Student photo org Phocus focuses on accessibility

Courtesy of Igor Martiniouk ’24

For many members of Vassar’s student photography club Phocus, the best camera in the world is a disposable point-and-shoot. Elitism within the art world has always existed, but photography—superseded only by film—is one of the most difficult to enter in this regard. Cameras are prohibitively expensive, lenses even more so; before digital, 36 pictures were all that you got per roll, and that’s not including the cost of developing and printing. As Phocus’ darkroom manager, it may be strange to hear me wax on about these cameras, which have to be shipped to labs for development. However, to actively glamorize point-and-shoots is an act which spits in the face of this hierarchy, lowering the cost of photography into the realm of the feasible. Accessibility is the standard by which we conduct ourselves. 

Perhaps the prime example of this is FIX, our annual publication. As FIX Co-editor Alex Garza ’23 describes it, “FIX is an annual photo journal, a platform to publish a diverse set of photo works from the whole Vassar student body. The publication showcases different formats of shooting—film, digital, color and black and white.” Phocus is expecting to begin accepting submissions via email as soon as possible with a deadline set for after spring break. FIX is not just for members of the club; absolutely anyone can submit, and even though the editorial process is thorough in its aesthetic demands, I have yet to see someone who was denied a spot at the table. We also create projects such as Take Photo Don’t Steal, where disposable cameras are placed around campus with eponymous signs. Anyone can take a picture, creating a beautiful anonymity which preserves the democratic nature of the project, as well as highlighting the somewhat fleeting nature of documentary photography. Once archived, who will remember the names of those who took selfies on cheap plastic cameras one fall day at Vassar? 

The club also serves as an intermediary between other campus events and the student body. One such event is an upcoming Jade Parlor exhibit, curated by Cassie Jain ’20 as the Loeb’s Post-Baccalaureate Curatorial Fellow. Within this space, Jain says, “I’m hoping the exhibit is an opportunity for current Vassar students to take agency over the ambiguous history of the Jade Parlor by showing work about their own identities…acknowledging its past as a space dedicated to international students and questioning why no one knows why it had orientalizing aesthetics.” This exhibit offers an opportunity for students to have their work professionally printed and framed—a valuable moment of validation. As Phocus treasurer Laila Barcenas-Meade ’22 elaborates on the benefits of Phocus’ exhibitions and FIX, “Seeing the things I make in print is a pretty amazing feeling … It’s like, your artwork is valuable. You have talent. You can show that to the world and be proud of what you’re doing.” 

If the services that Phocus provides seem generous for the average college club, it’s because they have to be in order to make up for the college’s minimal offering of photography-related courses. Advisor to Phocus and supervisor of the Baldeck Photographic Center Monica Church works with the club’s executive board in order to achieve its goal, which include bringing in contemporary photographers to speak, having workshops, creating a Phocus archive, making zines, attending regional conferences, as well as keeping the darkroom and photographic center open to anyone looking to loan out a camera. Last year, when I joined Phocus as darkroom apprentice, I took advantage of every single one of these opportunities. And as darkroom manager this year, I have worked alongside Church to make sure that they continue to be available. We’ve made the darkroom a safe space by setting up an online scheduling system to reserve time slots and establishing health practices, such as making it an absolute requirement to use gloves when working with the equipment. In some ways, the darkroom is more suited than other spaces to adhere to COVID guidelines; for example, its ventilation system, which was originally installed to remove chemical fumes, also helps to circulate airflow, reducing the possibility of contamination. Similarly, moving everything online has had its own silver lining, making it easier for our club to bring photography-based artists—who would previously never have been able to come to Vassar—to speak for Phocus. These talks are both autobiographical and instructive, as the artist speaks about their own work and then critiques a selection of student photography. 

Barcenas-Meade describes the impact Phocus has had on her experience this year, explaining that “I think one of the most important things that Phocus has done is [encourage] me to continue photography, which can sometimes be a very solitary pursuit … Hanging out with other people who have completely different styles and completely different approaches has been helpful to my own craft.” Many of the club’s meetings are dedicated to critical sessions, where everyone in attendance can receive constructive feedback on their photography. As people come again and again to these critiques, Phocus has forged a strong sense of community and familiarity. We can track each other’s progress and notice themes within our peers’s work, as reinforcement and advice is shared equally by all. I stated earlier that FIX might be a prime example of the egalitarian nature of Phocus, but I might have to contradict myself. FIX is a magazine, and as such is a perfect example of what Phocus can do for the socially distant era. The public image of photography itself is one of solitude. The iconic photographers are all lone wolves. A single student invested under the glow of the safelight, enjoying the magic of paper and chemistry. But now, the image that comes to mind of what Phocus should be is one where we’re sitting together around a round table, sharing what moves us about the images flickering on screen. 

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