Just the Facts

Institution
Columbia University/Barnard College

Year
1997

Project
Exploration, through the medium of photography, of the emotional, spiritual and physical journeys that constitute pilgrimage at the turn of the millennium

Alexis Abrams

Presently, I’m a full-time instructor of photography at the Art Institute of Colorado in Denver, focusing on documentary and photojournalistic work. Although my current work is certainly very connected to my photographic project with the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship, what I learned from the Fellowship has more to do with gaining a sense of self-sufficiency and the ability to embrace discomfort.

When I embarked on my fellowship year in Italy, I was confident and excited at the prospect of a new challenge. Within weeks, I discovered that being on my own with only a self-defined structure was more of a challenge than I anticipated. As a life-long student with very little work experience under my belt, I found that I was both the teacher and the student, with no one to oversee and comment on my progress. I made my way incrementally, breaking down the project, setting small daily goals, and also allowing myself to wander aimlessly, which is a necessary prerequisite to incubating creative ideas. The project I set out to do changed, and the year in Italy became as much about self-discovery as it was about researching and documenting religious festivals and patron saint days.

My memories of my Fellowship year are very visceral, distinct flashes of sensory experience punctuated by existential awakenings. I was lonely a lot of the time, but I was also consistently surprised by the warm welcome of Italians I barely knew, who showed me aspects of their culture that I would never have seen as a tourist. I had some foundation in the language when I arrived, but immersion is an experience that can’t be replicated. I gained empathy and enormous respect for those who live outside of their native tongue for long periods of time.

In terms of the Fellowship’s impact on my career and life as an artist, I learned about the mutability of a project and the necessity of a flexible outlook. I became a documentary photographer, realizing that my talent and preference was to capture things unfolding before my eyes, rather than controlling situations. I realized that even as a relatively introverted person, I could connect nonverbally or through conversation with my subjects, and communicate an interest in their lives that made them feel comfortable in my presence. Upon returning from my Fellowship year, I realized that I would really value further education in photography and getting the feedback from the photographic community that a graduate program could provide. I applied for graduate school and finished my M.A. in photojournalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2003. I found my niche as a photo editor and a teacher, helping others facilitate their creative vision and storytelling.

I would definitely apply for the Mortimer Hays-Brandeis Traveling Fellowship again. It was a rare opportunity to take personal risks and grow as an artist outside of the context of school or professional work. It helped me find my professional focus and develop a strong portfolio of documentary images, several of which are still part of my portfolio today. The general focus of my project would remain the same, but knowing what I know now about documentary storytelling, I would have focused it more specifically. One possibility would be to choose only a few unique festivals in southern Italy and document their religious and civic aspects, creating a comparison of the cultures of the towns that have hosted those festivals for centuries. I would also have collected specific caption information from subjects.

For students considering the Fellowship, I would recommend preparing a thoughtful and timely proposal, and continuing to research after receiving the Fellowship and before leaving for the year. I would advise that they make as many connections as they can before arriving at their destination. If they know that structure and a sense of community is important to them, I suggest auditing classes or looking for employment opportunities as a way to meet people and create connections. You’ll get the most out of the experience if you keep an open mind about the direction of your project and immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible.