Life in high definition: Photographers at Dartmouth

by Carolyn Zhou | 4/5/17 1:40am


For many, photography is a casual activity. The average person may take hundreds of photos a month on subjects ranging from the trivial, such as that plate of food from dinner, to the more serious, such as a picture of your newborn child. However, some people enjoy it so much that they decide to pursue photography even further. Some students, such as Aaron Lit ’19, Danny Berthe ’18 and Will Allan ’18, young alumna Thienan Dang ’16 and professional school photographers Robert Gill and Eli Burakian ’00, who are both employed by Dartmouth’s Office of Communications, commented on their roads to photography and the role it plays in their lives.

For Burakian, photography was not a part of his life until he graduated college. However, starting in the early 2000s, it eventually evolved into his career. As one of Dartmouth’s two school photographers, he takes photos of every aspect of Dartmouth: students, faculty, visiting artists and speakers and scenery.

Burakian’s beginning in photography stemmed from a trip to New Zealand after graduating Dartmouth in 2000. However, he did not immediately settle on photography as a career: he went on to work at the Lodj for three years and even tried consulting before he finally settled down with photography full-time.

“I hope my example of finding photography after college shows that you don’t need to know what you want to do in college,” he said. “And that’s the whole point of liberal arts — Dartmouth is not vocational school. It’s training you to think critically.”

Burakian’s winding path towards photography demonstrates that one can find one’s passions quite unexpectedly. For Lit, who has been doing photography since he was 10, photography sprang out of another, seemingly unrelated hobby.

Lit began photographing when he picked up scuba diving, an activity his father taught him. He started collecting a lot of photographs, which prompted him to publish a visual book to raise awareness about marine biodiversity. Currently, 25 of those photos are up on display in Haldeman as an initiative through the Dickey Center.

Unlike Burakian, who began photography after college, and Lit, who began as a precocious pre-teen, Gill, Dartmouth’s other school photographer, began in high school, at the encouragement of a teacher. According to Gill, he is one of that teacher’s three students who ultimately went on to pursue photography on a professional level.

Dang also photographed in high school, but only as a casual creative outlet. She only started photographing people regularly when she got to Dartmouth and was not asked to take photos of events until her sophomore year. She mostly took photos of her friends and social gatherings, such as formals. Now that she’s graduated, she said that she has not had as much time nor opportunities to take photos but hopes to pick the camera back up soon.

For film major Berthe, photography, while not his exact career choice, will still be useful in his desired career as a filmmaker. As he wants to write screenplays and direct films, he believes that photography will help him with the visual aspect of filmmaking.

Similarly, Allan is pursuing an artistically inclined major: architecture. Allan remembers his first camera was on his first cell phone.

All of these photographers, while at different stages in their lives and relationships with photography, must adapt to ever-changing technologies.

Burakian, who shot film photography for two years before moving to digital in 2003, commented on shifts in technology he has seen over his career.

“Nowadays everyone takes photos, everyone’s a photographer,” Burakian said. “On one hand, it’s much more accessible, everyone’s more prolific … [with] the higher end gear, there’s so much less you need to know; everything autofocuses, there’s high enough resolution, there’s great dynamic range, really good low light.”

However, as always, there are some slight downsides to new technology.

“Between everyone having a camera in their phone and how with good cameras, if you put it in the green setting, 99 percent of the time you’re going to come out with a decent photo, it forces those of us in the profession to make sure that your work stands out,” Burakian said. “Accessibility is great, and I’m glad that everyone’s taking photos, but it means great photos are lost a little easier now, since there’s so many good photos out there.”

Burakian’s original intent was to be a stock photographer, since his true passion lies in photographing landscapes (he is also an avid hiker), but with the existence of companies like Shutterstock and iStock, that dream did not become feasible.

Other challenges in photography itself vary, depending on the person and the subjects they prefer to photograph.

Some challenges have to do with the actual implementation of the activity. For Lit, his main challenge is photographing underwater. He uses the same camera he uses on land but needs to use a case called a housing, which essentially is a metal box that wraps around the camera when underwater. Another main difference is that he uses a macro-lens to magnify the tiny creatures he photographs. Most of the creatures cannot be seen by the naked eye. Lit also needs strobe lights, which act as giant flashlights. As one goes deeper underwater, the color red disappears first, then orange, then yellow. Once one is deep enough, everything starts looking blue-green.

“If you’re underwater, to the naked eye, a coral looks purple, but once you shine a light on it, you see that it’s actually red,” Lit said. “Good lighting is essential for revealing the true colors of the creature.”

Other challenges for Lit include waiting, for sometimes up to 30 minutes, for the creatures to come out from wherever they’re hiding. And often, he has to guess which equipment to bring underwater, since he switches between using a macro-lens and a fisheye lens (which are used for bigger things, like coral reefs). Sometimes, he’ll have the macro-lens out to photograph something small, and a shark shows up.

Just as Lit has to have patience for sea creatures, photographers who primarily take photos of people have to deal with other challenges.

“People change when they know they’re being photographed” Allan said.

“While I’m trying to shoot candids, if they know they’re being photographed, you can definitely tell, even if they’re a good actor. It just changes vibe of the photo.”

Berthe has a clever trick to get people to calm down while he’s taking photos of them.

“When you’re photographing people, they want to appear a certain way,” he said. “They’ll say ‘take it from this side.’ One trick I have is that I’ll pretend I have problems with my camera, lower it, and as soon as they relax, I take a candid.”

Dang faces challenges in photographing people as well, in a different context: formals.

“I try not to capture people in a bad light, figuratively and literally,” Dang said. “Literally, you’re in a dark room. And figuratively, you don’t want to take pictures that [your subjects] wouldn’t want on Facebook.”

Despite having different subjects and focuses, all six of these photographers probably face a shared challenge: finding originality and generating something new.

“Dartmouth, in my opinion, has been photographed to death,” Berthe said.

However, after speaking with Australian fashion photographer Peter Coulson while studying abroad in Germany, Berthe found that the way he looked at light changed, transforming his work.

“When I came back I found myself being able to take much better photographs […] I find the little spots where the light hits the right way, and you can see the fashion influence in my photographs now,” Berthe said.

Gill, whose job is to photograph the school, explained some of the challenges in finding fresh ideas.

“A challenge here is that things start becoming familiar,” Gill said. “Like [Baker lobby], how can I do something different, and do something I’ve never done before, even though I’ve been in this hallway a thousand times? You have to be open to that and not take any situation or place for granted.”

Facing these challenges with procuring inventive work, all six photographers strive to reach higher goals beyond just snapping photos.

Lit aspires to change our attitudes toward something he really cares about, the ocean.

“There’s a disconnect between our lives and the underwater world,” Lit said. “In many ways we are connected, but we just don’t realize it. This literal alienation between us and the ocean leads to indifference.”

Lit loves marine animals because of their beauty and diversity — we have only classified around three to four percent of all marine animals, and there’s still 95 percent of the ocean remains unexplored. This is why he does underwater photography.

“By revealing what lies underwater, I can sort of raise awareness about how our actions affect their world and create a greater sense of connection between us and fish,” he said.

Gill also has focused part of his work on social commentary, specifically male body image. He completed a project where he gained a lot of weight on purpose and then lost it all quickly on purpose. He documented the process with this camera, mimicking before and after photography in advertising. In an ironic twist, they’ve been stolen and used all over the world for “sketchy” advertising purposes.

“I find it interesting that the project keeps going on without me,” he reflected.

Allan and Dang both photograph to find beauty in the various moments in our lives. Dang finds beauty in special occasions, like dances, while Allan finds beauty in things that seem ordinary or are typically looked over.

“I enjoy highlighting and finding beauty in things that aren’t always looked at as beautiful or interesting things,” Allan said. “Very normal moments with your friends can turn into great photos. Or, for example, some people just see abandoned buildings as an eyesore, but I think they can be beautiful.”

Similarly, Dang describes finding beauty in fleeting but special moments.

“Sometimes, there are moments in which two people are dancing, and it seems as if there’s nobody else there, whether it’s due to the emotion in the photo or just the lighting of the photo,” Dang said. “I think that’s really cool, being the person able to take a picture of that.”

According to Berthe, photography is an art just as much as painting and drawing.

“There’s an agency photographer has in taking and editing pictures,” Berthe said. “Some people like to photograph such that it represents what they saw as accurately as possible. I try to infuse my opinions and views into the photograph such that anyone that sees it experiences the way I felt the moment.”

This is why he enjoys photographing concerts — he photographs Green Key every year. Besides being a fan of the music, he likes being able to add his feelings of the artists into his photos.

“If I think the artist is energetic, outgoing, like Raury, who is a lively performer, instead of photographing him in a solemn or conservative moment, I’ll try to showcase him in something that expresses his outgoing nature,” Berthe said.

Being a photographer, his hobby sometimes does take away from his enjoyment of the event.

“On one hand you want to experience what you have before you. But you have a certain responsibility to take the moment down with your camera.”

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