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Turning a lens on the world

Emma LeBlanc

At a time of year when many seniors are getting ready to graduate, Emma LeBlanc is far away from end-of-the-year parties with friends and the annual march through Van
Wickle Gates.

LeBlanc, who enrolled with the class of 2010 but now expects to graduate in 2011, is currently in Syria working on a photo essay for Makoto Photographic Agency — a photo agency she co-founded during a year-long leave of absence from Brown after the first semester of her sophomore year.

The agency is dedicated to covering stories that "get cursory treatment or are ignored entirely in the urgency of the 24-hour news cycle" and features the work of photojournalists who, its website proclaims, have an "unfailing commitment to people, places and causes."

That's a description that fits LeBlanc well. Many of her pictures are stark portraits of people staring directly and intensely into her camera. There is an intimacy to the pictures, even though they are often positioned next to articles about large issues facing the
Middle East.

A sociology concentrator, LeBlanc entered Brown in the fall of 2006, never imagining that a year later she would have photographs displayed in galleries and published in high-profile magazines while she lived in the Middle East.

The summer after her freshman year, Leblanc traveled with a friend from Brown to Damascus, Syria to study Arabic. She returned to Brown that fall, but she had loved her travels too much to stay long. After spending another semester at Brown, she decided to return to the Middle East — this time for an entire year.

"I just hadn't had enough of Syria, so I decided to take some time off," LeBlanc wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "I wasn't even exactly sure what I was going to do there. I just knew that it wasn't time for me to go back to a classroom."

During her time away from College Hill, LeBlanc studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and in Amman, Jordan. LeBlanc also worked as a volunteer in an asylum in Damascus where she got her first taste of journalism, recording the oral histories of its residents.

Her interest in photography developed when she spent a few months in Iraq as a freelance photojournalist for publications including GQ and Le Monde. Success led her to found Makoto, and her work has since been exhibited in galleries in the United States and in the Middle East.

For LeBlanc, these experiences kept her immersed in a very different world, far removed from her ties to Brown. "I never really kept in touch with friends at Brown while I was away," she wrote, noting that many of her friends were also studying or working abroad at the same time. "There was an unspoken understanding between us that these experiences were too important to e-mail, Facebook or Skype."

For LeBlanc, the return to Brown was difficult. It was "strange to come back and realize that you may have changed, you may have new ideas and understandings and aspirations, but Brown hasn't changed," she wrote. "It's the same parties, the same classes, the same meals at the Ratty, but it's no longer very satisfying."

Still, as she completes her final two papers of the semester from an ocean away, LeBlanc does wish she was graduating with her classmates this spring. "I'm ready to go back into the real world, off of College Hill, to resume all the things I began during my leave of absence," she wrote.

"Taking time off was the best decision I've made at Brown."


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