Riley James

Riley is a gentle soul who emits a mysterious atmosphere; her characteristic smile is always inviting, yet her constantly analyzing eyes contain a depth of unrevealed experience. She consistently does what is necessary for her peers on site without being asked, and once a connection beyond work is initiated, Riley offers a powerful and unwavering friendship. This fantastic intimacy yet distance from others can best be understood in her position behind her camera, a vantage point from which she captures her subjects at a personal and profound level while maintaining a degree of separation. This balance is present also in her appreciation for candid shots of other people when she performs photojournalism at events and in her position as Photo Director of VIM Fashion Magazine at her university, where she captures people both posing in studio and in nature. Even in the latter, however, the twenty-two year old Journalism and Anthropology major from Michigan State University desires to capture true humanity—she is most interested in subjects across a diverse spectrum who tell a unique story from behind her lens, and these stories and vibrant personalities, particularly ones full of passion, acceptance, and loyalty, are the first aspects of a person to be apprehended by Riley. This uniqueness is captured by her technically when she makes sure that her photos are not overexposed so that she may not lose the tiniest details present in each image that she encapsulates and when she shifts to reproduce each moment from multiple angles. Just like her favorite photographer Stephen McCurry, who magically captured both the famous portrait of the “Afghan Girl” as well as many precise and wonderful landscapes, Riley strives to reproduce the entirety of a life in one photo—using her skill to include the entirety of her subjects’ personalities and drive as well as their contexts.

In a corresponding realm of technical skill for Riley, her study of other people in historical and archaeological contexts is likewise fueled by her interest in the passionate nature of others. As Riley states, “without passion, life can be pretty dull,” and she brings this sense of vitality not only to the stationary moments in time that she captures but also to all those, living and dead, whom she studies. For this photographer, passion is an art which crosses all disciplines—it is the core of being alive and striving towards things beyond oneself, and this passion is, for Riley, itself a form of art, whether that passion is found in the traditional arts or in less obviously artistic fields such as math and science. As the IMPERO team has seen, it is this encouragement and appreciation of passion that Riley brings to our excavations and day-to-day lives, and she loves to photograph the team in their element. Beyond the humanity of the project, however, this student’s understanding of her photography as an art form maps onto her understanding of the lifecycle of artifacts both found raw under the ground during excavations as well as finished, polished, and restored products in museums. For her, the procedure and effort behind every photo is just as much a part of the creative process as editing; yet, the photo is not in its final form until it is edited and thus truly revealed. At our site and with people in general, Riley enjoys the idea of capturing “before and after” shots to see how far we have come and to witness the ever-changing lives of others. Apart from people, her most beautiful revelations of breathtaking moments were when she camped at Joshua Tree in Southern California under a sky of lightning and sunset and when she witnessed the famed eclipse in Oregon. At Monteverdi, she is captivated by the sunset and sky, but she has not yet captured it—as Riley has come to learn, sometimes soaking in these moments of being surrounded by beautiful things and people is the most important thing of all.

Text and photo by: Elisabeth Woldeyohannes