By Dena Gershkovich
The Boston-born photographer builds his career off people’s insecurities and a Sharpie marker. His approach is deep, yet simple: speak, mark, shoot.
From Monday morning through Wednesday evening, around 36 students from this university participated in Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be project, a photography sequence the photographer started in 2010 to help people own their insecurities, according to his website. The photos were taken against the white walls of Stamp’s Harriet Tubman room.
Rosenfield, who lives in California, said he has photographed around 3,400 people for the project, most of whom were students. He was brought to campus through the Maryland chapter of Active Minds, a club that aims to destigmatize mental health, according to the club’s vice president of external affairs and junior psychology major Jayme O’Connor. Students were able to take photos for free because the student government covered Rosenfield’s cost.
After having what Rosenfield called a “real conversation” for 30 to 40 minutes to uncover their insecurities, students posed for photographs. Rosenfield covered students with words and expressions based on feelings or thoughts they have surrounding their insecurities.
He said the words he writes originate from what participants say.
“I don’t make up things,” Rosenfield said at an Active Minds club meeting Tuesday evening. “It’s all about what’s meaningful to you and what resonates with you.”
After photos were taken and captioned “I am not my [insecurity],” they were posted to the photographer’s Facebook page, which has over 35,000 likes.
“I’m lucky I get to talk to people. I thrive on conversation and real conversation,” Rosenfield said. “I’m not a person of small talk.”
In order to get people to introspect, a common question the photographer asks is what participants would be embarrassed to tell a room of 100 people.
“They know they’re going to talk about something that makes them feel uncomfortable,” he said. He added that not knowing participants often makes his job easier.
“They’re not going to see me the next day, so they don’t really care,” Rosenfield said.
Rosenfield’s goal for the project is to show that, though insecurities make people feel uncomfortable, they do not define them.
“They are not denying their insecurity, they are owning it,” Rosenfield wrote on his website. “[The project] is not aimed for people to say ‘You’re not fat,’ or ‘You don’t have love handles.’ It is to spread awareness on what people go through due to society’s paved roads.”
Freshman mechanical engineering major Sabrina Kim, who had the expression “I’m not a bomb” written on her arm, said she chose to participate in the project because of her recently-discovered depression and anxiety.
“I just want to help people who are in a similar situation as mine,” Kim said. “A lot of people have it.”
Though Kim has struggled with mental illness her whole life, she only realized it was an issue several months ago after being hospitalized for doing what she called “something crazy.”
“I’m finally learning how to take care of myself and my emotions,” Kim said. “Now I know that what I do is not normal.”
Kim’s picture was captioned “I am not my emotions.” She said Active Minds has further educated her about her mental illness and has provided comforts similar to those a therapy group would.
Though the photographer enjoys hearing people’s stories, he said he was “a really opinionated person” who “always had to be right” at his well-paying computer company job 20 years ago.
After realizing he did not enjoy his job, Rosenfield involved himself with rock climbing, journaling and eventually photography, all of which led him to gain a greater appreciation for people, he said.
In 2008, Rosenfield was a music photographer. Though he liked the experience, Rosenfield said he wanted to do something more impactful. After photographing a friend who was insecure about her body image, the two came up with the idea for What I Be.
“My goal was to do 100 people and maybe do a cool coffee book,” Rosenfield said, adding that he did not realize the project would spiral in the way that it did.
Rosenfield said that What I Be has allowed him to be more understanding. “It makes me think about what’s really going on for [people],” he said.
O’Connor said she hopes the What I Be project will help students build security out of insecurity.
“Anything that you think is a problem about yourself isn’t actually a problem,” she said. “Once you’re aware that this is something that’s affecting your life, you can take steps to avoid it or change it.”
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Steve Rosenfield Photography – What I Be Project’s Facebook page.
Dena Gershkovich is a freelance reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.