This project was funded by:
the North Carolina Documentary Photography Awards at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
I attended an undergraduate university, devoid of Greek life. I had my own prejudice against fraternity and sorority groups, stemming from one simple idea:
an exclusive group by its very nature is set up to exclude others.
Before I walked into photograph my first chapter house, I asked the bartender if I could order a drink. It was before noon, and by state law, he couldn’t serve me.
I was terribly nervous, and suddenly felt like I was 18 again; unsure of myself, and feeling as if I were an alien.
Was this enough to understand these students, some 15 years younger than I? What I did understand was that I was allowed a privileged position to walk into someone’s private space. I was determined to remain respectful. I wanted to prove my idea wrong. I questioned why these societies existed in the first place. This history is some 165 years old, and specific only to the United States of America.
The majority of what I found was banality – not the imagery we imagine in our head when members binge drink, sing racial chants, rape fellow students, or when a hazing ritual turns deadly. Don’t get me wrong, these are serious issues society members face – but they stem from something more complicated within our American structure. These are the stories we hear that drown out the quietness that allows these students to live together. I don’t know if there is enough banality, but I imagine it’s a nice contrast to the extreme highs these students go through.
School is stressful, and most often students are sleep deprived. Sleep depravation adversely affects the brain and cognitive function – just ask parents of a newborn. These students, in most cases, have just left the confines of their parent’s home after knowing no other way of life. It’s like having too many choices in the grocery store for one type of product, and too tired to make a simple decision.
What was most interesting was the silence in response to reaching out to 30 chapters who lived in communal houses, to participate in this project. I was upfront: I had no desire to photograph what was already headline news. I was interested in the everyday. In the end, only four chapters agreed to participate. A few chapter presidents, who were interested, were handed the decision not to participate, from their national office. One fraternity backed out at the last minute, as the president voiced his concerned with me being in the house every day, for a few hours, over a week’s span.
In the end I had a better appreciation for these communities, as by the very nature of the architecture, programming etc.; the chapters highlighted living together in a community. What I did notice is that some of these students were at a stage of self-actualization – perhaps it was the specific chapters who were participating. However, most of the students I interacted with were the least likely to need these organizations – they came from stable homes. While those who really need a community, cannot afford the dues to participate. At the end of my journey I felt accepted by almost every student I encountered; welcomed when I entered the homes, often by just walking in – yet is was clear in the end - birds of a feather flock together.