Behind the flash
15 years. Countless changes. One campus photographer.
Unless you frequent campus or have an eye for bylines, you might not recognize the name John Solem. But if you’ve been on campus at any point over the last 15 years, chances are you’ve seen him or rather, he’s seen you—through his camera lens.
For the past decade and a half, Solem has been UMass Amherst’s go-to photographer. Originally starting with this very magazine, his work now extends to capturing a variety of events, people, and places within the many schools and colleges on campus. I caught up with him on a foggy morning under the W. E. B. Du Bois Library to learn more about what he does, what he’s seen, what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same.
UMass Magazine: What is your favorite part of your job?
John Solem: I have a lot of gratitude. I have access to all these people and they are okay with me being there. There’s trust. It’s like there’s this assumption that I’m not there “to take”—just to observe. And the connections I get to make with people.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in your time here?
It’s too easy to just say buildings. Though they were necessary, and the science buildings really brought UMass to a different level—attracting good faculty and students. But, from a cultural perspective, I have seen a change in how vocal kids are. So much has been driven by social media, so many more voices calling for change on and off campus through protests and activist groups. It’s so inspiring to see, and I am honored to get to capture the changes and chronicle the progress happening at UMass.
What has remained the same?
The students are still awesome. I can’t tell you how many times I am driving through campus, and I see students and their energy is so positive. They come here to better themselves, because they have a love of education, and to better their career opportunities. Even through the pandemic, the students that were on campus had this positivity and hope. It was heartwarming to see they were going to keep moving forward despite all the challenges.
What has surprised you the most?
The variety of things I get to work on. I had a hunch when I took this job that there would be some variety, but there was no way I would have known back then how much there is here. I’ve gotten to attend a presidential inauguration, wade through snapping turtle-infested waters, follow a UMass professor through a swamp in the everglades, and travel to meet with some prominent UMass donors. There is also variety when it comes to the way I capture things. I need to do a shoot of the Old Chapel every season, so I have to find ways to approach that to make it new each time—and sometimes that means literally approaching it from a new angle with a ladder, from a rooftop, and hopefully someday soon, with a drone.
Is there anything unique about doing shoots for UMass that is different from other places?
So, my job is to show UMass in the best light, which is usually fairly easy. Most of the time the people and the campus look really good. And, of course, as a photographer I am drawn to beauty. But there are sometimes when you have to consider how to balance capturing the truth and what “looks” best. There is a beauty in that honesty.
John, what’s your favorite?
- Camera: Leica Q2
- Type of shoot: Job fairs or poster sessions
- Place to shoot on campus: Integrative Learning Center
- Photography accessory: Wireless flash trigger