The Photographers

Todd Shapera ’79

By Vassar Quarterly


When I was a Vassar student, I looked forward to late-afternoon jogs on the farm. In those days, the farm was a stark, vast, peaceful place, with little activity.  For me, it was a place of renewal during a low-energy part of the day. When I was invited to participate in this photography project, I thought it would be nice to start my day on the farm, at dawn, as a way of reconnecting with what became my spiritual place on campus.

As a November fog lifted, I was struck by the changed farm landscape—including enhancements that seemed to allow for productive uses of the space.  First, a sign on the road, defining the space. Then, a community garden in front, being worked by urban farmers living in Poughkeepsie. Later, a science education center way in the back—during my visit, Poughkeepsie schoolchildren had come to learn about insects. There were new nature trails, too, and a slow stream of morning joggers and walkers, indicating far more use than I ever remembered. I was pleased to see that the vast middle remained a largely undeveloped preserve, albeit crowned on the hill to the right by a cul-de-sac of unsightly McMansions.

I prepared for this photography project by scheduling portraits of student groups on campus. The idea came from reading the colorful, diverse roster of student groups on Vassar’s website: singers, actors, jugglers, thinkers, comedians, dancers, and more. Adding to their appeal, many had evocative names, from the Barefoot Monkeys to the Vastards. I imagined that by photographing these groups I could create an impressionist portrait of intimate, campus mini-communities, and portray a dimension of student life that might complement other photographers’ work documenting the landscape, architecture, and classrooms.

I didn’t feel the need to document these groups in a literal way, and their members seemed to like that. It appealed to me to capture the synchronized ice skaters at the farm perched on picnic tables in front of the red barn -- and jugglers in the crossed paths at the dorm quad, and dancers floating on the bridge above the Retreat, and the Shakespeare troupe backlit by Main at night, looking Elizabethan. In each case, I thought the unusual settings might in a curious way help capture the group's spirit.  Three decades after my student life, through these groups, I discovered that the shell of Vassar felt the same, but the energy felt a little different.

As a political science major, I had no idea I would one day morph into a professional photographer. I used the Vassar darkroom, at times, but didn’t feel any sense of becoming an artist. In fact, in those days, when the pool was in Kenyon and athletics weren’t as highly regarded, just jogging out to the farm to clear my head could mean being derisively labeled a “jock.”

My photography career evolved over time and came as a lovely midlife surprise. If it didn’t seem preordained, it also was not unrelated to my seemingly unconnected courses at Vassar and studies afterward at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Learning to think independently, value diversity, and have the confidence to take risks to do things differently - in a way that makes sense to me - forms the core of how I approach my photography subjects—those subsisting in remote global communities and those in prosperous neighborhoods near my New York home. In either case, I find myself focusing as much on human interaction and storytelling as I do on light and shadow.

So, returning to campus to photograph after a third of a century, I didn’t sense any disconnect between studying political science and morphing into a full-time artist. Even if I can’t explain the evolution of my path in the way a doctor might, I feel fortunate to have found license to allow my path to evolve. When back on campus last November, I felt certain that Vassar contributed in an important way to how it all turned out.


Todd Shapera specializes in elegant wedding, bar mitzvah, and portrait photography around New York City. His body of work also includes global documentary projects—images of Sri Lankan tsunami survivors, Peruvian coffee farmers, Himalayan women, Honduran Moskito Indians, southern Belize’s indigenous Mayan and Garifuna communities, and social conservation programs in Central America—as well as adventure travel photography. Shapera’s photographs and writing have appeared in the New York Times, the Financial Times of London, National Geographic Adventure, Business Week, Fast Company, and in publications by the World Bank, U.N. agencies, and foundations.

View additional images from Todd's "Day in the Life of Vassar" shoot.