Online ExclusiveBy Sophie Paris ’97
My roots in photography
Growing up on a small working apple farm in Ohio, I used to tag along with my farmer/photojournalist father when he went out to shoot stories. Through these experiences, I developed a desire to see and tell stories, which manifested itself in oral storytelling until I found myself at Colgate.
Freshman year, I took mostly science courses, as I was fascinated by psychology. By sophomore year, I began taking art and art history classes. I was naturally drawn to photography,so I took Lynn Underhill’s introductory course. I was instantly fulfilled by what I was studying— I hadn’t yet had this experience of truly feeling passionate about my academic studies. Lynn fostered my photography and helped me grow exponentially over the next two years.
I continued taking studio art classes, supplementing them with art history courses, and finally decided to major in art and art history. There was no photography major, but with Lynn’s encouragement, I focused on the medium within my major,culminating in my senior thesis project: a photographic installation about my family’s three-generation involvement in the steel industry in Ohio.
Throughout my studies at Colgate, I was able to pull subject matter for my photographic essays from my other classes, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy in particular. So, my foundation in photography comes from my broad-based liberal arts education –—without it, I would not be able to navigate the world of conflict and disaster photography in an intelligent way.
After graduating from Colgate, I moved to New York City and took a temporary executive assistant job in the marketing department of the Associated Press(AP). Within the first week, I hunted down the photography department and started what would be a long-term mentor relationship with the oldest working AP photographer, Marty Leiderhander. After three months of pushing Marty to have lunch with me every week so I could listen to all his stories, he told me that there was an opening for a black-and-white darkroom printer at the United Nations.I jumped on the opportunity. He introduced me to the head of the UN Photo Unit,and the rest is history.
I worked for several years in the darkroom, eventually started shooting press conferences, and moved on to traveling with former Secretary General Kofi Annan all over the world. When former Haitian President Jean Betrand Aristede fled the country in 2004, the UN created a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, which is known now as MINUSTAH. I applied for the photographer’s post and ended up in Haiti that July as one of only 30 civilians on the ground along with a couple thousand peacekeeping troops.
Over the next three years, I built MINUSTAH’s Photo Unit (which currently has three photographers) while learning on the streets of Port-au-Prince what it really means to be a conflict photographer.
I left Haiti and the UN in 2007 to work freelance for Hillary Clinton as one of her traveling photographers during her primary campaign. In 2008, I decided to attend a graduate program at the International Center of Photography in New York City to study documentary photography and photojournalism. Upon graduating, I embarked on a documentary project on child slaves in Haiti; however, I didn’t have the funds to get down here for the amount of time I needed. In November2009, the UN asked me to return to its headquarters for a six-month contract.
Little did I know that in less than two months, I would be back in Haiti shooting the worst disaster in the country’s history.