Q&A with College Photographer Eli Burakian ’00
Eli Burakian discusses his journey from a Dartmouth undergraduate to college photographer and what it’s like to capture Dartmouth through his lens.
Courtesy of Julia Burakian ’01
While the term often goes by too fast for us students to fully capture the experience, College photographers are always hard at work documenting the campus happenings. The Dartmouth sat down with College photographer Eli Burakian ’00 as he recounted his experiences photographing campus for the past 10 years.
How did you get involved in photography?
EB: I'm a Dartmouth graduate, and after I graduated, I ran Moosilauke Ravine Lodge for three years — which is not open in the winter. So, I bought a camera for the winter to go to New Zealand with a friend and fell in love with [photography]. I felt like I wanted to make that my profession, so I worked on putting a book together about Mount Moosilauke, and that was my first real photo project.
What drew you back to Dartmouth?
EB: [After Moosilauke,] I stayed up here, worked at a consulting firm at White River Junction for four years while learning photography on the side. Then, I worked as a freelance photographer for a few years and came back to the school in 2011, when I heard the previous College photographer, who’d been here for 17 years, was retiring. I thought it’d be a really fun job to get to meet everybody, walk around and be part of an institution that was formative in my development as a person. I love living up here — it’s a great place to raise a family, and so if I’m going to be here, I might as well work for Dartmouth.
What does a day working as a Dartmouth College photographer looks like?
EB: I think a lot of people think that my job is just to walk around and take pretty pictures of people having fun. I really wish that was the majority of my job, but most of my job is assignment work. I’m responsible mostly for the photography for Dartmouth News through the Communications Office, and a lot of that is faculty and student portraits. A lot of what we do is for social media — like Instagram and Facebook.
So, an average day might be to come in and deal with a bunch of emails and processing [photos], and a meeting at 10. On my way to and from a shoot, I get my general campus photography done, and I sort of just slowly wind my way around campus getting photos. Then, we might do views from the Green and photo sets. There might also be something in the evening like a theater production, which I love to do, or shooting an athletics event. But typically, most of our work is nine to five, and an average day might have two shoots with a bunch of random campus stuff. Yesterday, for example, I photographed a faculty member in the Engineering and Computer Science Center doing interesting research on an app. On the way there, I went to a student-run ‘thank you’ to Dartmouth staff and employees — and they were handing out mugs — so I followed them into Foco and took photos of them giving the mugs to the staff in Foco.
What are some of the most interesting campus happenings you have shot?
EB: I always love shooting Commencement. It’s sort of like the culmination of everything that these students work for for four years — just seeing how proud the families are and how happy the students are. It’s always more interesting capturing events where everyone’s having fun. It’s been interesting seeing how over the last decade or so Homecoming has changed, but obviously shooting a gigantic fire in the middle of town is pretty fun. But truthfully, I love just spending time with students and faculty, and photographing students doing something they really care about — say, working on an art project or working at the organic farm.
I also love getting interesting perspectives on campus, so going up to the Tower. I’m also a licensed drone pilot, so we do a lot of drone photography. Thinking about new ways of getting new perspectives on a place that we’re all very familiar with, that’s a real challenge.
What is your favorite part about being a photographer?
EB: I’d say the thing I love most is just having interactions with the people here. I just did a piece we published last week of all the new Fulbright Scholars. For every student, the portraits may have taken five or 10 minutes, but I probably spent 20 to 30 minutes just learning about them and getting to know them.
I feel like I have relationships with everybody — from incoming first year students to Phil Hanlon and everything in between. So I’ll walk across campus, and I’ll know most of the faculty. I run into a lot of administrators and students as well. So really it’s just getting to know the people and then learning about the incredible research that goes on here. When I do a story through Dartmouth News, they’re telling me about their research, and I’m always learning so much.
How do you view campus differently now, as a photographer, than you did as an undergraduate student?
EB: I certainly have a much broader perspective. As an undergraduate, it’s very easy to get pulled into your own little niche of your friends. I was on the ski team for most of my time here, and I joined the Tabard, and those were the things that I did. I never even took a class in, say, economics or studio art. As a student, your whole understanding of how Dartmouth relates to the greater Upper Valley community is limited. I think stepping back and realizing this is a place that exists in a broader community is really important.
In reflecting on your own experience, how would you describe the transformation of the College over the past 20 years?
EB: I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to capture what a special place this is. It was a really formative part of my growth as a person and later a photographer, and it’s just so rewarding to watch so many young people become adults and to learn about the amazing things people are doing here. And it’s also been fun to watch the school evolve. When I got here in 1996, we were much, much more of a homogenous student body. Now, I know there’s a lot of criticism about diversity on this campus, but I think if you look at photos from 30 years ago, you’ll notice a massive change in that. It’s been great to see more and more opportunities and facilities for people like the whole new West End with the Irving Institute and ECSC.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.