Capturing Photos, History, and Imagination

"Work Friends" by Shristi Sharma, '25

At the FedEx Global Center on UNC’s campus you can see hundreds of images from around the world, captured by students, faculty, staff and alumni. They’re all part of a yearly competition that highlights the vibrancy of the world around us. Two Robertsons submitted photos, and took home first and second place for their captivating scenes. Our interview with Shristi Sharma ’25 and Lev Cohen ’26 dives into the power of photos to not only capture beautiful and moving images, but also to inspire change.

Q: Tell us about your pictures, what are they and what is the story you’re sharing through the image?

Shristi: I was doing a road trip with my mother and sister through the south part of India. We’re not from there, and it was my first time going to Kerala and Munnar, which is where the photo is taken. Munnar is known for being excellent tea cultivation land, and British colonists realized the soil was quite rich and started farming there. It started as a plantation and then over the years ownership was transferred to a billionaire in India named Ratan Tata, but when the company started going into loss, he decided to change up the leadership model. Instead of having one central hierarchical figure, this plantation flips the model so now all the farmers are stakeholders in the company. They have a voice in the operations, they’re on the board, and they have their own separate housing, healthcare, and education systems. Generations grow up farming and learning there and the community is so important. Since they made this flip in leadership their tea has been winning international awards, and they’re turning a profit now. As I was leaving, I saw the farmers working and I made eye contact with this lady, and I showed her my camera like “is it okay if I take a picture?” and she smiles in approval and that’s the picture.

Q: There’s this connection over a moment with the camera, and a shared recognition of what you were asking – what did that moment of connection feel like to lock eyes and share smiles?

Shristi: I don’t speak the language there, and they don’t speak any of the languages that I know so this was very much done over hand gestures, but it was just a beautiful moment of humanity itself. I did a lot of traveling over the summer, and no matter where I was, I found beautiful people who were living life to the fullest and were happy, and I think this woman is one of those people. And to make that connection was wonderful.

Q: Why is this image, this photo something that was important for you to share?

Shristi: I think its empowering. I don’t know if that many people know the story of this former plantation – it’s all happening in a random little town in the middle of India, and I think it was really important to me to share with other people. Originally, I took the photo to show my dad, since this was a girls trip with my mom and sister, I wanted to show him “Look at these women in power” kind of feeling. But, its also really cool because in this photo the way they’re dressing is a combination of British working fashion, as well as traditional Keralan clothing. It’s a fusion and you can see the way they dress and act as a thread of history – and that’s what I really wanted to show.

“The Leather Worker” Lev Cohen ’26

Q: Lev, tell us about your photo.

Lev: My photo is of a tannery in Fez, Morocco. I originally took it while on a tour – Morocco has this super old Jewish history, and the Jewish population there is a combination of different diaspora groups of Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain & Portugal after expulsion, and then native Berber Jews, and also Ashkenazi Jews from Europe & France, so it was an amazing combination through a variety of politics and push & pull factors, that there’s this really small now Jewish community there. But recently, the King of Morocco has created a new initiative that changed the constitution of Morocco, that specifically testifies to the Arab, Berber, and Jewish character of Moroccan history and culture and he began to invite groups from Synagogues all over the world. I was there with one of those tour groups, and Fez reminded me of the old city in Jerusalem, and in the center of the city there is a tannery that’s been continuously operating from the 9th century on, crafting traditional leather made goods. The leather is unique because its all-natural dyes. In the picture where the worker is walking, each pit is filled with manure from different animals and they use that to dye the leather, so you can imagine that it doesn’t smell amazing. At the door to the tannery they hand out mint leaves and you stick them up your nose actually while you’re walking around. Obviously from a historical perspective it was fascinating, but from a visual perspective it was awesome because it’s a bunch of uniform squares and people were walking around on them, and there’s lot of geometric patterns and immediately I thought, “I need a phot of this.” So, I stuck my camera through the railing and contorted my body to line all the squares up and snapped the photo. 

Q: It seems like this trip meant a lot to you, there’s this academic and intellectual pursuit but it also feels personal too – can you tell me a bit more about what it meant to you personally to be there in Fez?

Lev:  Within the American Jewish community I guess most Jews are Ashkenazi Jews including myself – which means you are decedents of Jews who moved from Italy, into northern France and Germany and dispersed. My family ended up in Poland and Lithuania but there’s also a whole other half of the Jewish community that doesn’t live in the US and they’re Moroccan and Algerian. It was really amazing to first go straight into Casablanca and have lunch and the Jewish Community Center. I had a JCC thirty minutes from where I grew up in Raleigh, and now here I am at a JCC in Casablanca, same prayers, same food, same sort of vibe which for JCC is a very distinct feeling. I went to prayer service at Chabad which has chapters all around the world, again there’s a chapter here at UNC where I go every Friday night, same prayers except this time it was in French and Arabic, and there’s a sermon. So it was just really amazing to connect with other Jews even though we have wildly different backgrounds – I’m not Moroccan, and it didn’t matter. It was just amazing to feel that peoplehood, and see the layers and layers of history and civilization from a historical perspective in Morocco. And then there’s this tannery, that’s been in operation for so long, and still has some of the most incredible quality goods I’ve ever seen.

Q: What do you hope viewers take away from your photographs?

Lev: I really want viewers to take away how hard the guy in the photo is actually working. It’s really hot, the sun is baking down on him, he’s dipping the lower half of his body into buckets of manure and dye, and mixing them with his legs. He’s balancing and tiptoeing almost as if he’s on a tight rope walking through the grid, and I want people to know that he’s working really hard manual labor, but also is completely artistic. He’s an artist. He’s dying the leather the way he wants to, he’s cutting it the way he wants to. In the shop at the tannery you can buy really traditional Moroccan garments, but they also had 1970s-style biker jackets complete with the buckles, aviator jackets with the shearling – I want people to take away that they really modernized the tannery while using this old ancient process and turning out incredible, fantastic, modern pieces of clothing that can be worn by anyone, anywhere.

Shristi: I wanted to capture the unity that was present as I was driving through the hills in India. The women are working together, having a good time, gossiping and laughing, and then of course knowing the story behind the tea farm it makes it solidify this sense of unity.

Q: How can photography or art be a device for leadership or an agent for change?

Lev: I think leadership is trying to make change, and I think it’s impossible to deny the power of photography in making change especially in terms of photojournalism. There’s not a monopoly on it anymore, everyone has a cell phone even if you’re in a war zone, like we’re seeing right now – you can take photos and can communicate what you’re seeing to the rest of the world even if you physically can’t be in person together. That’s almost certainly a seed for change, but if you look throughout history in for example the Vietnam War, and the famous photo of a prisoner of war being executed, the minute that hit the front pages in the United States, the Vietnam War protests started because of one photo, so I think it’s impossible to deny the power of photography in that regard.

Shristi: I agree with Lev, I think you can have the big kinds of changes like starting protests for the Vietnam War, or you can have the small changes. For example, photography is a great way to document personal life and that’s why I first got into it and so now I have these photos that I can show to future generations, or I’m looking at photos of my ancestors and that’s really cool to have as a way to document your own history, your family’s history – your community’s history. So yes, photography is used in monumental ways to make change on a global level but also on a very personal level.

For more than twenty years students, faculty, staff, and alumni have submitted photos as part of the Carolina Global Photography Competition – around 8,000 photographs altogether, according to the UNC Global Affairs website. To learn more about the initiative and how to submit your own photos, click here. To see the captivating photos from the 2024 Carolina Global Photography Exhibition, click here.