Last Spring I was taking a course at the International Center for Photography (ICP) called “Photo II: Digital,” taught by the amazing Keisha Scarville. One of our weekly assignments was to shoot a set of photos that illustrate a list of prescribed emotional states. I got stuck on menacing. “What could I possibly show that’s menacing?” I thought. I wasn’t interested in situational images, like a dog in a threatening pose—I wanted something more existential. I started thinking along economic lines; as a legal citizen with a living wage job in one of the richest countries in the world, what is it I’m really afraid of?
Then it occurred to me as I was walking through the West Village: debt. Student loan debt, I’ve got a whole lot of it! As a graduate of Harvey Mudd College and then NYU for graduate school, I’ve racked up a hefty tab. My monthly payments are obscene (but I would still say it was worth it). As a result I will have to work a high-paying job for the rest of my life to keep up, paying down that principal amount instead of building up a retirement. I’m not even sure I’ll pay it all off in my lifetime. This is my menacing, existential threat.
So I walked to the NYU Financial Aid office, showed the guard my old student ID, and discreetly took some photos in the waiting area. I posted a few of the resulting images here on my website, and was approached to publish one on the website ANIMAL New York.
This Fall I started “Photo III: Digital” at ICP, taught by M. Wesley Ham—who’s also amazing, and who I’d taken a course from before. Each of these subsequent foundation courses builds up from technical topics like camera operation to more conceptual project development. This third-level course is about focusing in on a single project and I’ve been working to continue my financial aid project over the course of the Fall semester. I set out to photograph every college’s financial aid office within range of my apartment in Brooklyn.
I downloaded some data sets from the Project on Student Debt, found a good list of for-profit colleges on Wikipedia and made myself a map of all the colleges I could find within range of New York City. I’ve been using this map to explore the city’s many places of higher learning.
I’m still nowhere close to photographing all the schools, but I have learned a lot from the excursions I’ve made so far. I’ve encountered a lot of resistance from college staff who are instantly suspicious of my interest in photographing financial aid offices. “It’s kind of like a bank, you’re just not allowed to take pictures. I guess because of security?” they’d say with a shrug.
Indeed, these are privately owned spaces and I feel the need to tread lightly. I’ve been able to take pictures on about one third of my visits, either because nobody noticed or nobody cared. In only two cases I’ve gotten verbal permission to take photos. I’ve found that public schools like Borough of Manhattan Community College and City College of New York are the least concerned with my photography. The for-profits are the hardest—trying to get into Art Institute was like crossing the border into North Korea. I’ve been getting plenty of material for my project, but very few of the shots have quite measured up to that first trip to NYU.
One of the appeals of these spaces is just how strange and alienating financial aid offices look; they are not beautiful places but they can yield interesting pictures. As I shot more, I felt the project might be seen as taking an antagonistic position toward higher education itself, and the efforts of college staff helping students to afford it. In fact, the problem I’m trying to draw attention to is the economic conditions faced by students and colleges alike. Beyond that, I’m concerned with the impact of all us alumni paying into our loans instead of putting that money to more productive uses in society.
So that’s where I started. I’m shifting the project to focus more on us American alumni. The two big changes I’m making are:
- I’m seeking out official permission from each college to allow for more flexibility on-site
- I’ll be taking portraits of alumni within their schools’ financial aid offices
That second change is where I’ll need your help. I only have a few short weeks until my class ends on December 12th, and I can’t possibly finish everything by then. I intend to get as much material as I can in the meantime and I’m hoping to set the groundwork for what seems to be a longer-term project
If you’re interested in appearing as a portrait subject, please fill out this Google Docs form. Thank you!