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A Portrait of Mike Jon

When opening Mike Jon’s portfolio, you are met with nearly one hundred faces looking back at you. These are Mike’s portraits, each of which, outside of being cast in black & white, captures the unedited truth of his subjects, whose expressions evoke sincerity and range. Some faces appear coy and flirtatious, while others emerge with more drama and sensuality.

Perhaps Mike’s most charming portraits are those that capture the bashfulness of his subjects. In one series, in particular, the same woman appears across five images, in which, behind both her glasses and the hands covering her face, she appears to be giggling, at once shy and hyper-aware of her being photographed. There is no forced, unanimous theatre expressed across Mike’s portraits, instead, each image emotes on its own – they are void of romantic augmentation and, instead, flush with irreplicable strokes of reality. 

This authenticity is by design. Within the first few minutes of my conversation with Mike, we’re on the topic of honesty. He tells me he does not “glamorize” nor is he “embarrassed by blemishes”. Instead, he prefers things “documentary-style […] raw, gritty” as to best “capture the truth of a person”. Naming those featured in the portraits – each of whose complex truth Mike is invested in capturing – subjects, fails to convey the artistic philosophy at play. Mike isn’t recruiting models, he’s bringing people together. When I asked about his studio, Mike explained “My space had become this church, and I was the reverend […] people came to congregate.” This community gave Mike a new idea for a series: much like you would at a local congregation, host and friends and family day, in which each member invites a nonmember. The product of this practice, as Mike puts simply, “My family just grew.” It is this family, new and old, that assembled to appear in the portraits. 

Outside of the members of his church, Mike aims to capture the breadth and depth of Baltimoreans. Mike describes two cities to me – there’s Charm City Baltimore, picturesque Federal Hill, cutsie, whitewashed tourism. And then, Mike explains, there’s the Baltimore he knows – Sandtown, a neighborhood whose history is marked by both prolific civil rights riots and widespread poverty. This Baltimore is where Mike doesn’t want to miss a shot, where he carries his DSLR, aiming its lens at the essence of the streets – “the culture, the people, the sensibilities”. Mike’s body of work is inextricably tied to this place, as he says best, “Sandtown is a part of me, and thus is ultimately a part of my art.” 

While Mike’s art has largely materialized in the medium of photography, at the core of Mike’s creative genius is filmmaking. Speaking to Mike about his navigation between the two mediums revealed to me another trope of his artistry – practice. Mike tells me that before November of 2019, he didn’t consider himself to be a photographer, someone who, in his mind, “dedicates a certain amount of time to studying, to practicing…” Additionally, Mike’s aspirations lied closer to filmmaking – he had originally thought he might go to film school, but decided against it after being unmoved by the senior thesis showcase. And thus, last fall there existed in Mike meticulous energy, a dedication to better himself and refine his “creative engine”. Video is 24 frames per second – “If you can take a single frame”, Mike reasons, “then you’re going to be a better filmmaker.” 

The success of Mike’s deliberate, patient work ethic is beautifully apparent in the trajectory of his portfolio. While Mike’s early portraits are captured through photography, today, he creates the same raw, intimate portraits in the form of short films, cinematic vignettes of a pastor, an athlete, a dancer, a homie. Mike works from the same vantage point of truth and honesty, he’s just expanded his threshold from 1 frame to 24 per second. 

Sophia Brill
Sophia Brill

Sophia Greco Brill is a rising junior at Pitzer College pursuing a major in History and a minor in English & World Literature.

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The Existentialism of Millennial Authors

In the weeks after I was sent home from college last Spring, I found myself staring into the mirror hanging on the ivory wall of my kid bedroom, searching for the answers to my childhood, my solitude, my future, my grief – compositions of my identity that could only be realized in an isolated retreat inward, a quarantine. 

Amidst the existentialism of the last six months—conclusions drawn from which oscillate between evolutions and crises—while I’ve often felt lonely, I haven’t been alone. In fact, much of my cohort is navigating a similar path to self-discovery as a result of being forced to surrender our yearnings for the places we’ll go and, instead, return to the places we’re from. In this new reality, I along with many young writers are using the page as a tool for reconciliation. 

One such young writer is Gabe Sherman, a peer who I met in an introductory creative writing course. As a person and a writer, Gabe is thoughtful and deeply sincere – when we were asked to write a piece of creative nonfiction, he wrote about his dad and the Blues. This Fall, Gabe is dedicated to writing – both for our college newspaper and as a music reviewer for The Arts Fuse. However, during this time Gabe is also reshaping his relationship with writing and its freedoms. 

Over the phone, Gabe explained to me that although he began to think of himself as “someone who liked to write” when he left for college, in the years since he’s continued to struggle with what he’s identified as a “self-confidence issue” one which results in equating prestige and audience with good writing. Sometimes, he even disallows himself from being inspired by a novel, remembering “I could never think of that […] I’m not a writing prodigy.” At times, this cycle is responsible for convincing Gabe he’s not a writer, rather just someone who might like to write. 

However, during the past six months – perhaps at his most vulnerable, navigating both a breakup and the death of a friend all from inside a house with his two parents, in a city wrecked by COVID-19 – Gabe has managed to write freely, independent from self-doubt and critique. On our call, he disclosed to me one of these moments: 

“I was feeling shitty and did a very coming of age teen drama thing. I got my drawstring bag and notebook and sat under a tree and just wrote, three or four pages full. I let my brain go […] It felt like the greatest release of uninhibited thought that I had ever had […] It felt nice to write something where I really didn’t care about being true to anything besides the exact moment.” 

It is this indulgence in the personal catharsis of writing during this time that most resonates with me. Gabe and I agree that, outside of escaping prisms of insecurity, reading literature that inspires you is likely the best primer for your own scribblings. At the beginning of quarantine, I read Sally Rooney for the first time, both of her novels, as well as a few of her short stories. Rooney’s world exists far from the fantastical – instead, it’s flush with real people (nuanced, autonomous, young, female characters, to be precise) who endure the feats and pains of their emotional worlds. This focus on the universal complexities of human feelings made me feel like I could be a writer – I too have the lived experience of being a young woman and have, at times – during this time – felt profound pain. There is quite a lot of catharsis in feeling like you can talk, and believing in what you have to say. 

It turns out that Gabe and I had read the same novel, and that he too saw himself reflected in the text, the protagonist’s inner dialogue mirroring that of his own “overactive brain.” I asked Gabe if he too felt the urge to create after reading, to which he replied, “releasing something personal and creative would signify really believing in my writing, and that would be really cool.”

Sophia Brill
Sophia Brill

Sophia Greco Brill is a rising junior at Pitzer College pursuing a major in History and a minor in English & World Literature.