institute for documentary studies

{Week 1: Photo}

Week 1: Photo


Hello prospective Salt students, and Mom:

I‘m making the guess that you’re interested in the school, and here to gain insight into how a photo student at Salt spends her time (and why she hasn’t called you back). And I hope that in the next several months, I’ll be able to help illustrate, at the very least, one student’s experience in an honest and fulfilling way.

On with the introduction: My name is Liz Mak, I’m 25, and from Los Angeles. I’m a recent graduate from UC Berkeley, and in the past year and a half since leaving college, I’ve lived in Beijing, traveled throughout Asia, and worked in DC as an intern for NPR.

Back in September, a friend of mine was looking through my photos and suggested I apply to Salt — I’d never heard of the place, and also never seriously considered pursuing photography. I’ve always loved taking photos, but haven’t felt good enough to pursue it — I’m not the greatest photographer by any means, and could be described, at best, as an amateur and hobbyist. But as an intern at the time, with no real plans come the end of the semester, a history of good experiences in following my interests, and with a newly adopted policy of actually applying for opportunities on time, I gave myself permission to pursue a years-long passion and applied. Now you’ll find me out of my element in the dead of winter in Portland, Maine.

In the past, I’ve worked mostly as an arts critic, and found that I wanted to tell stories that required more interaction and involvement with the subject matter, that allowed me to be out in the world instead of at my desk — and while I’ve always thought of writing as my main channel for communicating, I want to become more literate in storytelling, and with multiple mediums at my disposal. I’ve always suffered from the exact opposite of tunnel vision, being interested in not only writing but radio and photo and many things at once, and I don’t feel that I have to confine myself to just one of them. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to work at the point where storytelling, travel, and advocacy intersect.

In the first week, Salt has been everything I hoped for and more. In my experience, I’ve found that the most enriching periods in my life have been those that have scared the hell out of me, and I’ve already had my fair share of fear while here. We’ve been forced to get out into the city and talk to complete strangers — something I avoid at almost all costs — to acquaint ourselves with the town, take pictures, and look for story ideas. It’s an exercise in getting over yourself, something that will turn out to be a necessity in coming weeks (future assignments on photo syllabus include: follow someone home, spend 24 hours with a stranger).

My photo teacher is a badass artist/intellectual, whose biggest identifier is thick scarves that fold around his neck and settle, as if completely solid. The first assignment he gave his students was to capture a neighborhood visually, and on the first day I spent the first hour or two in Munjoy Hill waiting to spot people and taking miserable photos of houses, mailboxes, and other objects I could think of that, in my mind, represented a neighborhood. What I came to realize while shooting was that I’ve never taken photos for an assignment, and have only ever taken photos as I’ve been struck by something — I haven’t had to think too much about what they meant or represented or who I was taking them for.

Chalk it up to the fear of turning in an abysmal project, or to the high of studying in the company of a motivated crew — unlike college essays you end up writing two hours before deadline for your 600-person lecture course, there’s an intense sense of ownership in the work you turn in here. I’m rarely motivated to self-impose exercises in getting over myself, but being at Salt makes you decide how far you’ll go for a story, or an assignment: I knew I wanted to photograph the inside of a neighborhood home, to capture something different, and the motivation of fear soon got me knocking on doors, hitting every residence on the block, one at a time. Almost nobody answered, one man yelled at me (and very close to my face), and when my fingers began to freeze and I was ready to call it a day, a really nice man with a goatee and only a few minutes to spare opened the door and let me into his home, giving me free reign to take the pictures I asked for. They didn’t turn out amazing or anything, but I’ll take that small victory for what it was.