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Strength Through Diversity

Academy of Art University has always valued diversity. It’s a quality that’s evident in the work of School of Photography international students, whether they’re pursuing their education in San Francisco or online. Many of them use their art to tackle social issues affecting their countries or document traditions and lifestyles that are in danger of disappearing.

“In my first semester teaching on campus, I had students from Russia, Turkey, China and other countries in my class,” said School of Photography Associate Director Adrienne Pao. “It was an amazing group of people who brought different sets of inspirations and resources based on their backgrounds. We always encourage students to highlight what is unique and individual about the places they’re from—the diversity of our international students’ work is simply stunning.”

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Photo courtesy of Santosh Korthiwada.

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M.F.A. student, Santosh Korthiwada. Photo courtesy of Santosh Korthiwada.

Celebrating ordinary heroes 

M.F.A. student Santosh Korthiwada grew up in a small village in India. As a boy, accompanying his grandfather to colorful local markets sparked his interest in meeting new people and learning about their cultures and traditions.

When the former software training specialist decided to turn his photography hobby into a career, he researched a wide range of colleges before settling on the Academy. “I wanted to study at a multi-disciplinary school where I could meet lots of different people and grow holistically as an artist,” he explained. “And that’s exactly what I’ve found here.”

Korthiwada specializes in fine art and documentary photography. His work captures the spirit of the people he’s met while traveling throughout India.

“I like hearing the stories of everyday people,” said Korthiwada, whose photos have been featured in a variety of galleries and publications. “They are heroes to me because they are doing extraordinary things for their own sake and the sake of their families.” 

He vividly captures some of these ordinary heroes in a collection called Endangered Sapiens. The photos depict stoic, aging tradesmen doing traditional jobs that may soon be obsolete. 

“When people look at my portraits, I hope they see the person in the picture, not just a pretty photo,” said Korthiwada. “I want my work to push viewers to travel beyond their own boundaries and comfort zones, and experience something completely new.

Korthiwada is pushing his own boundaries with his thesis project. In a shift from focusing on conditions affecting people, he’s exploring the psychology that drives their behavior.

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M.F.A. student, Horia Manolache. Photo courtesy of Horia Manolache.

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Photo courtesy of Horia Manolache.

Shattering stereotypes

Before coming to the Academy to earn his M.F.A., Romanian student Horia Manolache took pictures of successful people for publications like his country’s version of Forbes. But a project for a concept class got the award-winning photographer thinking about, and challenging, conventional perceptions of success. 

“Somebody shows you a picture of a person who looks successful, and you believe it,” he explained. “Seeing the large homeless community in San Francisco made me reflect on our images of people.”

Manolache’s class project evolved into a provocative series called The Prince and the Pauper. Each photo features a homeless person dressed in his or her regular clothes. A transformed version of the successful self they’d once envisioned becoming stands next to them, wearing outfits such as a police officer’s uniform or a chef’s white hat and jacket. 

“I wanted to play with the viewers and make them believe that some “unsuccessful” people are in fact important,” he said. 

Manolache sees similarities between common stereotypes associated with the homeless in America and people in his country. “The mainstream media here misjudges Romania as a former Communist country where everyone struggles with poverty and orphans are abused, but that’s not the case,” he remarked. “I feel like the homeless problem gets simplified the same way when these people are stereotyped as being lazy or mentally ill.”

The photographer’s love for challenging the way we view the world and transforming things and people is also evident in his series “The Chairs.” Currently on display at the Corden Potts Gallery in San Francisco, the project features elegant yet fun photos of chairs and people who look like them. He is also excited about a new project dealing with discrimination gays in traditional Romanian communities face. 

Manolache recently returned to Romania to finish his studies online. He credits the Academy with teaching him how to turn his photos into cohesive collections. 

“I learned that sometimes art also needs a purpose,” he said.

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Photo courtesy of Francisco Alcala Torreslanda.

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M.F.A. student, Francisco Alcala Torreslanda. Photo courtesy of Francisco Alcala Torreslanda.

Empowering impoverished women 

When Mexico native Francisco Alcala Torreslanda was preparing to retire from his 30-year career as a VP of Latin America supply chains for the Kellogg Company, he was only in his late forties. He knew he wanted a second career and had always yearned to do something artistic. An avid self-taught hobbyist photographer, he started researching online schools where he could get more formal training while continuing to work a few more years. 

“The Academy is excellent for my needs because it’s so flexible,” said Torreslanda, who enrolled in the online program in 2011 and is majoring in documentary photography. “I used to travel a lot for my job, but I could continue my studies from anywhere in the world.”

Tamara Hubbard, associate director of the Academy’s online graduate photography program, loves hearing stories like his. “Students like Francisco would not be able to get their degrees without this kind of program, so I’m really excited we offer it,” she said. “I also love that our international online students can work on projects in their countries that wouldn’t be possible if they were in the U.S.” 

Torreslanda is taking advantage of that opportunity—and fulfilling another of his retirement goals, giving back to society—with his thesis project. He is working with a local NGO to document how it is empowering poor women in rural Mexican communities. 

“I believe empowering women is the most cost-effective approach to making significant improvements in the health, nutrition and living conditions of really poor people in rural communities,” he said.

Torreslanda is also interested in cultural preservation. He recently accompanied 20,000 women on their annual 270-mile pilgrimage from Queretaro Mexico to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City, capturing the arduous trek in vibrant, colorful photos. He walked with them for the entire 17-day journey. 

“I believe in living the experience and emotions of the people I’m photographing,” he said. “You have to do that in order to get good documentary images. My vision is to use my photography to bring to life the good side of humanity, and to unveil everyday and cultural observations.”