PDNEDU

Storytellers: Irene Rojas - 
Unsettled States

[by Amy Touchette]


PHOTO © IRENE ROJAS
With Bated Breath: While a student at the University of Missouri, Rojas traveled with a high school show choir for the photo essay Spirited. Below, choir members await competition results, ultimately winning the Grand Championship Award.


“Life, it seems, is nothing if not a series of initiations, transitions 
and incorporations”

—Dr. Alan Dundes (1935–2005)

When it comes to making images, what do you choose as your subject matter and why? The answers lie within, because the most effective and fulfilling work photographers can create is always, in some way, deeply tied to their identity. For recent master’s graduate Irene Rojas—who in the past several years has completed two college programs, held several different jobs and internships and is now embarking on a career as a freelance photojournalist—the answer is a direct reflection of her current stage in life, which is one largely of initiations, transitions and incorporations. But to paraphrase professor and folklorist Alan Dundes, aren’t these unsettled states largely what life is made of?

Rojas’s interest in exploring these pervasive life themes is evident in one of her most recent documentary photography series, “Moving In,” which depicts college freshmen moving into their dorms at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. “‘Moving In’ was like a trip back in time,” Rojas recounts. “I had been in their shoes, quite literally. I was once a freshman at William & Mary, and I too hauled boxes up three flights of stairs to a room without air conditioning in withering humidity.” The photo essay was part of a reporter-written story for the college, which wanted to document freshman move-in day, and Rojas’s assignment was to photograph specific things that were representative of the experience. She wanted the project “to convey a sense of universality, since many people have had this experience, either as students or parents or siblings.”

But in sharing the work with others, Rojas learned the series provoked an even wider audience: While at a portfolio review, one reviewer told her the story reminded her of recently moving her mother into a large retirement community. “The freshman move-in is a day of opportunities,” Rojas says. “For many students, this is their first time living away from home. It’s also often the first time meeting a roommate in person. It can be a culture shock, but it can also be the start of a lifelong friendship. Those opportunities all start with creating a new home away from home,” and that’s an experience we have again and again throughout our lives, even up until the very end.

Rojas didn’t always have such clarity about her choice in subject matter and her reason for making pictures, however. In fact, in high school, when she began shooting, she was interested in photographing only landscapes and still lifes. It wasn’t until she enrolled at the College of William & Mary that things began to change. She was enrolled in a bachelor of arts program in English and transitioned to photojournalism when she began working for William & Mary’s student-run newspaper The Flat Hat. She also had an academic internship in the photo department at the Daily Press, where she learned “how to work with subjects by watching those talented photographers in action.”

Immediately after completing her undergraduate degree, Rojas enrolled in the University of Missouri’s master of arts in photojournalism program, and that’s when she got into more complex photography and multimedia stories. Over the next two and a half years, while working toward her graduate degree, she spent time back at her undergraduate alma mater, interning in both the creative services and university relations departments. “They had different audiences and, therefore, different approaches,” Rojas points out.
Creative services is geared more to prospective students, focusing on the university’s Web site and social media outlets, while the university relations department is aimed more at alumni and benefactors. “It operated like a newsroom and focused on reporting on events and people in an even tone,” she adds. “I really liked contributing to W&M News because the stories meshed well with my background of documenting by observing.”

As a result of her internship experiences, however, Rojas found herself longing for the much more diverse subject matter that comprises local news coverage. So, with her master’s degree now in hand, she is ready to embark on a new stage in her life, as a freelance photojournalist back in Virginia. With the freedom this position allows, Rojas will be able to fulfill one of her professional goals—to reveal to people that “there is quite a lot of good life out there”—and at the same time reckon with the unsettled aspects of life that make her, and her work, what it is.  

TECH BOX

CAMERAS: Nikon D300, Nikon D700
LENSES: 
AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 17-55mm f/2.8G IF-ED,            
AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED
LIGHTING: 
Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlights

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© RENE BURRI/MAGNUM PHOTOS
Obituary: Rene Burri, Magnum Photographer, 81

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© Discovery Communications/Photo by David Yellin
PDN October 2014

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