Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Feature Writing Class were assigned to profile people at the forefront of change:
Bryan Sison, a photography enthusiast at SUNY New Paltz, creates thought-provoking images on his Students of New Paltz Instagram page.
It had just rained, the wind was picking up and a few birds were chirping upon the trees surrounding the damp grass field on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Another sound was the shutter of Bryan Sison’s Nikon D3400 Digital Camera. He was in the midst of one of his photoshoots for his Instagram page, Students of New Paltz, which had recently become quite popular across campus. Sison was focused intensely on his subject, second-year Devin Timpone, both behind the camera, as well as during the interview prior to the shoot.
“I like to interview the student before I take their picture,” Sison said. “That way, I feel more connected with them and they feel more comfortable with me. I try, and hope that comes across in the photographs I post.”
Although this was their first time meeting, the interaction quickly turned conversational. Within 25 minutes Sison and his subject gradually grew comfortable with one another.
Portrait photography has been a main focus for Sison. It was this newfound interest in capturing the essence of other people that led him to create the page, “Students of New Paltz” (@studentsofnewpaltz) on Instagram. Within the first week of creating the page, without even posting a single photo, Students of New Paltz reached around 300 followers.
“I never expected it to get as big as it did so quickly,” Sison said. “To be honest, I went into it without any expectations at all. I just did it because I was interested in the idea, and kept doing it because I just loved doing it.”
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Change in Venue
Sison transferred to SUNY New Paltz from Rockland Community College last year. He majors in Electrical Engineering and has a fascination with technology. When asked if he would choose a career in photography over engineering, Sison responded with a stern, “Definitely.”
His passion of photography only started recently.
“My brother was always into it, and he always brought us to really cool places to shoot,” he said. “For some reason I never got completely into it until last year. I think it must’ve been because of the scenery around New Paltz. It is just so beautiful here during the beginning of fall that I felt like I had to start taking some pictures.”
After a few months of delving into the world of landscape photography, Sison began shifting his focus on the students around campus.
“To be honest, I was not only surprised, but fascinated by some of the students here,” he said. “Even though it’s just New York residents, or mostly are from New York, everyone has a story that I felt should be heard. You wouldn’t know someone’s story just by looking at them.”
Sison was inspired to create the page by “Humans of New York,”a photo blog of street portraits and interviews collected on the streets of New York City.
“I thought it was a really cool idea,” Timpone said when asked about the Students of New Paltz page. “It shows other people all of the cool, diverse students that we have here. Sometimes we don’t even have the opportunity to know people. This page gives opportunities to people to get to know other students on a different level, especially some that they see around campus, but never really have a chance to talk to.”
The Perfect Shot
Sison looked around the quad for an ideal spot to shoot.
“There,” he said confidently, while pointing to a spot right next to a large oak tree.
“Do you want me to pose? What should I do?” Timpone said giggling, with a hint of anxiety being in front of the camera.
“You can do whatever you want!” he said in a comforting way, that made Timpone feel at ease.
He made confident movements back and forth to achieve the angle he wanted. Timpone gradually grew vulnerable and didn’t try to pose. It’s what Sison wanted.
His face lit up after getting the shot that he desired, and one that his subject was happy to approve of.
“This one’s the one,” Sison said. “[I] just have to edit it now, type up a caption for her story and share it to the people.”
Vulnerability is abundant in every photo on the Students of New Paltz page. Sison deliberately intends to choose a particular photo that is “raw” and encompasses the feeling felt by the subject while sharing his/her story.
“That is definitely another reason why I like to talk to them before each shoot,” he said. “I want them to become comfortable with me, but I also want them to get in whatever emotional state their story causes them to be in.”
While talking with me and his subject, Sison’s voice was shaking a little, yet this seemingly did not faze him. His presence, and comfortability in his own skin is a quality that put myself and his subject at ease while speaking with him. The authenticity he shows up with, is exactly what he wishes to incorporate within his photos.
“I don’t want them to pose,” he said when I asked him about the shooting process.“The best pictures I’ve gotten of students were when they didn’t try to do anything.” But, the students who are photographed aren’t the only ones letting their guard down.
Sison’s story is another one that deserves to be told.
“I was born in the Philippines,” he said. “My mom moved here when I was four months old, so I was left in the Philippines with my grandmother for 11 years. That was pretty hard to hit. And not seeing your mom for such a long time, and you’re just looking at her pictures that she sent.”
His mother eventually came back for him and his older brother, and brought both of them to the United States. The remainder of his childhood took place in North Jersey, and his family eventually moved to Rockland County while he was a freshman in high school.
“I have not seen my dad, ever,” he said. “I wasn’t born before he died, so I was still in the womb. My mother didn’t want to tell me what happened, still to this day. She tried to keep it a secret, and I don’t know why.” Even with the challenges and drastic changes that took place during his childhood, family is extremely important to him. “All four of us: my older brother, little sister, mother, and myself, are really close. I’m grateful for that.”
Sison actively attempts to reach out to a variety of students, regardless of their appearance.
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“Since I’m all about non-judgement, I really, honestly try to make sure I’m not asking someone to be a subject based on how he or she looks,” he said.“I would be lying, though, if I said I haven’t asked someone because of their unique look! I just try to be open to everyone as much as I can. Everyone has a story.”
When asked about the future of Students of New Paltz he said, “As for the page, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. I basically started off with Students of New Paltz. Lots of opportunities can come. What I will probably do when I graduate is hand it off to one of my friends that I trust to take control over it. Keep the movement going, you know?”
When asked about his own future, he said, “I’m excited to see what the future holds for me. I’m going to continue to follow my heart. It has worked out pretty well so far.”
Read about more #ChangeMakers here:
David Wilkes, self-taught artist and vice president of Roost Studios and Art Gallery, opens up about how his journey with photography led him to go to Ghana, West Africa.
Billie Golan, the head organizer of the farmer’s market, has managed it every Thursday for the past three years and strives to create a sense of community.
Caleb Sheedy, theater major at Syracuse University, single-handedly organized a walkout at New Paltz High School after the Parkland Florida shooting to create a platform for change on gun violence.
Helene Strong, a Holocaust survivor, dedicated her time at the VA hospital to help recovering soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and give back to the military community.
Ellie Condelles, president of Democracy Matters, spends each Thursday informing her peers about the importance of political involvement, especially in the current political climate and their ability to make a change.
Victoria Precise, an alumna and drag queen, educates the Hudson Valley on drag and inclusiveness, while maintaining mentor relationships with students.
Emma Ward, zine enthusiast and activist uses her position in society to advocate for human rights and other issues prevalent in America.
Brianna Knight, co-president of Melodía and Movement, strives to educate people about diversity through her poems and hopes to become a teacher.
Liam Neubauer, event coordinator of rush week for Alpha Phi Omega uses his fraternity to help others through service work and recruits others for volunteering.
“Jenny,” a child protective service worker, tries to help children everyday while struggling with the fact that she is an undocumented immigrant.