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Students divulge insecurities through photo project

Leah Newman ’17, a double major in American studies and history with a minor in journalism, has been thinking a lot about insecurities this week, but not for the reasons one might first think. Recently she’s gotten involved by bringing a large and growing photography project to the Brandeis campus that focuses on people’s insecurities. It’s called the “What I Be Project” and it is run by photographer Steve Rosenfield.

Rosenfield travels from place to place and converses with volunteer participants about subjects that they are timid or unforthcoming about in everyday life. Rosenfield then works with the participants to transform their anxieties into words that are descriptive or evocative, writes the words on the person’s skin using ink, and takes a photo. Afterward, the individual writes a 500-word statement, which is posted along with the photo to Rosenfield’s website or Facebook.

“I saw it around. [Steve] started this project, and it blew up. He’s gotten a ton of press. He’s always going different places, and it’s an awesome outlet for young people to discuss insecurities that they don’t always talk about. One of my friends at a different college was involved with it, so I emailed Steve out of the blue one day to bring him and his project to Brandeis. We got a grant from Hillel, and it all came together,” Newman says.

Rosenfield is a Boston native, and although he currently lives in California, he’s been out and about working on this project for quite a while. “I wanted to do something that was meaningful with my photography. I was opinionated, materialistic and didn’t let people in on my feelings. I really wasn’t happy, I was living through the motions. Eventually I came to the conclusion that to be happy was to do something different. I started to share my feelings and let people in. It created a stronger bond between me and the people I interacted with. Fast forward 10 years, and I wanted to see if this project could open up doors for people to share their own feelings with their friend and family network,” Rosenfield explained.

“The title of the project came from a song from Michael Franti, a good friend of mine. I was really inspired by his music,” Rosenfield said. “The song talks about being who you are, nothing more nothing less. Embracing it.”

Newman thinks that the project is really for the benefit of everyone. “It builds security for the people themselves. When you see that someone else is going through a thing that you’re going through, it lets you know that you’re not alone … It’s about personal empowerment and the choice of sharing your insecurities.”

“It’s made people able and willing to be more open because it gives a platform that not everyone gets,” Newman said. “As we grow and as we learn about who we are, it makes us realize that although we’re different, we have so many people who care about us and who can relate to us.”

There is a long waitlist to participate in the project, and it doesn’t seem like everyone who wants to participate will be able to this week. Rosenfield originally planned to have 100-150 participants in total from the outset of his enterprise, but to date, has had more than 2,200 people take part from around the country. He eventually plans on publishing a book on the undertaking.

“Depression, anxiety and body image are probably the top three, although for body image, there are so many categories within that,” Rosenfield said. “Most of the time I’m doing [the project] at college campuses, but I’ve also done music festivals, assisted living homes and high schools.”

Newman talked about the reasons she wanted to bring Rosenfield and his camera to Brandeis. “I think at Brandeis where everyone’s so strong in their beliefs and so outspoken and tight knit, it’s the perfect environment for people to get to know each other on a deeper level and get a shared understanding of insecurities.”

“Like the pictures on Facebook, share them, be sensitive, take time for introspection and remind yourself that you are not alone,” Newman said about what people can do to become more involved and supportive.

Rosenfield encourages people to create a dialogue and to keep talking. “We only grow the most when we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable. I challenge everybody to allow themselves to be uncomfortable.”

The project is funded in full by Hillel at Brandeis, with support from the Max and Sunny Howard Memorial Foundation. Emily Beker ’15, the Campus Relations Coordinator of the Hillel Student Board, co-chaired the event along with Newman.

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