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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

UC Davis photographers share the challenges and significance of documenting moments during the pandemic

Photographers discuss their pandemic-inspired projects and how their creative influences have evolved

With changing environments due to the pandemic, three local photographers noted that their projects and key inspirations have been transformed. 

Gregory Urquiaga, a principal photographer for UC Davis Strategic Communications, stated that he has an emotional connection with the moments he captures in his photos. He believes that photography differs from videography in that it enables him to snap a perspective of his world and showcase that vision for viewers. 

“The difference between a photograph and video is that for me, a photograph tends to be snatches of memory and emotion,” Urquiaga said. “It forces you to recall things that you may not have quite remembered. Photographs [are] like a shovel; as soon as you start thinking about it, you start bringing up more memories that are attached to that one moment in time.”

Che Sun, a third-year UC Davis Ph.D. student studying economics, also emphasized the role photographers have in manipulating the scene and composition to produce their desired effect. He stated that photography is not simply taking a carbon copy of one’s environment; rather, it is deliberately focusing on the composition, shapes and light to capture a moment. 

“At the end of the day, the photo is not made by the camera but by the photographer behind the camera,” Sun said.

Karin Higgins, another principal photographer for UC Davis Strategic Communications, described that her role as a photographer includes presenting subtleties in relationships and spaces. In her work, Higgins typically documents people’s experiences at multiple on-campus and UC Davis-affiliated locations. She discussed visiting Bodega Bay and Catalina Island—two places where UC Davis offers student opportunities—to capture photographs showcasing immersive learning environments. 

She shared that her responsibilities include presenting perspectives that not everyone can experience and showcasing the value of these programs.  

The pandemic has made documenting UC Davis campus a more prominent aspect of both Urquiaga’s and Higgins’ jobs. Higgins stated that they were responsible for entering campus and snapping photos that would eventually serve as a historical reminder of the pandemic. 

“You are offering a glimpse into this world and really providing a lot of information to people about what’s going on, whether it’s a story or pictures of campus,” Higgins said. “Campus is still here, [it’s] still beautiful.”

During this time of separation, she said that photography and journalism have been prominent ways to communicate and interweave students and alumni that are scattered across the globe.

 Though it has been a stressful time, Higgins and Sun both drew inspiration from their surroundings and each produced their own series documenting moments in the pandemic. 

Higgins discussed how a social media project of porch portraits inspired her to capture more natural moments of people’s routines during the pandemic. This series was called Pandemic Portraits and documented people’s pastimes during quarantine.

Sun also discussed how the pandemic forced him to pivot from landscape photos, his preferred choice, to photos of the city of Davis and UC Davis campus. 

“In late March and early April, that was when it was really quiet, so I tried to capture that feeling,” Sun said.

This new environment inspired him to create his series, Meditation on Solitude. With a combination of abstract and realistic photos, he aimed to evoke the eerie feeling that this time generated. 

Sun was also inspired to create Nightfall, a series dedicated to capturing scenes of Davis at night. Through these projects, he noted that he was able to rediscover old places and gain new perspectives of the city. 

“[It’s] more like a process of rediscovering places, that’s what photography does to you,” Sun said. “The way you look at the world is different. You’re looking at shapes, at light, at geometry and colors.”

During this process, he found that the most memorable moment was photographing the Death Star at night. Previously, for Sun, the Death Star was simply where his office was. After photographing it in the dark, however, he gained a new perspective of the Death Star and the meaning of ordinary spaces.  

“You really notice the extraordinary things in very ordinary places,” Sun said.

Though the pandemic inspired new projects and emphasized greater responsibilities, Urquiaga noted that there were also new complications associated with his job. Before the pandemic, he stated that the wait time to capture a desired photo usually ranged between 5-10 minutes. Now, however, Urquiaga stated that he would sometimes have to wait for almost 45 minutes to capture a specific shot due to the lack of individuals on campus and people’s general weariness of interaction. 

Higgins similarly stated that new pandemic regulations have made it difficult to attain an authentic picture. One of her biggest issues is capturing a memorable photograph from six feet away and with the participants wearing masks. Though this may make it more difficult to identify their facial expressions and emotions, she honors these protocols and embraces the historical significance of these photos. 

Beyond the pandemic, Higgins emphasized the importance of documenting personal moments and stories. Though there is a push to produce beautiful photos for social media, she emphasizes capturing special moments instead of focusing on perfection. 

“I just encourage everybody to not be so focused on how they look or making the perfect picture but just to take the picture,” Higgins said. “Document your mom blowing out her birthday candles or your little brother running around in his pajamas and being silly. It’s not the perfect picture, but it’s special. Everybody can tell their story through their pictures.”
Written by: Farrah Ballou — features@theaggie.org

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