Wintersession – RISD's six-week mini-semester between fall and spring terms – is often a wonderful time for students to go abroad. Many who enroll in travel courses are given the opportunity to delve into undiscovered disciplines while simultaneously learning about a foreign culture. Others opt to throw themselves into fascinating projects in cities far from campus. Simply put, students are encouraged to find beauty in the unexpected.
And no destination is too exotic. For example, this winter about 25 students enrolled in the travel course Creating an Archive are studying photography in Vrindavan, India. Less than 20,000 people live in the town that's now a holy pilgrimage site for patrons of Krishna, a Hindu deity rumored to have spent his childhood there.
Immediately after their arrival in early January, students were thrust into an electrifying environment brimming with cultural curiosities. In the bustling town -- home to hundreds of small religious temples -- human-powered rickshaws dodge untethered animals roaming the narrow, unpaved streets. And vendors of all ages sell homemade wares on cramped corners.
"Regardless of their travel history, all of the students are relatively adventurous," explains Senior Critic Kent Rogowski MFA 00 PH, who is teaching the course along with Critic Michael Buhler Rose. "But the bulk of the students don't quite understand what they're in for when signing up to go to India. It can be a culture shock for some."
To nudge students out into their colorful surroundings, Rogowski asks the photographers to systematically document eye-catching patterns found in the Indian landscape. "Students have to find sets of three," explains Rogowski. "They run out of the obvious visual patterns pretty quickly, [so] the assignment is designed to have students look deeper than they normally would."
Every morning students leave their beds before sunrise to snap stills of massive power cables, religious markings etched on shrines and even images of small trees that are planted in cages to protect their foliage from being eaten by local wildlife. By the end of the course, they have developed hundreds of images of unorthodox patterns.
Graduate student Lizzy Sall MIA 13 took part in the course last winter. Captivated by the colorful street fashion, the interior architect quickly assembled a visual archive of women's saris and Taliks, the red-hued markings often seen on the foreheads of those who practice Hinduism.
"At first I felt very timid while photographing people. It felt strangely invasive," Sall explains. "But I couldn't help but photograph the beautiful textiles. It's something Westerners don't usually experience."
In addition to documenting local garb, the amateur photographer found beauty in Vrindavan's everyday activities. "I photographed barbers working with clients out in the open air. They used mirrors hung on telephone polls," Sall recounts. "India is so much more dynamic than the United States."
When Alex Forsyth 12 PH participated in the course last winter, she was developing her senior thesis as a Photography major and felt that a trip to India would supplement her intellectual interests.
"I only brought my camera and an open mind to India," Forsyth explains. "I did not expect for my experiences [there] to have such a profound effect personally or artistically. I returned to the United States with hundreds of new photographs, a new perspective on my thesis work and artistic practice, and ideas for new projects."
According to Rogowski, not all students make profound breakthroughs while studying abroad. However, after seeing the world from a new vantage point, they tend to develop a more holistic perception of the world. "As an artist, it's vital to realize that a large portion of the world lives in a completely different way," the instructor explains. "By understanding the world on a deeper level, we better understand ourselves." -Abigail Crocker
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