Two portraits of Esteban -- full body, sitting on the floor and a close-up portrait of him gazing upward

Major: Double major in sexuality, women’s and gender studies plus neuroscience
Before Amherst, lived in: Lima, Peru
Music playing at photoshoot: Classical music from a radio station

On the idea of belonging:

What does “belonging” mean to me? That’s a very important question. The idea of belonging is, or can be—in my case it definitely is—rooted in identities, yes.

But what ended up happening at the photoshoot was much less about identities, as much as it was about the emotions related to belonging in a space. A lot of my thoughts during the photoshoot process were on just my trajectory here at Amherst. How it’s been about moving here from a different country, different continent. Belonging can be, especially for outsiders in a foreign environment, a process that is ongoing. Moreover, it’s a process that can often be never-ending, in a way.

I don’t think “belonging” and “happiness” have to be together. Because, in a place where you truly belong, it is only healthy not to feel happy all the time.

I’m not a person who smiles a lot, in general. Well, maybe I do when I tell a joke, or when somebody else does, but usually when taking pictures and people ask me to smile, I hate that, because I feel like it’s forced, and I never force a smile. I made a very conscious decision not to try to smile, or to be funny about it, because I feel like belonging in some sense, especially here, means about being OK with the idea that you’re not always going to be happy, and that there are things that you can criticize, and things that you can be sad about, and especially if you’re an outsider like me, that you’re going to be able to miss your home, and still recognize that you belong in this space.

The Queer Resource Center became the sort of first place where I’ve truly felt like I belonged. I value my work in the QRC a lot. I’ve been doing work in activism, feminism and queer rights ever since I was 15 or 16. Coming here and doing the same thing is just a continuation of something that I’ve been doing for a very long time. Well, long taking into account how short my life has been so far. My first year here, my first semester, my roommate and I are great friends, so we got along very well. My dorm dynamics were good, but I remember going to the QRC pretty much every day, just because it was really nice to have a space like that, a space dedicated for queer students. I thought that was very nice. I had never been in a space that wasn’t a bar, or a disco, or something like that, that’s just for queer people, right? It was interesting to experience that. Yeah, I got involved with the QRC a lot, and it just became like a second home, even before my dorm ever was one. The thing about dorms is that they change every year. The QRC is still the same environment, still the same people.

The Belong Project is a good idea, I think, in theory. I don’t know what people will take from it. Even if it’s just storytelling. I think storytelling can be very powerful, and doing it through pictures is a very effective way.

And maybe more important than that is showing students, in what’s really more of a non-environment, with the backdrop just a color, so you’re not really anywhere identifiable. I think the Belong Project portraits will be effective because they are removed from this environment. There are many things that can be said about Amherst College, but at its core, it’s an academic space. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from that, because we live on campus, and everything is around academics, whether we want it or not. So maybe removing the person from the setting can be a good thing, because we’re so accustomed to seeing each other in an academic setting, in a setting where it’s all about our grades, our classes, our GPA, do we like this professor or do we not like this professor? Most of our conversations will be around what we’re learning. Hopefully, this will inspire people to have conversations outside that.

On the experience of being photographed:

I have done photoshoots before, yes. This photoshoot was certainly different because the picture was about me. Other shoots that I’ve done, the picture was not really about me. I have a lot of friends who are photographers and fashion designers, so I would model for them. But it was about the clothing, the product. It’s funny. I wasn’t this comfortable this time around, and it was because the focus was me. It’s a lot easier when it’s not just about my face.

I had two opposite ideas for what I wanted to express in the photoshoot. One was highlighting a particular identity, just my gender expression as a person who identifies as queer, and who is generally known for wearing makeup. A lot of people remember me like, “Oh, you wear eyeliner a lot,” which is something I used to do every day until sleep became more important. These days, I just don’t have time in the morning when I wake up, to put on makeup.

The other idea, and what the end product was, was a very sort of naked picture, just showing my face in the most natural state it could be, with my hair just tied in a bun. And where the clothing, and the actual things that we generally use to express ourselves, like accessories, makeup, etc., that was not part of it.

What was it like to see my photo for the first time? My first thought was, “Oh, my face looks huge,” because it’s a big picture. It was kind of shocking. More so than I thought, because in my mind, I already knew that it was going to be a large picture, but seeing it was a bit of a surprise. I guess you just never know how you’re going to react when you see a picture of yourself that’s so big.

But it was interesting to hear the comments around it, people saying, “Oh, you look so good,” or my friend just got really excited when she saw it. Another friend’s reaction was very sweet, and she said, “I just love that you look so thoughtful, because that is how you look all day.” That really resonated with me. Maybe because I do think of myself as a thoughtful person, and I would say that’s one of the traits that I like most about myself if that’s not too conceited.