? Should I even smile with my teeth?” Cameras are often bound up in power, exemplified by not only their steep cost but also the visibility of their bulky bodies. The camera physically imposes itself between the subject and the photographer, taking your image while obstructing your view of the photographer. It’s uncomfortable to let yourself be seen. Intimacy often asks that of you.
And before we photographed anyone else this past fall, we decided to ask it of each other. To see what we were asking of others, to see what it felt like. Or maybe to understand each other and each other’s visions further. To find intimacy not just in front of our cameras, but on both sides, between the photographer and the photographed.
I pause and lower my camera to look at you face to face. Hesitantly, I ask, “Are you okay?” Maybe it’s a dumb question. Your hands are a noose around your own neck, fingers outstretched and grabbing at flesh. Your wrist is raw red from where your hair tie did its job too well, hugged your skin too tightly, and I wonder if this is you mimicking its actions. Sometimes you need to be held a little too hard to ground yourself in the reality of your existence, and sometimes you have to hold yourself.
And as I pause, I wonder if this looks like intimacy. I think it must: It is easy to smile serenely into my lens as you lie in my bed, at ease in each other’s company under the still warmth of the late October sun. But to so viscerally express anything other than “I’m fine” suggests trust in the relationship, at least for that very moment. It’s a different sort of feeling comfortable with the other person; it’s being comfortable enough to not be okay. But this is maybe at odds with how uncomfortable you, an onlooker, may feel looking at the final product. Faced with the physical manifestation of her anxiety forever memorialized in an image, do you recoil from its intensity? Are you uncomfortable because you feel you haven’t earned her honesty?
Sometimes I still feel uncomfortable too.