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Recently, facebook newsfeeds have been flooded with photographs of students staring into a camera, their eyes vulnerable and their insecurities written on their bodies. The students pictured had all walked into the USG office this past week and shared their stories with photographer Steve Rosenfield, opening up about feelings that they hadn’t revealed to the public before. Though Rosenfield was a stranger, his comforting presence allowed them to release the issues that had been on their minds. “Steve made me feel so relaxed because he was totally nonjudgmental. We talked about how my anxiety affects me and the thoughts I have in my head when I feel an anxiety attack coming on,” said Latalia White ’13, who was photographed with the words “Don’t Freeze” written on her arm.

According to Rosenfield, most students who participate in the project go through three stages. First, they feel nervous and excited, unsure of what to expect or how they feel about taking a photograph for the public. “Something like this is so scary — putting yourself out there, making yourself more vulnerable. It’s not only putting your name on it, but putting your face on it,” remarked Shirley Gao ’13, who organized the event. When the students finally express their insecurities, Rosenfield says that they feel an initial sense of relief but then get extremely nervous about revealing too much of themselves. However, he believes this is a healthy part of the process. “Sometimes we feel like we don’t have an outlet, and we don’t share our problem, which makes it a lot worse. I want to encourage students to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable,” explained Rosenfield. When students overcome their initial anxieties, he said, they end up feeling proud and empowered about what they have done. Gao shared, “People are so nervous, but if they only knew what would happen on the other side and how much love and support they’ll get from the community, this fear would be reduced.”

Students’ silence and fear of judgment about their insecurities is what Mental Health Week hopes to address. The “What I Be” project aims to create a community in which students feel comfortable with acknowledging weakness. Initially, White did not want to be photographed. She admitted, “I didn’t really want to put myself out there at first, but I realized that this is a problem — it’s not easy to say on this campus the things that are being said in these photos. And then I realized that I couldn’t feel frustration at this situation without contributing something myself.” In the end, the photo shoot was a cathartic experience for White. She described, “I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. For me, the photo was like a declaration to myself that I am working through my anxiety — something concrete that demonstrates my progress with it.”

The project has had a powerful impact on other students’ lives as well, allowing them to move forward with releasing pent-up anxieties. Zhan Okuda- Lim ’15, said, “I think it was a cathartic experience because I was able to get out the guilt, bad feelings, ill will toward myself that I had bottled up for so long.” Beyond this, the release of these feelings had an important impact on the students’ mental health and general well-being. Zachary Beecher ’13 commented, “By being open and reflecting upon our strengths and our insecurities, we can confront issues and build on lessons learned to live a healthier and more full life.”

Beyond verbal acknowledgement of student insecurities, the visual element of the photograph plays a critical role in the project. It immortalizes the emotion, allowing the participant time to reflect on the experience. Emilie Burke ’15 admitted, “Until the night I was photographed, I hadn’t realized just how guarded I was. When I first saw my picture, I cried. It wasn’t until someone asked me why I was crying that I realized how vulnerable I felt, because my struggles were out there for not only my 1,800 Facebook friends but for the entire Internet to see.” Despite her initial feelings of discomfort, the experience helped Burke learn tremendously about herself, as she reflected, “There’s this limbo between accepting who you are and letting the world accept you. I think that’s where I am right now. But it’s the realizations from this experience that are pushing me in the right direction.”

The project not only had a significant impact on the individual, but it also extended across campus. Vivienne Chen ’14, one of the first participants in the project, said, “The first step is admitting to yourself [that] you haven’t fixed all your problems yet, which I think is really hard for Princetonians to do ... but I think that now the ‘What I Be’ project has helped create a wider conversation on campus.” Jessica Brooks ’13 expressed a similar sentiment, as she said, “It is important for people to be able to post their insecurities like they can post their successes. The fact that something like this is happening at Princeton says a lot about how important our community is to us and how much we want to look out for each other.”

Gao spearheaded this project so that students could gain a better understanding of each other. “Here at Princeton, we have this culture of effortless perfection projected around campus. Everyone makes it look so easy, which can be so damaging sometimes, because you look around and set really unrealistic ideals for yourself,” she said. “We’re thinking of having a campus culture shift where we can feel more comfortable talking about this stuff, more comfortable in ourselves.”

In the hope that changes will last far longer than Rosenfield’s one week stay, there will be an art gallery reception in Whitman College this Friday, where the students’ photographs will be on display around campus. But beyond formal programming, the hope of this project is, as Rosenfield puts it, “to make ourselves more honest with each other.” USG president Shawon Jackson ’15 stated, “I’m hoping that we can show the students that each of us has our own flaws and insecurities and that it’s okay to show that we’re all vulnerable in our own regard. I certainly see that Steve’s participation on campus made Mental Health Week more meaningful, helping students to be more conscious about the importance of mental health.”

Overall, the campus reaction to the project has been incredible. Gao said, “I’ve been blown away by the response. Everyone’s been talking about the issues that have been simmering for a long time, and I hope that this inspires people to be more honest and compassionate to each other.” The nature of the project leaves no one unchanged, even the photographer. On his last day on campus, Rosenfield reflected, “I feel so humbled and blessed that I had the opportunity to share the project with this community. It’s very hard to put in words, but I’m so inspired by everyone’s vulnerability and courage for sharing a part of their souls with me. I just want to say: Thank you; you’re all amazing; thank you for sharing your hearts.”

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