Photo Essays in Gender, Sex & Urban Life


In Spring 2021, the students in URBS 277/GSWS 277: Gender, Sex, and Urban Life completed a photo essay assignment. The assignment drew inspiration from the work of photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier, and in particular from her documentation of the Flint Water Crisis, which we discussed in class. Reflecting on her engagement with parents and children affected by the Flint Water Crisis and on the systemic anti-Blackness that undergirds the crisis, Frazier explains of one particular interlocutor, eight-year-old Zion Cobb, “[N]o matter how much this country under its capitalism, its patriarchy, its hatred of Black women, no matter what, she overcame that. And she will continue to move forward. And now she'll have a human document archive of how she survived this moment in her life.”

In conversation with what Frazier refers to as a “human document archive,” the photo essay assignment asked students to photograph the same location every day for one week. Students also wrote captions for their photos as well as a short essay that reflected on what they chose to document, what the process of documentation was like, and what their set of photographs revealed about the structures of power that mediate their chosen location.

Here are two examples of student approaches to the project. Sophomore Megan Chui chose to document Harrison College House, where she would have lived in the 2020-2021 academic year were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns. Photographing Harrison at night, Chui reflects on a sense of community from which she feels removed, even as she shares with the students in Harrison the experience of being a Penn student. Senior Margaret Tebbe chose to document Lea Elementary, as she volunteered with Lea students throughout her time at Penn. Tebbe uses her photographs to consider the competing presences of haunting and desire. Her photographs and reflection demonstrate the co-presence of loss and vibrancy on the grounds of the school. The goal of the assignment was to provide students with an opportunity to apply the reading and thinking they undertook in the course to the built environment that constitutes their daily life, and to have a place-based experience, even in the midst of the pandemic.