Coming of age through the camera’s lens
Rob Knight, assistant professor of art, was new to campus in fall 2011 when he conceived of a project that would connect him and his cameras to the lives of 28 students throughout their four years at Hamilton. He would periodically photograph and shoot video interviews of the students from their first year until their graduation this May.
The inspiration for the project was Knight’s desire to get to know his new community. He thought documenting first-year students, who were as new to College Hill as he was, would also provide him the opportunity to act on a long-held interest in “longitudinal portrait,” in which a person is documented over years to reveal changes in appearance and, perhaps, state of mind.
College is a time when students move away from “the cocoon of childhood” to begin to form the person they will become, Knight says. “How would those changes appear? Could they be seen physically? From the beginning, I decided to document my subjects using photographs as well as video interviews, in hopes that the video might reveal things that the photograph could not.”
To find the participants, he put out a call to the Class of 2015, and 39 responded. Of those, 28 remained for the duration. In some ways, the project unfolded the way Knight had hoped or expected; in other ways it did not. He had hoped for more obvious physical changes, but there were no new triple piercings or purple hair. There were other changes, however, that he captured through video as students shared them with him. “On a micro level,” Knight says, “you could almost perceive certain options, sometimes hopes and dreams that they arrived with, fading away while new ones opened up in their place; a student who came in planning to study physics but decided to study theatre instead, for example.”
An exhibit of Knight’s work will be featured from June 4 to July 26 at Hamilton’s Wellin Museum of Art. It will include photographs and video interviews. “While I had made portraits before, and used video in my work as well, I had never done either to the extent that I have done in this project,” Knight says. “Over the past four years, I did approximately 150 portrait sessions for this project, photographing indoors and outside, during both day and night, and even a whole series on frigid winter days, all with my large-format, 4"x5" film camera.”
Knight interviewed students during each shoot, and each time he asked slightly different questions and followed up on issues that arose in previous interviews. Many students told Knight about the challenges they overcame to adapt to people and places that were dramatically different from what they had known growing up. They talked about the explorations of their sexual identities, the decisions that they were making about their majors and how to spend their summers, and the transformative experiences of studying abroad.
It seemed to Knight that, as the months passed, the students became more sure of themselves, more specific about what they wanted to accomplish next and more comfortable with who they are. They spoke about becoming more intellectually grounded in their beliefs. “Their understanding of why they believe something has become more nuanced. Several students mentioned that when they were growing up, they believed something because their parents believed it, but now they have the factual knowledge to support their opinions, and they credit Hamilton and its faculty for giving them the tools to do so,” he says.
Graduation may not conclude Knight’s documentation of the 28 members of the Class of 2015. He would like to follow up with them, maybe checking in every five years. “I’m interested that they have come together from all over the world for four years at Hamilton and are about to leave, dispersing either back to where they came from or to new destinations,” he says. “What does the future hold for them? How will they look back on their experience in college?”
— Maureen A. Nolan
The photos below feature four of the students Rob Knight photographed and interviewed for the project. On the left in each pair are images that he captured during the students’ first semester on campus. The pictures on the right are from their senior year. Likewise, below their photos are reflections from their first and last year on the Hill.
For more photos and videos, see Rob Knight's website.
Katherine Bickmore, Art major from Albany, N.Y.
Photographed Sept. 14, 2011, in the Hamilton cemetery
Bickmore was torn between attending Hamilton or an art conservatory. “I decided that I had a lot of interests and wanted to be a well-rounded artist rather than just knowing how to work really well in one medium,” she said. Longer term, she was thinking about becoming an art director for a production company in a metropolitan area, then moving somewhere rural and teaching.
Photographed Nov. 4, 2014, near the Kennedy Center
Bickmore spent a semester junior year at the Slade School of Art in London where she appreciated the artistic community and focus on art. “I was a lot happier in London than I am here,” she said. Bickmore wasn’t sure what she would do after graduation, but knew art would be part of it: “In five years, I hope I’m still making honest, meaningful work.”
Dyllon Young, Asian studies major from Chicago
Photographed Sept. 20, 2011, on the Martin’s Way bridge
Young said Hamilton’s open curriculum and friendly people drew him to the College. He planned to study world politics and Chinese and then take the Foreign Service exam, with the eventual dream of becoming a U.S. ambassador. He said the biggest change he faced at Hamilton was adjusting to small-town life.
Photographed Nov. 19, 2014, in the Levitt Center Social Innovation Room
Young spent the summer after his junior year working at Smigin, a start-up in New York City that developed a language app. He continues to work for the company remotely. “Generally, yes, it’s taken over my life here, but in a good way,” he said. Young planned to work fulltime at Smigin after he graduates: “I came in academically having very different goals than I do now.”
Brendon Kaufman, French and Math major from Chatham, N.J.
Photographed Sept. 12, 2011, on Royce Baseball Field
Kaufman chose Hamilton for its size; it felt similar to the small town where he grew up. He planned to major in French and math and hoped someday to explore different cultures. “I definitely don’t want to graduate and stay in New York and work in the city like everyone else from my town,” said Kaufman, who for a time was a pitcher on the baseball team.
Photographed Oct. 21, 2014, in a Kirner-Johnson classroom
Kaufman really enjoyed his junior year in Paris. “I needed to get away from Hamilton in whatever way I could,” he said. He studied linguistics in Paris and planned to pursue a graduate degree in sociolinguistics. Kaufman hoped eventually to go into academia. “It’s kind of ironic,” he said. “‘Brendon, you don’t like college campuses, but you’re trying to go back.’”
Sabrina Hua, Chinese and English major from New York
Photographed Oct. 4, 2011, outside Root Residence Hall
Hua grew up in New York City’s Chinatown. As a participant in America Reads, she spent four hours a week reading to a second-grader. “Growing up in Chinatown, it was difficult to be fluent in English, and my parents shaped who I am today by speaking English to me and reading to me,” she said.
Photographed Nov. 19, 2014, outside Christian Johnson Hall
Hua considered what life might have been like at a school with a large Asian population but was unsure whether she would have been happier at such a school. She hadn’t decided yet what she would do after graduation: “I want to be able to find something that I’m really passionate about. I want to give back to my community. I want to be able to pursue a greater social good.”