Category Archives: Documentary

Matt Garber: I Say We Care

Roosevelt - Truman Campaign Event 1944

Roosevelt – Truman Campaign Event 1944


Photography and Text by Matt Garber, Copyright 2018




After reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography, the one question that I could not drive from my mind was this: why take a photograph? Specifically, why take one of this subject at this moment? This issue is treated extensively by Sontag, and it represents the biggest shift in my attitude towards photography for having read the book.

The question of why to take a photograph seems like it should have a quite simple answer. We capture what is for some reason beautiful or relevant. However, Sontag describes the role of photographers in molding the very ideas of beauty and relevance. What makes a beautiful photograph is not necessarily capturing a subject previously understood to be aesthetic, and a photo’s relevance can be determined as much by its artistic motivation as by the context.

This translates into a considerable amount of power naturally afforded to the photographer. The individuals who master the camera, in a way, get to determine how we remember history. The photographer has nearly as much influence over what is considered worthy of photographing as any natural beauty or relevance inherent in the scene.

Several years ago, my grandmother came across something remarkable in cleaning up my late grandfather’s things: she found his photographs. Among them is the photograph below, picturing Orson Wells, Hellen Keller, and Anne Sullivan at a Roosevelt-Truman campaign event in New York.

The rally, held September 21, 1944 at Madison Square Garden, helped kick off the transition between Roosevelt’s Vice President Henry Wallace and his new Vice-Presidential nominee, Harry Truman.

Prior to reading On Photography, the photograph gave me a sense of pride because it told me that my grandfather, a freelance photojournalist at the time, was there to capture something history considers important. Now, the photograph gives me a sense of pride because it tells me that my grandfather helped decide what history considers important.

This particular rally is remembered not so much for the 20,000 people who came but rather for the handful of celebrities who were present. Among the speakers were Orson Welles and Helen Keller (photographed), as well as Sinclair Lewis, Senator Robert F. Wagner, and David Dubinsky. Frank Sinatra was just one of the entertainers. Truman and Wallace’s speeches were likely not the most memorable for many of the 20,000 in attendance.

What makes this special is that that election marked the beginning of celebrity politics in America, and that rally was the most star-studded of them all. And the trend continues to this day. Last year, we watched Lady Gaga on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton. Beyoncé dances with Michelle Obama.

Through his camera, my grandfather played at least a small role in shaping how these rallies were perceived. His decision to use his film to show Keller and Welles as opposed to Truman, Wallace, or any of the 20,000 regular folk in attendance, provided some degree of importance to their being present. In a small way, my grandfather’s decision to photograph the subject he did changed how we think about history, and how history unfolded.

The active role of the photographer in shaping what we believe was not entirely lost by me before reading Sontag, but its extent and importance was never something I considered. Now, just like I consider my grandfather’s photography a small but nevertheless important shaper of our history, I start to think about my own photography as a chance to impact what people care about.

I am excited by this. As I move forward with my photography, it will be impossible to remove it from my conscious decision making. The determinative power of my choices will be as important a consideration as framing and exposure.

Each piece of photographic art I create will be my small contribution to what we care about. After all, if my grandfather could create and decide what is an important part of our story, then so can I.


About The Author: Matt Garber is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.  To access additional articles by Matt Garber, click here


Also posted in Blog, History, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, UPenn, UPenn: Photography Students

Yash Killa: Book Review – Susan Sontag’s, On Photography

Yash Killa: High School Group Portrait

Yash Killa: High School Group Portrait


Photography and Text by Yash Killa, Copyright 2018


Book Review: Susan Sontag’s, On Photography


‘On Photography’, authored by Susan Sontag, is a 1977 compilation of a series of essays written by her on the subject throughout the 20th Century. The essays range from talking about the nature of photography along with the comparison between an image and reality in “In Plato’s Cave” to contrasting idealism with realism in through photographers like Walt Whitman, Rosenfeld Steiglitz, and Diane Arbus in the second and third chapters of the book. However the central theme, according to me, that strings these essays together is the role of photography and the subjective nature of how it is perceived as throughout the different periods in history.

Sontag made me wonder whether a photograph is a mirrored replica of reality, or is it an interpretation of it seen through the eyes of the photographer. When I set out to read the book, I had prepared myself to ask questions, challenge her thoughts, but also try to discern her perspective and in the process gain a deeper understanding of Photography.

As mentioned above, “In Plato’s Cave” deals with Sontag allegorises that the present day humanity is still in Plato’s Cave, and having not left it, everything seen by us is isn’t complete and absolutely realistic. For example, on a daily basis the Human Brain deals with 34GB1 of information – most of it in the form of images, and often these images are seen without their context or even without experiencing them. Humans are so dependent on such images that even though photography helps record passing moments in time, the images can often be misleading and doctored, thus having a ‘cost’ attached to it.

Now, cameras have found their way everywhere, and thus many times, I believe, experiences are automatically-lived through a photograph, reducing the pleasure of experiencing it first-hand in reality. Sontag quotes, “Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” This leads into her second and third essay which talk about realism and idealism, showing the difference in how the role of photography can be perceived by different photographers. One one end, she talks about Whitman’s vision for idealism, and on the other she contrasts it with the ‘freaks’ she photographs in order to show that humanity is no longer integrated. This made me think about the conception of ‘high art’, and photography’s place within it – is photography another form of art that shows ‘realistic surrealism’, or is it beyond avoiding what’s considered ‘low’ in our society (something like what Diane Arbus did). An interesting observation was that even though Sontag didn’t even use a single photograph to back-up her claims, or provide a visual aid, I, as a reader immediately understood what she meant because the topics she wrote about are still pertinent in today’s society.

Sontag’s later essays explore the historical development of photography and reviews the nature of photography in its context – to quote Sontag, “Mallarme said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book. Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” The essays make one wonder whether one ‘takes’ photographs or ‘makes’ them – whether photography is

1 “The Human Brain Is Loaded Daily with 34 GB of Information.” Tech 21 Century, 1 Mar. 2015,

just a mechanical process of pointing a camera and clicking, or is an artistic process of interpreting what is seen differently.

To end, Sontag has published a list of questions, terms and quotes related to the field of photography that, even though are interesting to read, they are difficult to relate to and engage with due to the lack of context.

The read was an insightful and thought-provoking one. I would certainly recommend it to those who are interested in reading about different opinions and perspectives on a particular matter because what Sontag writes about is completely unique and slightly cynical, forcing one to leave their biases aside and compels readers to further understand the world around them.


About The Author: 

“I come from a Boarding school. This image was taken on a formal dinner at the end of our final semester, and consists of my batchmates who lived in the same house with me over the course of 5 years. To any other observer of the image, it will be seen as a normal image of a group of friends, but it is quite different for someone who was a part of this picture. The number of memories, adventures, fights, food-parties we’ve had as a close-knit group; the number of jokes we’ve laughed up; the number of treks we’ve gone for together; how each one of us has had an impact on the development and growth on the other – it is all encompassed in this one photo taken at the end of our high-school journey that we embarked on, and completed together. This is what Sontag talks about in “In Plato’s Cave”. As I am writing this short write-up for the photo, it is already that I’ve become over-whelmed with nostalgia and joy, and this is why this photo will always be close to me.”

Yash Killa is a Freshman enrolled in the School of Arts & Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Yash Killa, click here


Also posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Friends of TWS, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Science, Student Life, Travel, UPenn

Matt Garber: (Dis-) Comfort




Photography and Text by Matt Garber, Copyright 2018


(Dis-) Comfort


Where are do you belong? Where do you not? In a sense, answers to the two questions can help define individuals in an extremely powerful way. I set out to answer these two questions photographically in order to tell the stories of people around me. In creating two portraits per subject, I strove to capture the places, activities, ideas, and values in and outside of each person’s comfort zone. These photographs constitute my attempt to offer a glimpse into the stories of those around us.

Along this journey, I learned several lessons I simply did not expect to discover. First, the willingness of my friends and family to participate as subjects for my study was heartening. However, their willingness to go outside their comfort zones to do so was shocking. Through their occasional screams, shrieks, and heebie-jeebies, subjects were willing to face fears of creepy crawlers, climb into uncomfortable, constricting places, approach locations of bad childhood memories, be photographed at their most vulnerable, and even brave proximity to vegetables.

In fact, for many subjects, it was these scenes of discomfort that most excited them. Perhaps, in a way, pushing themselves into their discomfort zones offered a way to open up in ways they normally don’t. Or perhaps being a model for a photoshoot was simply exciting.s

Either way, I am extremely grateful for their willingness to participate and let me shine a small light on their stories. And I am especially grateful for their willingness to be exposed in the very light that they least want.

Second, I found that people often, although not exclusively, struggled more explicitly identifying their areas of comfort than their areas of discomfort. For many, but again not all, of the subjects, this project forced them to consider what makes them content. In that way, it demonstrates photography’s power to encourage self-reflection.

Finally, I found it quite interesting the role that hands played for many of the subjects’ portraits. The position, strength, motion, and action of hands became a minor focus once I noticed its pattern through many of the portraits.

Stylistically, I challenged myself, as much as possible, to be minimalist. How much can I show with how little? In doing so, there is a forced sense of intimacy, or, in several cases, a noteworthy lack thereof.

Everyone has a story to tell. I think that story can be told in two frames. My subjects and I chose the most and least belonging places for those two frames. In this way, the photographs declare that we can be defined in part by where or whom we ought to be and where and whom we ought not.

This forces the questions: Where are we comfortable? Where are we not? Where should we be? Where should we not?

Where do you belong? Where do you not?


About The Author: Matt Garber is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.  To access additional articles by Matt Garber, click here


Also posted in Blog, Environment, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Student Life, UPenn, UPenn Photography

Alberto Jimenez: Immortality





Photography and Text by Alberto Jimenez, Copyright 2018


Book Review


What stood out to me in Susan Sontag’s On Photography was her message on the infinite power and authority photography has in modern society. Sontag explains how being photographed gives us a sense of being real because photography is capturing reality by freezing it. It is a way to make reality tangible because you can hold a photograph. She also mentions how photography is not only to preserve the past but also to deal with the present.

This image reminds me of photography preserving the past to deal with the present because I recently lost my cousin (female on the right) to cancer. I have a lot of wonderful memories with her, but I do not possess images of all memories; therefore, those memories that I have photographed does make reality tangible. To mourn the death of a loved one, I believe, I need to remember the good times. Seeing pictures like this one have the power to take me back to that point in time and remember the tastes, the smells, the love, and my cousin. It reinforces the fact that she was real and that the love I have for her is real.

Sontag explains that photography is so powerful that it gives us a glimpse of the unknown. It allows us to see something before experiencing it. Which, in turn, enables us to formulate a bias about an event or mirrored reality even before experiencing it. Photography pulls us into that event by activating our sense of sight. Once we have that, we can imagine what we could possibly hear, see, touch, and taste. With my image, although I experienced that event years ago, it still has the power to give me the ability to remember that experience. Sontag explains what I would define as pre-experience where by seeing an image, we can imagine the experience we would have in the reality portrayed by that image. I would add that a photograph also allows for a post-experience where unlike pre-experience where you imagine what an experience would be like, you remember the experience.

Overall, Susan Sontag’s On Photography is very informative. I learned a lot about photography and its history with being considered an art or not and photography’s difference with paintings. At times, it felt as Susan Sontag was taking me on a tour of an exhibit as she explains Arbus’s work. I feel like her explanation equipped me with the knowledge to truly appreciate a photograph. It opened my mind to the type of questions I should ask myself when inspecting a photograph. For example, when initially looking at Arbus’s work, I did not exactly understand the images. I knew they were portraits, but I did not think about any meaning behind this. As Sontag explains Arbus’s work as “reactive—reactive against gentility, against what is approved” (pg 44), I understood that explanation when reevaluating the portraits. Ultimately, On Photography allowed me to understand the immortality of images and the power photography holds. 


About The Author: Alberto Jiminez is a Senior enrolled in the School of Engineering, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2018. To access additional articles by Alberto Jimenez, click here


Also posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Engineering, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Science, Student Life, UPenn Photography

Victoria Meng: Artist Statement


Photography and Artist Statement by Victoria Meng, Copyright 2018


October 2011. I could contain the world within 8 megapixels with my first point and shoot camera: a small purple Nikon CoolPix. I was off on a school trip and my parents wanted me to capture every moment.

After a week in Washington D.C., my new photo gallery was not quite what anyone had expected. Sure, I visited famed monuments and attractions, the pride of our nation. But, my artistic vision did quite not reflect that. 50 photos, for example, were dedicated to the White House lawn, or at least a squirrel on the White House Lawn.

At the time, my eccentric view of the city was definitely not borne out of genius, but rather attention deficit. However, I do believe it embodies an important sentiment. The idea, that once in awhile, as we go through the motions of our chaotic lives, we should stop and look around. If you have the time and a hint of humor, the streets of any city can be brimming with life, excitement, and indeed squirrels.

I began this project, wandering through some of Philadelphia’s most iconic neighborhoods and tourist attractions, looking for things that were out of the ordinary. Instead, I found among the kaleidoscopic streets of our city, something extraordinary. I found, that for perhaps the first time since I was a seventh grader in Washington D.C., I was truly seeing.


About The Author: Victoria Meng is a Sophomore enrolled in the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Victoria Meng, click here


Also posted in Architecture, Blog, Environment, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Travel, UPenn Photography, Women