AAPI Photoshoot at Bryant University
Award-winning photographer Kannetha Brown captures Avantika Sengupta ’27, dressed in a sari, as part of a photoshoot celebrating Bryant's Asian and Pacific Islander community.
Worth a thousand words: AAPI photo project celebrates diversity, community, and sharing stories
May 03, 2024, by Stephen Kostrzewa

On a bright spring day in April, the halls of Bryant’s Ronald K. and Kati C. Machtley Interfaith Center resound with laughter and conversation. But, at the core of the gathering — a photoshoot to celebrate Asian or Pacific Islander heritage — a quiet artistry is documenting the spirit and diversity of the Bryant community.

Just as vibrant as the discussion, though, are the outfits and the colors. Many of the photography subjects are wearing traditional clothing reflecting their Asian or Pacific Islander heritage. For the faculty, staff, and students participating in the portrait project, the gathering is more than an opportunity to be captured on film; it’s a chance to share an important piece of themselves and build connections for the future.

The shoot was organized by Bryant’s AAPI staff and faculty affinity group, led by Mailee Kue, Ph.D., associate vice president of institutional diversity, and Kaoru Paganelli, associate director of the office of international students and scholars, and sponsored by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Belonging. Participants represented backgrounds in a range of nations, including Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and other countries.

“People usually group us all together as just 'Asian' or just 'AAPI,' but we represent so many different cultures within that group,” notes Paganelli, who is of Japanese heritage and dressed for the shoot in a pink kimono. “And just as importantly, we represent so many different stories: What our cultures and heritages are like, and how they shaped us, or how our families came to the West, or our different lived experiences.

“Each of us brings something different to our Bryant community,” she states passionately.

“We’ve had such a phenomenal response to this,” adds Kue, who is dressed in traditional Hmong attire. “Everyone here wants to share their story,” she notes, herself included.

With music playing in the background, Kannetha Brown, an award-winning photographer and first-generation American whose parents are Cambodian and Portuguese, coaches her subjects — some eager, others more reticent — on poses and positioning. It’s not just a matter of looking good, she suggests; the subjects should look like their authentic selves.

"It was a little awkward at first because I'm not really a ‘camera person,’" Carma Copeland '27 admits with a chuckle. "But you get over it, because this is a chance to embrace who I am and show it off confidently.

"I didn't grow up with my Taiwanese culture because I was adopted,” she reflects. “This gives me a chance to demonstrate both my Taiwanese heritage and American side and show that I can be proud of both."

AAPI photoshoot at Bryant University
The ten portraits resulting from the photoshoot showcase faculty, staff, and students.

Sharing that history, and all the paths that brought people to this moment, makes us a stronger community, suggests Academic Advisor and Veteran Specialist Rebecca Baccam, who helped to organize the shoot along with Nicholas Ong, community director, and Angela Hickman, international student integration coordinator. “This is about taking the past and helping us to see how it affects who we are today”

The sense of pride amongst the participants is palpable. Avantika Sengupta ’27, who grew up in Bangalore, India, before moving to the United States at age eleven, was photographed in her sari. “It’s not every day I have an opportunity to wear this,” she points out. “Honoring your culture is about more than remembering your ancestors or your traditions; it’s about understanding who you are.”

The individual shoots are arranged in themes, such as “Children of Immigrants,” and “Seeking International Opportunity,” and others, creating diverse mixes of photo subjects. For Professor of Mathematics and Economics Ramesh Mohan, Ph.D., who is Malyasian with Indian descent and wore a kurta for the photos, there is a power in that variety.

In an era of globalization that increasingly flattens our distinctiveness, he suggests that it is especially important to stand up for the unique aspects of our individual heritages. “This is about remembering who we are and everything that has made us who we are,” he states. “We shouldn't be shy about any of that.”

During breaks, the gathered community members enjoy refreshments, including spring rolls, Bánh mì sandwiches, and bubble tea, as well as a traditional Japanese Koto performance. But mostly, the participants just enjoy each other's company, sharing their respective stories, making connections, and cheering each other on throughout the shoot.

For Copeland and her friend Diane Lee ’27, who are just finishing their first year at the university, making those connections was one of the big draws of the shoot. “One of the things I love about Bryant is that everyone finds a community to be a part of,” Copeland says.

The 10 portraits resulting from the photo session will be displayed as part of this year’s celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in April 2025. In addition, they will be the centerpiece of a planned session at the university’s annual Day of Understanding, a day-long symposium focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“We needed something to be a catalyst to start discussion,” notes Kue. “And I think this is the perfect thing to kickstart those conversations.”

Having those discussions, says Brown, whose work centers on the exploration of bi-cultural identity, family heritage, and memory, is important for everyone. "I think it's important, no matter what ethnicity or culture you're from, to celebrate the diversity of others," she states. "It encourages us to be a little more worldly and empathetic — to be better people.”

"I hope that when people see these portraits, even if they’re from a different community, in addition to seeing the diversity within the campus, they also see themselves,” she says.

She likens the photos taken today to family portraits, treasured mementos that preserve a moment in time. But they’re also repositories of stories about how family members, each special in their own way, come together as a whole. "I hope that the people in these photos feel a little more connected to their cultures; I want them to see themselves and says, 'Hey, I like that person and I'm proud of their heritage,'” Brown says. “And I also want them to feel pride and excitement to be a part of such an amazing community.”

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