December 13, 2002
Birtel '03: Capturing Relationships through a Camera Lens
Photo: Fred LeBlanc
if wintering in the Caribbean weren't wonderful enough, Samantha
Birtel '03 will be spending time there for free, thanks to
a scholarship of nearly $18,000 from a small, New York-based foundation,
which has requested anonymity. The recent award will defray some
of the cost of Birtel's final year at Mount Holyoke, which
will include a semester-long independent study project
An anthropology major
and avid photographer, Birtel uses images, in addition to words,
in her ethnographic studies of human culture. "I use photos
to show how people influence one another and a larger network
of people, and how culture in turn affects them," she said.
Capturing human relationships on film is a slow, tedious process
but well worth the time it takes, says Birtel. "I hope to
make anthropology, which has often been strictly an academic discipline,
more accessible to the general public. After all, you don't
even need to be able to read in order to interpret a photograph."
Photo: Samantha Birtel
Birtel's photograph of her grandmother, Evelyn Birtel,
was included in By the Light of My Grandmother's
Wisdom, an exhibition of the anthropology major's
photographs held at the College last May. The exhibition
was part of Birtel's visual anthropology independent
study project on matriarchal and matrilineal culture.
Birtel did her first
cultural studies in Cuba during her junior year, spending one
semester at the University of Havana with a student group organized
by Amherst's Center for Cross-Cultural Study. "I guess
it is the appeal of the forbidden and also my love of Spanish,"
says Birtel of her continuing fascination with the country. During
January Term, she will be one of a handful of students working
with the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana to photograph
Old Havana, part of an ongoing project to document the reconstruction
of the city's historical center. Beginning in February, she
will research Cuban hip-hop music, in which she hears expressions
of a new Cuban identity very different from what the government
has encouraged. Her work will be facilitated by a mentor provided
by The Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba.
Birtel hopes to earn
a doctorate in visual anthropology and teach at a small liberal
arts college"preferably a women's college like
MHC," she says.