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Freshman Photographer: Susannah Benjamin ’15

Imagine: You are at Beyonce’s latest editorial photo shoot.  The queen of pop is a hair tossing, booty-shaking, world-running goddess.  Lights are flashing, pump-up music (probably Rihanna) is blasting.  The bass is thumping.  Assistants are running left and right, shouting in whispers at bumbling interns who have neglected to bring the imported chocolates that Mrs. Jay-Z specially requested.  Most people are just staring, completely star-struck.  How on earth can someone look so good after giving birth just a few weeks ago?

Now that the scene has been set, imagine who is behind the camera.  What kind of person do you see?  A bearded, bohemian hipster, brow-beaten from years of art school and Ramen dinners?  

Think again.  Susannah Benjamin, a darling blond from Greenwich, Connecticut was that very photographer this past August.  How did she beat out all of those aspiring art school graduates?  As soon as we heard about Susannah, we had to know.

Susannah is, in a word,

unforgettable.  Her every remark is spoken with incomparable intention, as if she is just bursting at the seams with ideas to share.  I imagine that is where the photography comes in.  After all, a picture captures a thousand words, as the old adage goes.  

A proud Irish-American, Susannah speaks lovingly of her “three parents”: her actual parents, who immigrated to America in their mid-twenties, and her Irish nanny, Jojo.  Susannah has the opportunity to visit Ireland at least twice a year.  It is there where she has the opportunity to read, write, and think about her next project.  She cites Ireland as her number one source of inspiration.

Before she picked up her first camera at the age of eleven, she used to write all of the time.  Even today, she always carries a journal (her “lifeline”) with her.  In it, Susannah jots down the concepts, inspiring quotes, and ideas that she stumbles upon.  She uses these scraps to generate the incredible works in her portfolio.

HC: So, you’re a freshman.  How are you liking the experience so far?

SB: I love it.  I went to the same school for fourteen years, and it was hard to make the decision.  I was worried I was doing the wrong thing.  I’m not one of those people who knew at Bulldog Days.  I wasn’t like, “I have this instinctive feeling, I have to be here.”  But, every day, I am reassured that Yale was the best choice.

HC: How does New Haven compare to Greenwich?

SB: Here, there is more flexibility to share.  My high school was very competitive, there was no time to deviate from that mindset.  Typical Greenwich.  Now, basically all of my best friends here are from random places, whereas before everyone I interacted with for fourteen years went to the same tiny school.

HC: How is your summer looking?

SB: Such a long story!  I’ve always wanted to do something with National Geographic.  That, or volunteer.  I love working on one-on-one projects, I like talking and helping people face-to-face.  I reached out to a National Geographic photographer, and he told me he would help me in any way he can if I take charge of my own summer project.  So we will see what happens there.  I might also end up in China or Cambodia as a volunteer.  We’ll see!

HC: Clearly, you are an artist.  How did that happen for you?

SB: I literally felt like I was born knowing what I wanted to do.  I don’t consider writing and photography different things.  Both are storytelling.  Sometimes I tell a story with photos, sometimes with words.  As subjects, I love surrealism and teenage girls. But I try to address big questions.  Whenever I have my own doubts, I try to address them through my art.

HC: What is a recent project of yours?

SB: This past summer, I got girls to pose for me in Payne Whitney gym.  Friends from high school lent me their uniforms, and all but one girl – who was nude, in the center of their schoolgirl circle, wore them.  I really wanted to portray something that was troubling me: the idea of bullying.  We even got to use the wrestling area.  14 girls in formation, bullying this one girl in the center.

HC: Is photography a long-standing passion?

SB: Yes, since I was 11, when my mom got me a little point-and-shoot.  Since I loved drawing and reading and writing so much, my mom figured I’d like photography.  I’ve been drawing since I could hold a crayon.  Funny enough, I remember thinking that photography was not an art.  At first, I feigned a love of the camera, took a few pictures just to please my mom.  It wasn’t long before I became obsessed with it.

HC: You knew this was coming: Beyonce.  What was it like to meet her, and how did that fall into place?

SB: My agent represents Beyonce’s creative director.  He was on the website, she saw my pictures, and she was interested.  She wanted to do an actual story in photos, a perfect fit since what people hire me for is strong narrative.  I pitched four editorial stories for Beyonce, and I was picked.  Because of the baby and the tour, timing didn’t work out for the story.  I still got to do a photoshoot though!  I was her press photographer, just a week before Yale started for me.  She is just beautiful, a wonderful person.  Her dancers are really cool, too!

HC: How did your parents feel?

SB: They thought it was cool.  Actually, I didn’t even know my pictures had been chosen until Christmas.  My mom bought me the DVD of her songs, and it so happened that my picture was on the back.  Best Christmas surprise ever.  I almost liked that they didn’t bother telling me my photos were chosen.  Hopefully I can work with them in the future, I had such a great experience.

HC: Have you gotten any special interest as a result of the Beyonce shoot?

SB: Ha!  It’s been the opposite!  Ever since I’ve started school, my agent has been encouraging me to focus on my time here at Yale.  She didn’t have the same opportunity.  Even though I could technically be making her more money by doing more projects, she cares more about making my education happen.  So, she’s been putting me on the backburner!

HC: What inspires you?

SB: Faces.  I’ll see someone in a crowd, stare at them and stop right there, introduce myself, exchange information.  I have a very strong emotional reaction to some faces.  I just have to take photos of them.  I’ve formed many friendships that way.

HC: What kind of look are you mostly interested in?

SB: To me, it seems random.  My friends say that the trend is not really typical, but people with big eyes and interesting features.  My favorite girl to photograph is a girl named Evelyn, I met her at Princeton.  Now she goes here!

HC: Who is your favorite photographer, and why?

SB: Most of my ideas are from stories.  I transfer literature into my photos.  I really love Philip Pullman, The Little Prince, and Metamorphoses.  My visual ideas mainly come from Greek mythology.

HC: What is your favorite image?

SB: I love looking for pictures on Flickr!  It’s like Facebook for photogrpahers.  I love photographs by this guy named Gregory Colbert.  He’s really living the life, traveling around the world taking pictures of elephants and cheetahs.  In terms of my photos, there are only about four or five photos I can bear looking at.

HC: In a few words, how would you describe your style?

SB: Narrative-based.  High contrast.  Cool faces.  Youth.

HC: If you could be invisible for a day with your camera, what would you do?

SB: I would gather all of my “muses” and shoot in a church.  Someplace at Yale, maybe a huge auditorium… places I can’t normally go to.  Maybe Cambodia!

HC: Who have you learned the most from as an artist?

SB: My mom and Philip Pullman.  My mom because, throughout her life, she has worked so hard at everything.  I think I have her work ethic.

HC: What advice do you have for other girls on the same path?

SB: Honestly, it’s mostly the effort you put into it.  Talent is such a small part of it.  It’s how much you love what you’re doing.  There is a point at which people assume it’s too much, but this is wrong.  Sometimes, I can send 700 e-mails until just one responds.  Be obsessively driven.

HC: What’s next?

SB: I’m not even majoring in art but, hopefully, by the time I graduate, I can be a photographer full-time.  I always think of the world in terms of photography.  I think it might be unhealthy!  For my sanity, I take pictures.  Ideally, by the end of my four years, I’ve made enough publicity for myself.  I just need that one big break.  I really want this to be my full-time job.

HerCampus thinks that Susannah is well on her way.  You should really check out her Flickr page, it is jaw-dropping.  You can reach this energetic ball of talent via Facebook or her Yale e-mail.  She’d love to check out your face sometime.

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