It’s that time of year once again. The weather is starting to improve (kind of). The birds are chirping. Some people are somehow already breaking out their shorts. And graduating students are trying to cram that last bit of information into their final thesis. Months and months of research and planning all culminates into a few weekends of locking yourself in a room and staring at a computer for hours.
I’m in the same boat. I’ve literally been staring at my computer for hours every week trying to find ways to make things better. And up until two weeks ago I didn’t even know when the deadline was. The only real difference between their final reports and mine is that mine has very little writing and a ton of photos. Also it’s a photo essay, not a thesis paper. And I’ve been working on it for around two years depending on who you ask.
That might be a lot to digest. So I’ll back track a little bit.
In the fall of 2016, I enrolled in an independent study photojournalism course. The goal of the course was to create a comprehensive portfolio and to do that, I needed to create a long-term photo essay or story. A few different ideas were passed around until we landed on a genre I was truly passionate about: human rights. At the same time as these decisions were being made, the country was moving towards the national election. I also befriended someone in one on my math classes who would become central to my work over the next two years: Eric Cruz López.
Eric is not only a UConn student, but he is also an undocumented immigrant and DACA recipient. Through him and with his permission, I was granted the privilege of covering undocumented immigrant rights protests across the Northeast. I took hundreds of pictures chronicling Eric’s work and the toll it took on him as a student and as an activist. At the end of the semester, I condensed it into a photo-story titled “#HereToStay: An undocumented student’s story.”
After working with Eric, I knew there was a larger story to tell. I just didn’t have the time for it. I was graduating in few months and I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got out. And then I got a blessing in disguise; I didn’t graduate.
Because of that, I was able to pursue a grant through the Human Rights Institute which allowed me to continue working within the undocumented immigrant community. When I met Eric, I was exposed to a network of organizations in Connecticut that worked to help undocumented immigrants fight for their rights and fight for a chance at citizenship. Groups did everything from planning marches to organizing legal funds for immigrants being held in jail. And at the forefront of these groups were amazing leaders working together to bring about change.
With Eric, I went inch-wide, mile-deep. I focused on him as an immigrant and a student, as well as how those two roles clashed. With this new story I had the opportunity to go inch-deep and mile-wide. I reached out to as many leaders in the community from whom I could to gain information and began to construct the idea for my project. With the help of my advisor, I settled on doing a portrait project that showed the faces of the movement in Eastern Connecticut. And instead of me struggling to tell a story that was hard for me to convey, I allowed the subjects to tell that story. Through quotes on why undocumented immigration rights are an important narrative of persistence, courage and the desire for a better life, my thesis was born. This was the story I wanted to tell when I was working with Eric, and now it’s almost done.
Sometime in the future, I want to call myself a human rights photojournalist. I want to travel the world and use my camera to help tell the story of communities facing marginalization. The first step in the journey is almost over. In a few weeks, it’ll be up in the Dodd Center and published online for the world to see. Hope you will all take a look.