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My first and last byline

senior column

I wasn’t going to write a senior column. I thought my senior slideshow would suffice, summing up the entirety of my experience as a Chronicle photographer. But while I love visual forms of expression—one of my degrees is in visual arts—I wanted to share my reflections through words as well. This is the first (and likely only) time you will see my name on the Chronicle website for a piece of writing; in four years, I haven’t written anything longer than a one-sentence photo caption. So here it is, my first and last byline.

My Chronicle story begins at the first training of the photography department, in those initial weeks of freshman fall. Before we had even started, the Photo Editor announced, “if you know all the words on this slide, you can leave—you have a good handle of photography.” I stared at the screen, desperately seeking familiarity, but instead found a sea of unknowns: “RAW”, “fstop” and “ISO”. It dawned on me that I didn’t recognize a single term, and that despite taking photos extensively in high school, I actually knew very little about photography. 

This could have been intimidating. I could have left 301 Flowers that day and never returned, responded to a listserv email for another club, forever altering the trajectory of my Duke journey. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the comforting, homey environment of the office, covered in old, yellowing newspapers, memes and handwritten notes. Maybe it was the welcoming attitude of the older photographers, who trained me and showed me how to really use a camera in manual mode. Or honestly, maybe it was the exciting possibility of photographing Duke basketball games. 

For whatever reason, I stayed. My photographs from the first soccer game I covered were dark and blurry—essentially useless. But I learned the ins and outs of camera adjustments (or at least enough to get by) and resolved to improve. On several occasions, I frantically texted experienced photographers like Carolyn camera questions from a sports game. I’ve accidentally deleted my images before uploading them, running back to the event to capture any final moments. Somewhere along the way, I found myself editing photos in Lightroom and running long production nights (with lots of cutouts!), watching unfinished tasks turn to highlighted neon green rectangles on the Excel spreadsheet. I had the incredible opportunity to photograph speakers like Condoleezza Rice, vibrant performances at Awaaz, and the personal highlight of my Duke career: President Obama at the Duke-UNC game last year. The same wide-eyed girl who couldn’t recognize common photography terms at the first training was now sitting courtside at basketball games, capturing Zion Williamson’s incredible dunks and unfortunate shoe explosion. 

Over the years, I found community in the Chronicle, forming friendships with members from multiple departments and spending late nights in the office. Yet, whenever I heard someone complaining about a Chronicle article—whether it was a news story or a particularly hot take in the Opinion section—I felt somewhat defensive but also somewhat unbothered. As a photographer, it was easy to say that I had nothing to do with writing the Chronicle’s content and that criticisms of the paper weren’t really directed at me. But I was wrong. I am, was, and will be a part of the Chronicle. Photographers play a crucial role in the stories we tell and how we tell them. I am so thankful for getting to know not only the talented photographers at the Chronicle, but also the hardworking journalists, storytellers, sports writers, designers and creators. 

It probably goes without saying that I will miss the watch parties. The chance to stop by and engage in a fun conversation or debate. The questionable snacks and ever-present ant problem in the office. The soreness in my arms after holding a heavy camera lens for over two hours. But most importantly, I will miss the community of people that made The Chronicle feel more like a home than a student organization. While there are countless student groups on campus, I have found relatively few organizations that can offer you a community, strong friendships, a sense of belonging, a real home. 

Obviously, this is not the ending we hoped and planned for. I wish our last Sclafani didn’t have to be virtual, I wish I could have taken graduation photos on the steps of 301 Flowers, I wish I could have said my thank yous and goodbyes instead of texting them. But I am immensely grateful for all I crossed paths with, whether it was just once or on a daily basis. Though most (read: all) of my contributions to the Chronicle have been photos, I’m glad I had the words to say this.

Sujal served as the Photography Editor of the Chronicle’s 114th volume. She is thankful to Carolyn, Sanjeev and Ian for all they have taught her and done for ChronPhoto. She would like to thank v.115’s photo editors, Charles and Mary Helen, and wishes Simran best of luck running the department next year. She is also grateful to Shagun, Bre, Nathan and everyone else who made the Chronicle a community and a home. 

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