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December 13, 2002

Samantha Birtel '03: Capturing Relationships through a Camera Lens

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

Samantha Birtel '03

As 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
in Cuba.

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

Samantha 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.

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