Photographer Steven Rosenfield spoke to students Tuesday about his path towards founding the What I Be project, an online collection of photographs aimed at promoting mental health awareness.
“I was making really good money, I was on the path to become successful, but I realized I wasn’t happy,” he said about his work 18 years ago. “I was very materialistic and opinionated, and I didn’t think what people said mattered. I was right, they were wrong.”
In the lecture, Rosenfield described quitting his job with a computer company to embark on a four year rock climbing trip before settling in Davis, California, where he discovered photography as an “ego check.” During these years, Rosenfield said he adopted an “opposite” outlook of “less judgement,” which later inspired his photography project.
After photographing folk-rock band Spearhead and Franti concerts, Rosenfield said he began shooting other musicians, but he soon decided he wanted to make photography more relevant to his personal experiences.
“I wanted to make work with my own life,” Rosenfeld said. “I went from someone who didn’t share anything about myself to letting people know about my vulnerabilities.”
Rosenfeld segued into asking the audience a series of questions about the origin of their insecurities.
“Where do our insecurities come from?” Rosenfeld asked. “Everyone thinks they’re the one struggling because everyone puts on a front, but who actually has their shit together?”
After more than a dozen students spoke up with their answers, Rosenfield shared his perspective on why acknowledging insecurities is important.
“The power behind insecurities is not facing them, sharing insecurities takes power away from them,” he said. “We all want to relate to people, we don’t want to be alone in our stuff, and by sharing insecurities we can connect to each other.”
Rosenfield said he hopes to influence the way people treat one another through raising awareness of insecurities.
“The point isn’t to be defined by the image. I don’t want people to hold your insecurity against you but to be more aware if it so they can act accordingly,” he said. “The point is to try to relate to one another and know that we are all struggling from something.”
Apart from the lecture and discussion session, Rosenfield will be holding photoshoot sessions until Friday.
Since Rosenfeld has been shooting photographs of students for his What I Be series, Julia Malits ’16 said she has received positive feedback from students.
“I’ve heard really positive things [and] people found it to be an enlightening experience,” said Malits, who is the social justice chair for Cornell Hillel, one of the organizations hosting Rosenfeld. “They told me they weren’t aware of how they felt until they were forced to speak about it and that it felt empowering because they were doing something about it.”
Amanda Rubin ’16, secretary and founder of the Cornell Best Buddies chapter, said that she thought the goals of Rosenfield’s project corresponded with the organization, which focuses on normalizing relationships between people with and without disabilities.
“Usually when someone has a disability it’s not actually obvious to the eye and no one really helps one another,” Rubin said. “That’s really relevant to the What I Be Project because it shows that everyone is struggling with something internally, everyone has these challenges they face daily even if you don’t see them, brings awareness.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Julia Malits ’16 is the social chair of Cornell Hillel. In fact, she is the social justice chair.