Like most college students, Emily Olson didn’t have a real connection with the West Philadelphia neighborhood she lived in while a student at Drexel. The West Powelton residence she lived in was newly renovated, but it was still just a house—a place to eat, sleep and party. Her senior thesis, however, nudged her to look more closely at her home and listen to her neighborhood’s story. Out of it came the first public showing of her work in Philadelphia and validation that she’s on the right path.
When Olson started at Drexel in 2008, she chose the most “general” major—communications—since she was unsure of her direction. Of one thing this Queens, N.Y. native was sure; she wanted to tell people’s stories. How to do it was yet to be determined.
That year, in an effort to make connections, she joined the staff of the student-run newspaper, The Triangle.
“At The Triangle, I picked up a camera,” Olson said. “Someone said that I had a natural eye, so I just took it and ran.”
Olson fell hard and fast for photography and confidently changed her major.
“I knew I was always a very visual person and just naturally creative, and since I’m bad with numbers and all that, it just fit,” she said.
Her new major paired her with Philadelphia photographer Catherine Jansen for a co-op cycle. She worked side-by-side with Jansen for three months and then accompanied her to the holy city of Varanasi, India.
Although Olson picked up a stomach bug from overseas travel, her confidence as a photographer was stronger than ever.
“India gave me a new sense of confidence when photographing strangers and distant places,” she said. “My shyness was put into perspective.”
Olson credits her entire experience at Drexel for preparing her for a career in photography.
“The photo program was a good mix of business, history and creative classes. It seems other art schools focus mostly on the art—they say ‘Make an installation out of dental floss,’ but they don’t tell you how to sell it. I’ve always appreciated the practical aspects of Drexel’s program, especially now as an alumna,” she said.
Olson added that the Drexel photography program encouraged her to develop her own style.
“A professor once told me that photographers are supposed to make the ugly pretty, and the pretty, ugly. That always stuck with me,” she said. “My hope is to create images that seduce the viewer into initially believing that the picture is simple, but eventually they realize that the story I’m telling is rather complex.”
For her senior thesis, Olson fused her desire to tell stories with her newfound photographic style and focused her lens on her own backyard—a refurbished home on Budd Street in Philadelphia’s West Powelton section.
“I decided to photograph my neighborhood for convenience at first,” she said. “But walking around and talking to people, it really opened my eyes. I had ignored this street’s story before. I realized that everyone on my block really had an attachment to it and that Budd Street is not just a place of transition made up of 10-month leases. It is home for many Philadelphians, including myself.”
Through a friend of a friend, Olson heard about Flying Kite, an online magazine committed to bringing the arts to struggling areas in Philadelphia. Olson’s photos were chosen for an exhibit in the magazine’s “On the Ground” location (the organization sets up shop in a different Philadelphia location every three months) in West Philadelphia from May through August. It was her first public showing in Philadelphia.
Just before graduating in June, another of Olson’s friends recommended a six-month photography apprenticeship available at Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program. After an intense interviewing process, Olson landed the position. It’s one that will keep her in the city she’s grown to love—at least for a little while. Eventually, she hopes, her new career will take her to new and exciting places, far from the Budd Street home that made her see things through a different light.