Nostalgic Photographs of An Empty High School

james rajotte

James Rajotte is a photographer living in Rochester, New York. After growing up in rural Pennsylvania, James studied Earth Sciences at Penn State University. He then worked as a photojournalist for several publications during and after his undergraduate education. Rajotte completed an MFA at the Visual Studies Workshop and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and contributes regularly to publications such as the New York Times.

james rajotte

What made you start photographing East High School in Rochester, NY and how did you gain access?
‘My interest in photographing East came about as I was volunteering in a mentoring program in which students made short video productions with an anti-violent message. When I decided to photograph, I wrote a formal letter to the Superintendent and the Principal. After a bit of humming and hawing they made me East High School’s “official” photographer. They gave me a make-shift laminated pass and I became friendly with the security guards’.

What camera are you using?
‘Mamiya C220 is the camera that I used for this project. I borrowed it from an acquaintance’.

james rajotte

The photos in this series are devoid of people for the most part. Were you allowed to shoot the kids or was this a conscious decision?
‘At first, I was photographing students candidly and making portraits in 4×5. These were nice, but it was difficult to photograph students without commenting directly on socioeconomic status of East High School’s student body, and this is not what I wanted to do. I was however, interested in the dilapidated state of the school and the eerie familiarity that I felt. When I started looking at my pictures as symbols of a high school experience and not as documents about a particular school, something changed for me. I realized that people of a certain age and culture see themselves in these pictures, and that certain familiar objects and places contain or at least call to mind emotions that have not been felt in some time. The locker room for instance, is a place where traumatic things often occur. Just as important as the places, the objects that make up education – plastic chairs, fluorescent lights, miniature bags of Doritos, clocks and overhead projectors – all carry emotional weight’.

What is the most important thing you teach your students about photography?
‘I try to have my students to consider photography as asking questions about the world. I also teach them to find a healthy balance between craft and concept’.

james rajotte

With a degree in Geographic Information Science, why did you make the leap to photography and do you find your degree has had an impact on your work?
‘G.I.S. deals with communication, spatial relationships, semiotics and cognition; all things that have relevance in photography. The concepts that I studied as an undergraduate are starting to intersect more with my photographs. My most recent work is about a small town called Frenchville, PA, in which, the towns geography has played a vital role in its existence, identity and inevitable demise’.

james rajotte

  • Sarah J

    Oh right! The first photo in the series brings back many memories of a mispent youth. I’m interested in James’ thoughts on how his subjects reacted to this shots:

    I realized that people of a certain age and culture see themselves in these pictures, and that certain familiar objects and places contain – or at least call to mind – emotions that have not been felt in some time.

    So true. Familiarity can often bring a warm mood of comfort, which is, in many ways, one of the real joys of looking at inspiring photography like this.

  • tom donald

    I asked to photograph four local primary schools which were due to shut last summer, replaced by a single new school.
    I also felt the emotional pull of the empty rooms, and agree that NOT having children in the pictures greatly increases the poignancy of the scenes.
    An empty school is a great photographic target!

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