Photography: In the Moment

The little girl in Stacey Irvin’s photograph is laughing. Her head tilts to one side, and her hand is at her chin. Either she wants to ask the photographer something, or she’s just eaten some of the grapes she holds in her other hand. Her eyes invite a conversation, and her red jacket—emblazoned with the words “Hula Babe”—suggests a story line.

“The minute I arrived [in San Bernardo, Ecuador], I was promptly given a full tour of their sheep, chicken and rabbit pens, cuy (guinea pig) shed, and a view of the future site of a new house,” Irvin says. “‘Hula Babe’ walked alongside me eating grapes as we toured.”

Irvin, BA’98, creates meaningful travelogues with her photos. Each photo is an individual story along the journey, not just documentation of a trip. And just as the best travelogues involve side excursions, plateaus and valleys, Irvin’s own path to becoming a photographer mimicked that process. She almost gave it up, but a sojourn at Vanderbilt helped reorient her.


“Bringing in the Herd,” taken in the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya

Teaching herself photography when she was 14, she voraciously shot school events at the expense of her own participation. When her class traveled to Europe, Irvin documented the trip so compulsively that she felt she barely experienced it. “I don’t even think I enjoyed myself,” she says.

Burnt out on photography by the time she got to Vanderbilt, she pursued a liberal arts degree in philosophy. In particular, a freshman seminar about ancient and modern political philosophy resonated with Irvin, who felt a kinship with these “observers.”

“I took away from philosophy a feeling of needing to fully experience the moment I am in, in a way that is more existential, less abstract,” she says. “But I also learned that I couldn’t keep my head in a book all the time!”

A born “shooter,” Irvin naturally picked up her camera again. “I learned I needed to be a participant—to be present in the moment. I promised myself never again to take pictures just for the sake of taking pictures.”

An independent-study studio art course with Don Evans (now professor, emeritus, of art and art history) allowed her to return to photography on her own terms. “I wanted to look at life as though I didn’t have a camera,” Irvin says, “to be open to the experience and not stage it or try to control it. So much beauty, truth and magic is in the moment. I made a point to make up for all that I’d missed.”

At Vanderbilt, Irvin won the Margaret Stonewall Wooldridge Hamblet Award in Studio Art, which funded a life-changing trip to the Taklamakan Desert in China. Her photos from there and subsequent journeys around the world share a powerful motif: the person in the photo interacting with the photographer.

Lowering the wall between viewer and subject can make the art form a powerful vehicle for peace, she says. “Photographers can be peacemakers. People learn about each other through photographs. I want people to take away a sense of our shared humanity.”

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