For Josephine Vonk, the best part about photography is the people. “I couldn’t care less about the technical aspects,” she laughs. “That part is just a means to an end.”
Vonk, a junior from Houston and a Psychology major with a certificate in Documentary Studies and a certificate in Innovation and Entrepreneurship, had no interest in photography prior to Duke. As a first-year, she stumbled into a Documentary Studies class she was required to take as part of the FOCUS program and only later realized it was taught by Professor Susie Post Rust – a former photographer for National Geographic. Reminiscing on her first year at Duke, she recalled how “halfway through the semester, Susie sat me down and basically told me I was bombing the class – I needed to step it up.”
Rather than forcing her into a loathsome relationship with the craft, however, the challenge piqued her interest and pushed her to learn her way around a camera – if only to prove to herself that she could. After her first semester, she decided she wanted to take another photography class -DOCST 230, or Small Town USA. A couple of years later, she’s now decidedly more comfortable around a camera. Now in her second year as a Service Learning Assistant (SLA) for Post Rust’s class, she also recently joined the team at the 9th Street Journal as a photographer and continues to take photography classes.
For Vonk, the magic of photography is the excuse it gives her to marvel at the way humans behave. It allows her to step outside the confines of what normal people do to gain access into another person’s life. She’s no longer hindered by small talk – she can walk around a person as they’re talking for the optimal angle, or look back on pictures that so clearly capture emotional reactions. “Photography is very much a form of visual research,” she explains. While the connection between photography and traditional forms of academic research is not often drawn, the classic adage is classic for a reason: a picture really is worth a thousand words.
A pivotal moment for her occurred spring semester of her first year, when she shot a project centered around Matthew’s Chocolates in Hillsborough. As she went in week after week and built a rapport with the owner of the shop, she began to realize the importance of relationships in photography – “the emotional access and content you gain is a lot better.”
But perhaps her favorite project, she says, was a series she shot for DOCST 119S centered around femininity and the beauty of the female body. Aiming to reframe how the media views females by utilizing the female gaze, she ran into a lot of ethical issues such as consent and what she could and couldn’t shoot. In the process, though, she realized the power she held as a photographer: she set the groundwork, and she established the nature of the project. “The camera is invasive,” she reflected. Through her Canon, she can portray people in ways that they don’t even see themselves. But it was ultimately rewarding; the purpose of her project was to highlight the unique beauty of each of her subjects. And therein lies the power of photography:it serves as a third eye, an alternate way of seeing the world that causes us to pause and think.
Vonk described herself as a “freaky Psych major” – intensely passionate about the ways that humans function and interact with each other and themselves. For her, photography is just “another tool in my belt to ask questions and gain access.” And true to that sentiment, the diversity of her projects show that photography has allowed her to ask and answer questions about life, through a camera lens.