“I can wear short sleeves.” “Eight years later, it never went away.” “I got it wrong. So what?” These are a few phrases written across the bodies of members of the UC Santa Cruz community.
Photographers took more than 150 portraits of participants with words written on their bodies in the Dear UCSC photo shoot in Quarry Plaza. The Dear UCSC event, hosted by Dear World, took place April 13-14. The photos will be released on the Dear World Facebook page, but the Dear UCSC committee has not yet decided where the photos will be displayed on campus.
Five of the participants volunteered to share a diverse range of experiences at the public storytelling event the evening of April 14, which attracted an audience of 60.
Dear World is a social experiment and photo project based around the question: “If you had one story to share with the world, what would you say?”
This project was originally founded in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina to build a sense of community after a time of turmoil. One of its participants wrote “Cancer Free” on his chest for a photo, inspiring the team to expand the project outside of New Orleans in 2011.
“What we soon found was that people were sharing these stories of love, loss, hope [and] fear and it was tapping into the kinds of stories that we don’t always get a chance to share and that we don’t always feel comfortable talking about,” said Dear World executive producer Jonah Evans.
Dear World has collected photos and stories from more than 30 countries, including Syria, South Sudan and Costa Rica.
Dear World photographed New York City after Hurricane Sandy and Boston Marathon survivors after the 2013 bombing. It is now taking to college campuses — including University of Oxford, UC San Diego and now UCSC. Its 2017 college tour has reached over 75 universities so far, with a goal of creating a platform for conversations in diverse college communities.
“There has been a lot of division and polarization on college campuses and we have seen that from coast to coast,” Evans said. “I am most humbled by the way that Dear World tends to pull together different pockets of students that might not normally speak to one another.”
Cowell College launched Dear UCSC as the final project in a series of events to promote the theme of storytelling. The goal of the series is for students to better understand the development of identity and how individual stories form a community.
Six of the 10 UCSC colleges raised $15,000 to bring this event to campus. The Dear UCSC committee recognizes the division on campus in light of last year’s election and intended to open apolitical conversations by providing space for personal storytelling.
“We wanted to do something beyond Cowell for the entire campus,” said Cowell programs coordinator Kara Snider in an email. “In bringing Dear World to UCSC, we hope that students and community members attending and participating in either of the photo shoots or the storytelling event will clarify and strengthen their personal identities, learn to describe their own values and develop an understanding of the intersectionality of identity.”
Dear UCSC encouraged members of the entire UCSC community to develop their stories through experiences they might not otherwise share. Volunteers asked them questions to draw out the participant’s personal narrative.
“When I kept asking questions […] it got them to think. The more questions I asked, the faster they talked and it was like they were just going with their train of thought,” said volunteer and Stevenson first-year Michelle Chan. “It was very easy to step into someone’s private space and see who they were beyond what they look like.”
Once participants developed their stories, volunteer helped them find words that were meaningful to them. With the words written on their bodies, professional photographs were then taken for the individuals and the college tour photo archive.
Each statement was personal and could not be easily understood by an outside observer. Dear World intends for these photos to provoke questions in order to allow people from different backgrounds to build empathy.
Angelica Martinez, a first-year student, volunteer and participant, believes diversity is recognizing that members of communities with unique backgrounds have specific needs. They encourage communities to reach those needs.
“We are not defined by our skin tones, we are not defined by anything. We are our individual person,” Martinez said. “Sometimes those aspects may define our experience but they don’t define the person inside.”