Isabella Cuan

Isabella (‘18) is majoring in BBB and minoring in Art History.
She is a talented photographer (check out her work here) as well as an extremely thoughtful and well-dressed human.
I’m constantly inspired by her, and would claim that she is the person I’m least worried about entering the !!! adult !!! world !!! 
She has two beautiful cardboard dogs and two beautiful real dogs, as well as an affinity for bananas.

How did you initially form an interest in photography?
Having grown up in a very artistic creative environment, it wasn’t really surprising for me to become invested in a particular art form. I just didn’t really think that it would be photography because my dad was mostly in fine arts. I tried drawing and painting as I was growing up but I was not very good at it — I liked sketching though. I never really had the patience actually for traditional fine arts, which makes a lot of sense why I later got into photography.

During my freshman year of high school, I took an entry level photography class with one of my best friends (shoutout to Stephen!) and we were equally hooked. I am appreciative of the fact that our school even had this program. I ended up taking more advanced photo courses and doing an independent study during my senior year. My interest in photography continued to develop from there and it wasn’t until college that I fully realized how much this art form meant to me.


Are you comfortable being known as Isabella, the photographer?
Hm, that’s a very interesting question. I don’t think I have a problem with that. It’s so natural for human beings to label people or things that are unfamiliar to them. However, I would hope that people who are closer to me know that there’s more to me than just photography. It’s funny because people I have met many times in a photo context are still like “Oh, I totally forgot you were pre-med!” I don’t mind people making assumptions; it’s actually kind of fun dismantling people’s preconceived notions of who you are.


I feel like this is kind of a cop-out question so let me explain before I ask it. So obviously having done photography for 7 years now, you must know a bit more about it than the average person. Is there something you would like to share? It doesn’t have to be incredibly insightful or anything, just something that the rest of us might find interesting.
Even though it’s a great feeling when you capture a really beautiful image, with the right lighting, the right composition and so forth, I think the most rewarding part of photography is simply the process of creating. I’ve learned so much about seeing the world and questioning what I see because it’s intimately ingrained in the process of trying to capture something. When you look through the lens, you’re looking at the world in a very different way. I can go walk down the street and appreciate so many things that most people would ignore. Trivial things, like a shadow that crosses the wall at a certain angle, can inspire you. I think this vision, even though it’s not even a particularly profound vision, is what makes artistically driven people unlike any other. They see something and they want to write it down, sketch it out or capture it as a photograph. That translation of a thought or idea or vision into something tangible makes artists’ minds endlessly fascinating.


You mentioned that photography is a great medium because of its accessibility, but do you ever feel as though this accessibility can become a burden? Where do you draw the line between capturing a moment and actually experiencing it first hand?
I’ve read about photographers and artists having a certain type of anxiety embedded in their being in the world, in which you see so much around you that you want to capture it all, and it’s like, “Oh my god, I don’t even know where to start.” At some point, you also have to be okay with just taking it in before touching your camera. I used to compulsively bring my camera everywhere.

I think posting photos to social media is something that can be beneficial and dangerous at the same time. At every popular cultural landmark or museum, people are appropriating art for their own self-image. I’m glad people are at least appreciating art, but I do think that we are becoming too obsessed with making ourselves look a certain way through photos. I explored this idea during my program at Cambridge, where I wrote a paper on understanding, from a neuroscientific point of view, the value of photography in the digital age and there are several studies that explore whether it’s actually beneficial to take photos at museums etc.

Is it?
There was an interesting study set in a museum where they asked subjects to take a photo of a piece of art and found that the impression of the artwork in their memory was actually worse than if they were just looking at the painting. However, if they zoomed in on parts of the painting, the impression on their memory was fairly equal to just observing it with their eyes. I think we just need to utilize photography in a very self-aware way and genuinely engage with whatever we are taking a photo of.


Most people come to Penn with interests tangential to their chosen field of study, but unfortunately, I feel as though it’s easy to neglect those interests. How did you prioritize photography as part of your life?
It has definitely been difficult, especially considering I decided to be pre-med. I think I was really lucky in the sense that I joined photography based activities such as The WALK and The DP right away freshman year, so I was able to practice my photography consistently. Although I did have to make some compromises, such as not being able to take fine arts classes or double major in Art History, I made a conscious choice to not sacrifice this passion in my decision to be pre-med.

I think there’s a very narrow-minded definition of what it’s like to be pre-med here, and that’s why I didn’t commit to this path until the end of freshman year. Because the arts and creativity mattered so much to me before Penn, it was never really a question of “How will I fit these interests into my schedule?” because I was determined to make it work.

I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this — Why pre-med?
I think I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining this. This is what happens when you have to write a lot of personal statements [laughs].

At the end of high school, I began realizing how much I really liked science because of how it allowed me to better understand human beings. After taking a Freshman Seminar on neuroscience, I decided to continue pursuing this track. However, after discovering how competitive and structured the pre-med track is, I was seriously questioning my initial decision. I actually remember calling my mom and telling her, “I feel like I am being suffocated. I don’t think pre-med is for me.” Thankfully, over the course of the last semester of freshman year, I met a variety of different people who did not follow traditional paths to medicine nor fit into the stereotype of a medical professional. They helped me deconstruct what it meant to be pre-med and I thought, maybe this is a place for me in all of this after all.

The fact that I love human portraiture and learning about the human body intersected with my passion for understanding people and for just questioning why people think the way they do — why they say what they say, why they do what they do. Photography and neuroscience allow me to explore these questions, albeit in very different ways.

I find it a huge issue that medicine is becoming more bureaucratic and impersonal. We all need to be more human with each other and embrace creativity in the field of medicine. I think that’s how treatments and just general problem-solving can be greatly improved. It’s interesting because if you actually study the history of medicine, you find that medicine was originally viewed as an art. Today, we pretty much solely equate it with the sciences.


Given that you’re studying part-time this semester, what do you hope to do with this new found free time?
I hope to do an independent documentary project about my grandparents’ experiences growing up in Havana, Cuba in the 40s and 50s. Basically, I want to collect the life stories and bittersweet memories they have, to get them down on paper in some more concrete form. Havana was a place that caused them a lot of heartbreak and hardship. But it was also a place that they loved so deeply and is ingrained in their identities to this day. They fell in love as next-door neighbours and now they’ve been married for over 50 years.  


Yeah, it’s pure old-fashioned love. But when Castro took over, they were forced to leave with literally what was on their backs. They took my grandmother’s wedding ring and my grandpa had to work in what was considered a concentration camp in the sugarcane fields for two years before they were allowed to leave. I would love to collate all of these stories into some sort of documentary video but we’ll see where it goes. I do foresee this as a long-term project and hope to visit Cuba one day.

Something you recommend is…
The film ‘In the Mood for Love’. It is a Chinese melodrama directed by Wong Kar-wai and I think it offers an incredibly unique movie-watching experience. I had to watch it for a class freshman year and was completely enraptured by it and wrote a paper on it and then watched it 10 more times. You can actually watch it completely for free on YouTube. I could potentially see people not liking it or being bored by it, but I think it’s an absolutely beautiful film that focuses on the appreciation of film as an art form itself. We get used to watching movies that are made for entertainment value only, and ‘In the Mood for Love’ is the opposite of that. The costuming and music are incredible. It really highlights every possible element of film.


Okay, I know this question is kind of trite, but given the context of this project, I can’t not ask it. What is something you appreciate about Penn?
From the beginning of my experience here, I’ve always appreciated the diversity of people at Penn. Not just in terms of race and ethnicity, but also diversity in terms of background and values and ways of seeing the world. When I go back home and talk with friends, I realize that a lot of other people my age don’t get the opportunity to meet such diverse individuals. Many people go to really homogeneous schools, and I know that although it can for sure seem like that at Penn, there are actually a lot of interesting people under the radar doing their own thing and interacting with them is such a special thing.


You know what question must come next…What is something you would improve about Penn?
Penn brands itself as a university that’s founded on this interdisciplinary type of learning, and to be honest it only goes so far. Take my own major, BBB for example: it would be far more beneficial to not rely on the interdisciplinary nature of the course to come from taking a certain number of disparate science classes, but through engaging in more discussions that actually bridged disciplines in psychology, biology, policy, tech etc. Especially considering how neuroscience is integrated in pretty much every discipline out there in one way or another. In general, there’s a pretty big disconnect between the humanities and sciences. I wish more people were required or incentivized to take an art or writing class that emphasized skills that you might not need directly, but will help you develop as a well-rounded individual and creative thinker.


Who should we talk to next? Why?
My long-time Penn friend, Léa Kichler! She’s a wonderfully kind human being and just happens to be so freaking talented. She films, designs, sings, and cooks–to name just a few of her many talents. Also, no one can wear a neck scarf better than she can! She is one of the people I feel truly lucky to know (and live with!) at Penn.

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