Even in the digital age, with cameras in their pockets and darkrooms in their laptops, photographers tend to thrive when they’re out in the world—especially those just embarking on their practice. For over a decade, the Howard A. Silverstein and Patricia Bleznak Silverstein Photography Studio Abroad program has gathered undergraduate and graduate Penn students for immersive art making around the world, from Berlin to Beijing, Istanbul to Havana. The COVID-19 pandemic put international travel on hold temporarily. But this spring, artists and faculty members Gabriel Martinez and Jamie Diamond led an eager group of 15 students on a trip to Seoul for two weeks of research, sightseeing, contemplation, and creation.
“It’s a life changing journey for young artists,” says Martinez, a senior lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts. Over seventy five students submitted portfolios and proposals, which Martinez and Diamond, along with a jury of Department of Fine Arts faculty members, whittled down to 15 finalists. “We were looking for a proposal that was well-researched and a portfolio that was strong and developed,” says Diamond, also a senior lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts. “But something that feels exploratory and has a lot of potential.”
As the spring semester began, so did the planning. “There’s about eight weeks of intense and rigorous preparation,” says Martinez, “so that students are prepared both technically and conceptually.” Studies with visiting artists, curators, and language instructors helped students develop working vocabularies of Korean culture; extensive demonstration and use of the high-end digital cameras, lenses, and lighting equipment purchased with program funds allows the students to arrive in the country ready to get to work.
“It really taught me what the full lifecycle of a creative process looks like," says one former student.
It's an approach that served students well on previous trips, like 2019’s venture to Japan. “Every week before we left,” says Mary Osunlana, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2020 and now works as a photo editor at A&E Networks in Los Angeles, “we had to bring in something from our research of Japanese film, language, or culture, and it was really helpful to have structure going into it. Of course, once we landed in Tokyo, my ideas shifted, but I had the freedom to do that because the goal was to explore the experience as fully as possible.” Osunlana made a body of work exploring Japanese skateboard communities. “The first week, we explored and had artist talks and studio visits. By the second week, I was focusing on a single skatepark. My earlier ideas were broader looks at relationships between younger and older generations. Having a finite amount of time devoted to spending time with her subjects, she says, brought up questions of her role as photographer. “I can’t speak with authority on any part of Japanese culture,” she says. “But I was able to engage genuinely, in a small way in a small park, with people who are familiar with each other and ask them if it’s ok that I’m in the space. It was more a celebration of differences and similarities, and less authoritarian.”
Such epiphanies are by class design, Diamond says. “We talk a lot about averting that voyeuristic gaze, and the ethical and moral responsibilities we have being there as visitors.” Students are encouraged to work through these issues in real time with “dailies,” or images quickly captured on their smartphones. “It’s about constantly having a camera with you so that things that excite or distress you, or call your attention, can be photographed,” Martinez explains. “It’s about the joy of liberated yet respectful observation.”
Home with their hauls, students begin the real learning process. They will spend the rest of the semester processing—both in the sense of thinking through their experiences and in terms of turning the raw images into finished prints—and then narrowing their edits into final photographs. For Osunlana, these moments were as transformative as the travel itself. “Getting the chance to revise and revise, to really think about the takeaways but also the nitty gritty about paper and color processing, got me into the vision space.” An exhibition, celebratory dinner, and catalog cap off the program. “The physical, tangible ephemera are really important to the trip,” Diamond says. And Osunlana agrees. “It really taught me what the full lifecycle of a creative process looks like.”
The public exhibition of work made by students this spring is planned for April 20 at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery.