In this episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview alumnus Alonso Nichols (M.A. Spanish ’99) about his career as a photographer for Tufts University, the power of language in building connection, and what he hopes for the future of equity in the states.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:11): Hey, guys, this is Tatum
Sydney Charles (0:11–0:12): And Sydney.
Larsen (0:13–0:37): And welcome to another episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today we are joined by Alonso Nichols. Alonso received a master’s in Spanish from UCI and subsequently went to work as a Spanish instructor at the L.A. Times. After that, he embarked on a full-time photography career as the chief of photography at Tufts University. How are you today, Alonso?
Alonso Nichols (0:38–0:43): I’m doing well, it’s great to be with you all. Thank you so much for having me. And I’m honored that you would ask me to be here.
Larsen (0:43–0:45): Of course, we’re honored to have you here.
Charles (0:45–1:44): Very, very honored. First, we’re going to do our usual show and tell, and I’m going to go first. So I have right here one of my childhood favorite little short stories. It’s called The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. At the surface level, it’s just a book about a bunny, a stuffed animal bunny. He embarks on this journey and you know when I was a kid, my mom read this to me all the time. I just used to love the small little graphics in here. It has small images here. I just used to love looking at the pictures, but into adulthood upon rereading it, it’s actually a really, really touching story about life and journeys. It has very, very deep messages as well. So everyone read The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. This is also one of the books that sparked my interest in reading just in general. So, yeah, it’s very awesome.
Nichols (1:44–1:46): Awesome, nice.
Charles (1:46–1:47): So, what did you bring for us today?
Nichols (1:48–2:46): So I had such a hard time figuring out what I wanted to bring and then I decided to bring something that is a little bit in tune with what we might talk about today. So I brought a camera of all things. And this particular camera is one that I bought when I was travelling. Most of my cameras are larger than this. I was in the Philippines for six months, back in 2015, and I decided to buy this small Fuji X 100 T camera, which really allowed me to like kind of get out in the street and make pictures in a way that was really quiet. It’s something that I really love. It’s small enough, this lens comes off and it’s small enough for me to just even stick in my pocket. It’s really light. I just love carrying a camera around and making pictures.
Charles (2:46–2:48): Good for travel, right?
Larsen (2:51–3:12): That kind of brings us to our first question. Actually, we’re both fans of travel. We just got back from a little mini vacay, COVID-friendly in Joshua Tree. It was so much fun. Obviously, you have traveled all over the world. So our first question is what location has been your favorite place to photograph?
Nichols (3:13–4:19): Well, gosh, that’s a hard one. First of all, I love traveling. And I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and I grew up in a small part of a relatively small town. So I always wanted to get out and see the world. I had pen pals when I was like 11 or 12 years old. And my pen pals were in Japan, South Korea, Spain, Philippines. I’ve been to most of those countries now. I’ve really loved photographing and traveling in Latin America. I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, three times since the 1990s, and it’s one of my favorite places to make pictures. I love traveling around Asia. There’s just so much happening in Asia and Asia is so different. You know, the Philippines is different from Japan, it’s different from Singapore. I think just to see how different life can be, it can be really stimulating.
Charles (4:20–4:41): Right. In your career, most people don't typically receive degrees in what they actually end up pursuing. With you, you received your masters in Spanish. How did that end up helping you as the chief of photography at Tufts? Tell us a little bit about your journey.
Nichols (4:42–7:12): I always say, if you're an engineer, there's a very direct line that you can follow, right? There are very clear answers to becoming a mechanical engineer.
For me, growing up there wasn't like a really good arts curriculum where I was growing up but I was very interested in pictures. My family sort of had the idea that a career making pictures probably wasn't going to make me any money, so I should really be like a doctor or a lawyer. I got onto the idea of becoming a Spanish professor at one point because I love languages and I love literature and I love the ideas. I think for me, that's where the humanities was really important, because what studying humanities allowed me to do was develop ideas and make connections. So when I started studying Spanish literature at UCI, I really loved it. I mean, it was a world that I was able to be in, like a world of language, world of ideas. It was a community of people who all were very passionate about those things.
When I went and worked at the L.A. Times, all of a sudden I had almost like an internship that was a front row seat to what could I do with this language and this cultural experience and this teaching experience that might open up another door. So I started working with their reporters, I started working with their photographers, and I sometimes even went out on assignment with them and I started realizing this is what I want to do.
So my experience at UCI turned my time at the L.A. Times into almost like a transitional place. It was like this is where the ideas that I have been working on and developing might suddenly become realized, and it put me off on a whole other track. So, you know, learning about photography from those photographers, seeing how they spent their time and really gave me some strong ideas about what I wanted to do with my time. That was the point of departure where I said, “OK, I'm going to go try to work as a photographer and learn more photography.” My life really has been different for both of those experiences, language, literature, and then working in that world of journalism and photography with those folks.
Larsen (7:13–7:22): We wanted to ask, what was your experience as a person of color, both in the realm of academia and also professionally? Did you have any significant challenges that you faced?
Nichols (7:24–10:12): You know, it's really interesting and I think. Thinking back academically, you know, once I decided that I really wanted to study Spanish language and literature, on the one hand, like that department is its own cultural space. That was kind of amazing to have an alternative cultural space as a person of color where everything is shifted in a way, so on the one hand, we're still referencing ideas of Western culture in Spanish language, but we're also addressing the ways that Latin America, for example, has been transformed by colonialism.
We're addressing indigenous ideas that remain in that culture and that literature, but also African ideas and elements of culture that have migrated to the Americas. To have those things form in a different way was really wonderful for me and very freeing. I think, in terms of like professionally, I think a lot of the challenges that I've faced are similar to challenges that Black professionals or professionals of color face. I think that you always are trying to understand what is the context of the workplace and who am I working with? We are dealing with structural inequality. I live in Boston where I think there's a lot less structural racism than there was where I grew up in Louisville. And on the other hand, it exists. I think working with systems so that they are more accountable is a challenge. I think trying to be heard can sometimes be a challenge. I think as a man of color, it's like there are times when I say, “If I'm being assertive, does that mean to someone that I'm being aggressive”?
If that's the case, how do I manage my own feelings and resolve conflicts without being misinterpreted? There are things that I can't get away with, right? I think this is also where, again, working in the humanities has really been an advantage because it's forced me to develop communication skills and interpersonal skills. Studying language and writing has been a critical tool for me to express my ideas. I think all those things that I learned about people in human beings has been very important in how I navigate the professional world.
Charles (10:15–10:27): Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. On the subject of challenges, have you heard of the concept of tokenism? Is it something that you've experienced in the workplace personally, something that you could speak on?
Nichols (10:29–12:22): Yeah, I think that's really interesting, I mean, right now, I think the whole world is in a place of self-evaluation. We're at a time when we're actually talking about structural racism again. The institution where I work at Tufts University has a renewed commitment to dismantling structural racism, which is amazing, and we as professionals of color have had to have conversations with our institution about the fact that we do not necessarily want to be representatives, who are tokens in that process, and we don't want to own a disproportionate amount of that work because in some ways this is not our work to do. We do our work in our own advocacy for one another. We do our work by showing up every day. We don't own the structure. We can't transform the structure. That is for the people who are in power to do. They have to learn and to expect me to become a teacher within that framework is actually adding work onto my plate that I'm not compensated for. I think the one good thing about this time frame is we've actually been able to start having that conversation, which for a long time was and in some ways the hardest conversation to have, because I think for so long it was like, I'm just grateful to have this opportunity.
And part of the incentive to have that opportunity was in some ways to be a token or to participate in being your representative. So you could say, “Wes, we hired we had a person of color. We've ticked off our box.” Like for so long, that was the framework. I feel like now we're actually beginning to say, “No, there are reasons why I'm here. I'm valuable to you, and I want you to actually start doing the work that you need to do, so I can actually do my job.”
Larsen (12:25–12:32): Yeah. It's not your job to teach people about why systems of oppression are bad. That's why Google exists.
Nichols (12:35-12:38): I love that. Yes. That is why Google exists. Yes.
Larsen (12:40–13:12): And speaking to your talents and a lot of your academic background here, we were wondering how does being bilingual inform your work as a photographer and as the chief of photography at Tufts. Also, we wanted to know what was it like to be a Spanish instructor at the L.A. Times? How was that experience? Was it fruitful in anyway? Were there any drawbacks to being bilingual?
Nichols (13:14–13:19): So let me say up front, there's not one single drawback I can imagine to being bilingual.
Larsen (13:19–13:20): Right.
Nichols (13:21–17:26): I always tell people, I think fundamentally learning Spanish changed my life in ways that I could never have understood. First of all, it's like opened the door for me to communicate with millions of people around the world.
It's actually unified the Americas for me in the sense that I can travel to anywhere up and down the continent. Because of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, I also learned Portuguese. I can travel to so many places in the Americas and actually connect with people. And as a photographer, in some ways, that's actually the most important part of what I do.
I actually have to be able to connect and talk with people and understand not just what they're saying, but what it means. I have to understand enough of the context around, how does the world work? How do people work? To understand what I'm stepping into or operating in. I think that's been a really critical aspect of how I've worked as a photographer. That's what studying literature is about, your understanding ideas, your understanding context and making meanings. A lot of times, it's like I'm traveling someplace and this could be something as simple as like I need to get my equipment through customs. So it's like I kind of need to be able to talk with people. And most customs officials do speak English, but sometimes they don't. I think culturally understanding how to engage people is really critical.
Once I'm off doing my work, sometimes I find myself in people's homes and sometimes that's here in the states. One of the pictures that you had picked out is from one of my assignments where I photographed an incoming student, Thomas-Matteo Galliano. I ended up traveling down to New York to photograph Matteo and his family, ended up sleeping on their floor overnight, and Matteo's family is from Colombia, so speaking Spanish became a really critical bridge to me, being able to be there in a way that didn't feel awkward for them, because people can just talk to me.
I also understand enough about the culture of Colombia to be able to connect with his mother and understand, what it is that that she's thinking about ways to manage myself and not be in the way, but also to be able to just bridge that gap and make pictures. I think that's what ends up resulting in interesting work from me.
You'd asked about the L.A. Times, and I just have to say, working at the L.A. Times is one of my favorite chapters of my career. I was careful to say I never photographed for the Times, that was not part of my photographic career, but it was the beginning of that career. I loved working with reporters and photographers. They were amazing.
I would meet with people one on one or in small groups to give language lessons. These are people who are out and about in that community. They know amazing restaurants. They know what's happening. It's just amazing for me to work with them and talk with them. They were great students.
It's a different thing when you're no longer getting graded. It really changes things. I was a T.A. in my time as a student at UCI and I taught Spanish language classes and I loved teaching those classes. It really was great to teach people who didn't feel like, “Oh, you know, I have to get a grade.” It's like they wanted to learn. Yeah. They had a really practical reason for wanting to learn, but they were also just wonderful. I mean, journalists are really curious people and they're really sharp. So to be with those people every day was really a treat for me.
Charles (17:28–17:58): You mentioned the one photograph, but Tatum and I went to your website and we selected a few photographs that we liked. A few that caught our eyes were ones that really hit on this subject of intimacy and you talked about one of the families. In general, we wanted to know how do you find a story in the ordinary, like something so simple as people eating at the dinner table?
Nichols (17:59–19:45): I think it's something that journalists really taught me to appreciate when I was at the L.A. Times. You know, journalism, there's a regular practice of finding feature photos, which is just the the wonder of everyday life, the things that we have to observe as photographers in order to see and I think that that's become such a part of my process, to try to observe. Something that I've learned in my time as a photographer is that whenever people get together, something will happen. There's so much about our lives, which is part of the challenge of this current time that we're in, right? With the pandemic, we're challenged to come together. I think whenever people come together, whenever a family sits down at a dinner table, for me, it's like there's going to be a picture here.
And whenever people are gathered in a place, there's going to be a picture here. My job as a photographer is to think about where that might come about, where do I want to be, and how do I anticipate that? My job as photographer is to start observing things like, where's the light coming from in this room and what's the mood and what's likely to happen and to kind of be ready for that to unfold. That's a lot of my process is to try to find that. It's my favorite part of the process. My favorite thing about my work is that, I'll go meet perfect strangers who I will talk with and somehow they will invite me into their home and I will be able to spend time with them and get to know them and hopefully by the end of it, whether it's an hour or six hours, we all feel like we've gotten to know each other and we're better people for it.
Larsen (19:47–20:32): That plays back into the idea of being a student of the world and being able to communicate with people. You photograph those simple moments, but you also photograph the more difficult moments of life, namely the work at refugee camps. It's very easy, as we know, especially now in the age of the Internet, to photograph sensationalized moments that make the front cover story. But as we've seen in your work, you are consistent in your dedication to photographing moments that are more subtle and less flashy. So what's your philosophy behind that and how do you find those moments?
Charles (20:33-20:52): Also, one of the other things that I wanted to ask was, do you ever find it difficult, especially in those difficult situations, to be a fly on the wall, to be standing and bearing witness to these difficult events, but not interfering?
Nichols (20:57–24:37): Yeah, I think those are all amazing questions. I love it. I love it. You really make me think what is it I’m trying to do. I think as a photographer, that's a question I have to ask myself every day is like, what am I trying to do here? What is it that I'm here for?
I think one of the things that I'm often thinking a lot about is like, in our culture right now, with Instagram and TMZ, the sensational is almost over covered. And there's so much that happens before and after on the margins of those sensationalized moments. There's so many things that continue even after that early moment has unfolded. And so I think my job as a photographer often is to maybe try to think beyond that sensational moment. So the fact that refugees have been in the refugee camps in Kenya since the early 2000s, since the late 90s even. It's like people have grown up already in that camp. People have had whole lives. And so, like the initial story about what sent people to that camp or the fact that the camp came to exist has long faded. But the life in the camp continues. There is something to find there.
I think that for me, particularly when I travel, I'm well aware that most of the time photographers are turning their lenses onto people who are on the economic margin of a place that's already on the economic margin and people who often don't have any defense or very little capacity to advocate for themselves. So once I factor that into my thinking, I then become responsible for what it is that is something significant about this person. So often it's not the fact that they were displaced from their home. That's a fact. It's not necessarily the fact that their country was subject to war or some sort of natural disaster. I mean, that's a fact, but that's not who they are. And so part of my job is to try to think if I can see something that can tell us who someone is, because what I want people to understand is, is not that this person is a refugee because that's not an essential fact about them as a human being.
What I need people to see is that this is a human being. If you can understand something about this human being, you might understand something about yourself.
If I'm going to photograph someone in Africa who is Black, then there is something that I hope you can tune into as you start to understand the condition of Blackness in the Americas, whether that's in Central America, the Caribbean, or whether that's on the coast of Florida in the delta. There are commonalities among all of us on that diaspora and for lots of the same reasons. I'm really trying to sort of knit together our sense of humanity.
What I really want to do is sort of stop to the extent that I can using this sort of Western gaze or this North American gaze, trying to reduce that on some level, because that's what happens as we look at something sensational that happens halfway around the world and we pat ourselves on the back for how orderly we are. What I'm hoping instead like will recognize a shared humanity.
Charles (24:38-24:51): With that in mind with photography acting as a sort of connecting agent for people all across the world. Is that why photography such a powerful tool? How can it hurt and help the situation?
Nichols (24:53–27:08): Yeah, I think that's a great question, because I think what you're getting at is sort of there are limits to what photography can do. I think that what photography can do is it can open up our imagination.
When I went to the Philippines, one of the things that was really important to me is to think a little bit about what do Americans imagine about the Philippines? Americans have pretty limited imaginations about the Philippines. Philippines was our colonial possession for 50 years. We think about things like military bases. We think about things like “Apocalypse Now” was filmed there, but we don't think about the Philippines as a place where there's a thriving urban life. We don't think about the Philippines as part of cultural production in the world, and so when I went to the Philippines, it's like I have to start understanding the Philippines in ways that are counter to our imagination. So some of that is my research and some of that is to me, just really trying to get out and see anything I can see and talk to people and try to treat them as our cultural equals and in trying to find things that don't represent the sort of typical view that we have.
And so in the way that photography can stereotype photography can also defy stereotypes, depending on what we decide to do with it. I think part of the danger is what doesn't get photographed and who doesn't get to photograph. So if the same people are reproduced as people who photograph and if our cultural attention is a reproduction of the typical days of photography, going back to these scientific portraits of slaves and people in thatched huts, if that's the legacy of reproduction that is happening, then we're not really thinking about and imagining the world in a way that allows for us to widen our view and understand the world differently. So it's almost like two sides of the same coin, right?
Larsen (27:09–27:49): In America, we have a very limited gaze. I think that we tend to go towards more archetypal ideas of places rather than being like a fly on the wall, like Sydney said, in those places so that we get a broader scope of what the world really looks like, so I think your work is very important. Fast forwarding to your role as the chief of photography at Tufts University, we wanted to know what your role looks like, what your daily routine looks like in that position, and also what are some of your favorite subjects to photograph in your role?
Charles (27:50–27:57): And how much you carry on that theme that we were just talking about of connecting humanity as an instructor?
Nichols (27:28–31:11): Yeah, thanks for asking that, I mean, I think it's sort of interesting, when I started photographing, I started photographing with an interest in all these things that we've been talking about. Then there's like part of my job, which is like I'm a photographer for a university. In some ways it's like the thing that I love the most is that no two days are like. It's like some days I will spend a lot of the day photographing and other days it's like I'm going to be sitting in front of my screen in a meeting or on email or toning files and captioning files. Like I said, no two days are alike. I think that my goal as a university photographer is not that dissimilar from my overall goal with photography. It really is to make life at this institution that I serve real and to bridge that gap and doing so serves a lot of purposes. Like every university has to raise funds. If we want universities to be places that are inclusive, we have to have financial aid dollars so that we can include people.
So part of my endeavor is to make compelling pictures that are real people and that bridge that gap. Part of my job at the institution is to think about who we haven't talked about or photographed so that we widen our imagination of who is a student at this institution. That's fundamentally important. With that, I have to be really mindful of how we think about students. This particularly becomes important when we talk about students of color. We can fall into very stereotypical portrayals of students. Are we only showing Black students as athletes? Have we neglected to show Black students as scientists? That's part of the thing that I have to think about. When we start talking about Latino students, it's like family is incredibly important to Latino culture. When I go to that, when I go to my Matteo's home, part of the thing that I'm paying really real close attention to is like, who is this family and what does it mean for him to sit down for a final meal with his mother before he gets up and gets on a bus? Part of the meaning of that whole set of pictures later becomes when he walks into his dorm room all alone and sets that bag down on the bed.
That's part of the meaning of that picture is like he's left his family, which is huge for him. And it's not huge for all of our students. Some of our students have natural expectation. You're going to turn 18, you're going to college. We're going to drop you off at college and have a great time. And so part of the thing that I'm trying to help us all do is sort of understand that there are different experiences of being a student and that that's valuable to us as an institution.
You know, it's really fundamentally important to me as a first generation college student that we really think about what that experience is about and who inhabits that experience and try to do that in a way that's compelling and complex.
Charles (31:12–31:19): With the presence of COVID, do you think that your subject matter will have shifted in the future?
Nichols (31:20–33:13): Hmm. That's a great question. I think like everything in our lives, the pandemic has really shifted all of my work. So a lot of my work has been being close to people, going into their homes. And obviously I'm not doing that these days. At the same time, I think there is a connection to forage. I think that the remarkable thing about the pandemic is, you know, people have been so open to my presence in ways that I haven't felt in years, and I think part of it is because we've all been isolated and I think that there is something about being seen and there's something about me trying to connect, because every time I make a picture I’m trying to connect, even if I have to be six feet away. And so I think that that's been a fantastic part of the horror of this experience of working through this pandemic.
The other thing that's really remarkable is all of our spaces and processes have been transformed. And, you know, I've worked on my campus now for 15 years. And so all of a sudden the lobby in the library is remarkable again. You know, the statue that sits in the corner has a mask on it because somebody decided to do something funny and now it's remarkable. So it's given me all new reasons to photograph things that I didn't have to think about for years. And it's made everything fresh. And I think that, for me has been really vital, like to try to turn what has been left behind into something that now has been transformed.
Now we all have a reason to think about it again. And that's been a lot of fun.
Larsen (33:14–33:46): It goes back to appreciating those moments. I think that's all you can really do in this moment. So you being able to find those simple, subtle moments, like even a statue having a mask on, it's like incredibly important and very telling to the times. Our last question is, what is your hope for your career and just the field of photography in the future, knowing everything that we know now about the present moment and the changes that are happening?
Nichols (33:47–37:22): Hmm, yeah. So on the question of my career, I would say I want to teach more. I love teaching. I've loved teaching since I was teaching at UCI as a T.A. I do some teaching now, but I don't do nearly enough. And I really want to move into that space of really teaching a lot more.
I just love that dialogue. I love inhabiting the world of ideas with students. I love what students come up with and and like you all are amazing students. And I hope you understand, like for people teaching you, it's really important that you succeed. It's really important that you grow as individuals like that's part of the joy of teaching. So I get a lot of gratification from that. And so I want to do that more. I also want to do more personal work, like as much as I have enjoyed and loved a lot of the institutional work that I've done and I've made it as meaningful as I can and will continue to do that. But I think, you know, I want to keep working. I want to get back to Latin America for example. I want to get back out to areas of places where I came from. So some of the work that I'm beginning to research now is like going back to my mother's neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, which was a neighborhood that was established after emancipation. I've sort of begun to dig up some of the oldest maps of that neighborhood back to 1867.
I'm trying to begin to think about what it meant to construct that space and what's still left and sort of how do we make meaning of what that space has been and is becoming now, because it's very important to my family, but also who I am, like I am who I am in part because of the legacy of that history and that community that lived there.
So I want to preserve some of that. I also want to explore it as a set of ideas about contemporary American life. Photography remains a really powerful tool. If you think about it, like everything we're doing, like Instagram is this incredible platform. It's all photography. There is some video, you know, Apple, Google, all of these brands, they're all using photography. Like photography is incredibly important to our culture, maybe more important than ever. And we're really saturated with it. But I think what I'm hoping is that this present moment between the pandemic but also the political and social changes that we're seeing, I hope it reengages us in a dialogue about what's important.
I think that photography can help reconnect us with that. We can use photography to distract us. That's what a lot of consumption on social media is about. But, I think we can also use photography to inform our culture, which I think we're starting to see some of as well. Like some of the things that I've been hearing about my hometown with the protests around Breonna Taylor have not come from media, but have come from people making images and making videos there. They're using these same tools that are normally used to advertise to help us have a dialogue about what's happening in that culture, in that space. So that was really exciting to me, is that photography can continue to be that.
Charles (37:22–37:34): Thank you so much, Alonso, for coming on to this show, and I really, really enjoyed listening to you, listening to your passions and has anyone ever told you that you have a great laugh?
Nichols (37:49–38:24): Thank you. It was my pleasure to be here today. I mentioned it to you Sydney the other night but my niece is a UCI student, Callie Nichols. She's a second year student and she loves Joshua Tree. If she heard that you were in Joshua Tree, she would be like, "I want to go back to Joshua Tree," but she's back in Kentucky doing her classes remotely. But, you know, it's just been such a pleasure.
When you e-mailed me, I thought about her and I was like, “Yes, I want to talk to these folks.” I was really honored that you would have me on your show. I just love it. And I love UCI, I really miss UCI. I’m glad you are all enjoying it.
Larsen (38:24–38:25): Thank you so much. It's been such a pleasure.
Charles (38:25-38:26): Yes, it really has been.
Nichols (38:26-38:33): Stay in touch with me and let me know how you're doing. If there are questions you have, if there's something I can help you out with, please drop me a line.
Charles (38:33-38:38): Thank you guys for joining us for another episode of “The Welcome Table.” This has been Sydney.
Larsen (38:38–38:39): And Tatum.
Charles (38:39–38:40): And we'll see you guys next time.
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.