Phocus encourages campus involvement

“The most fun thing I did recently is I made a zine about all the ATMs in New York from different angles with graffiti and stuff on them.” —Photo enthusiast Eilif Røønning ’20/Courtesy of Eilif Røønning

As Vassar’s one and only student photography organization, Phocus holds a wide array of events and activities—peer critiques, workshops, movie screenings, exhibitions—for photo enthusiasts in the Vassar community. The org also runs a fully equipped darkroom in Main that offers students the opportunity to realize their artistic dreams.

Campus liaison and organisational officer Eilif Rønning ’20 described his first encounter with the org: “I joined Phocus at the start of my first year at Vassar and I found it a really welcoming and calming space. We meet on Thursdays at 8 p.m. in Rocky 304 and we turn off the lights and sit in the dark looking at photos for an hour. It’s a non-judgmental space and really relaxed and open.”

Rønning added,“[Phocus] gave me room to just exhale and appreciate nice images…I learned so much about photography since coming to Vassar solely because of the org. I learned to take better and different photos.” Moving to a leadership role this year, Rønning strives to ensure that Phocus is a safe space for artists to learn and grow.

During the weekly meetings, students can receive constructive feedback on their works submitted anonymously. Rønning explained what goes into planning the prompts for each critique session: “We try to have broad categories so that people feel comfortable submitting whatever they want. Part of the theme that we pick for the week is to help people explore a specific type of photography or idea.”

Exec Board member Ella Baum ’20 has been involved with Phocus since her first year at Vassar. She articulated her love for photography via email: “I have been fascinated by the medium of photography and its potential to influence the way we see the world, and each other, for years. I think photography is an incredibly rewarding art form as it allows one to share one’s own experience and is, simultaneously, conducive to evocative, deeply human storytelling and beautiful, aesthetic work. All of this contributed to my desire to join Phocus. My passion for this medium lends itself to my desire to work with other photographers, and learn from one another, and the constructive criticism such a community provides.”

The org serves as an alternative setting for discovering and learning the art of photography. Rønning noted, “I really wanted to create more opportunities for people to not only learn but show what they are making because there are so many incredible artists on campus and in the community. However, there are only two classes in the Art Department [on photography] and there’s no art history class that talks about photography.”

Among the many projects that Phocus pursues, the workshops are hosted according to the needs and demands of the students. The org recently had a zine-making workshop, introducing a cheap and accessible way to self-publish photography work.

Phocus is currently working on its annual journal, FIX, which will come out at the end of April. The magazine functions as a platform to display student work. Rønning stated, “Our aim is to be as inclusive as possible, so almost everyone gets at least one and no more than three photos published. People are encouraged to submit any format taken with any device.”

Collaborating with VCNature, an outreach campaign by the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve, Phocus is about to launch a photo exhibit, titled “Earth to Vassar,” in the Old Bookstore on Earth Day, April 22. The purpose of this project is to invite community involvement and spread awareness of the various forms that the concept of nature can take.

Rønning elaborated, “We encourage people to submit photos they’ve taken about what they think is nature. One of our goals in selecting the photos was to show a wide variety and to explore what we consider socio-nature. Is it just the beaver dam that we see in the preserve or people sitting on the quad together? Is it the mold that grows in the corner of the shower in Raymond? Where does nature end?”

In the spirit of the photo show, Exec Board member Cassie Jain ’20 shared her own interpretation of nature: “I think nature is where you feel like you’re in fresh air; usually this means there’s some kind of foliage, animals and natural landscape, but it could be anywhere from the beach to Sunset Lake to a city park.”

Rønning revealed that Phocus is already planning on inviting next year’s guest speakers. He remarked on the hopes and goals of the org in this area: “We want to bring more photographers of color because photography is a white male-dominated industry and it’s important to amplify other voices. We, as an org and as individuals, want to engage more with the wider community. We also continue working towards making photography more accessible on campus, as it can be an expensive hobby.”

What binds the org members together is their mutual recognition of the expressive power of photography. Baum noted, “What inspires me about photography is its capacity—as a platform through which to filter the world and our perceptions—to unify people. I believe photography has the potential to be a very empathetic art form. It illuminates the ways humans create and connect with one another and our environments. In a world increasingly inundated with quick documentation and apathy, I think it is valuable to slow down and see the world through another’s eyes.”

Speaking of her own work, Baum believes that it’s important to capture a new perspective in photos that reflect reality. She commented, “The photos I am most proud of creating have in common poetic moments of connection in a fast world; images that allow the viewer to see the world anew, if only for a moment.”

Rønning’s interest in photography was initiated by a need to document life as he experiences it. He recounted, “I grew up having a very transient life, living in a lot of different places. I really fear of forgetting and photography originally started as a form of remembering. I wanted to take photos of everything and everyone around me. Instead of directing or manipulating the situation, I just like to capture things as they are.”

Phocus provides resources for people who are interested in exploring different formats of shooting. Members receive not only access to photographic equipment but also a medium to showcase their work. Contact Phocus via email at or visit the official website,, which posts upcoming projects, events, tutorials and student galleries.

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