Vashon Jordan Knows How to Photograph and Inspire
By Deborah Siegel-Acevedo
Vashon Jordan Jr. is all about photography. But he’s also about much more.
On Friday, April 8, the 22-year-old visual artist spoke to a group of Student Fellows tasked with documenting the inaugural three new courses created by HumanitiesX, DePaul University’s experiential humanities collaborative. Only one of the six Fellows had experience in photography. The rest were novices. The students entered the classroom tentatively; they left confident and inspired.
A natural mentor, Jordan enjoys engaging with young people across the city to encourage them to follow their dreams. Said political science major Yessica Pineda, “As someone who has studied photography, the workshop not only expanded my knowledge of photography but motivated me to believe that I’m also capable of pursuing professional photography post-grad.”
When asked what inspired her most, Pineda pointed to Jordan’s journey. “Being a person of color who grew up in the South Side as well, I found it inspiring how Vashon battled against systemic barriers and constantly adapted to the opportunities that presented themselves to him which led him to the success that he holds today at such a young age. Vashon’s success motivated me to believe that I could one day reach a similar success.”
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Jordan learned, in his words, to “value the moment to frame compositions and catch action.” He used disposable cameras while in elementary school, already cognizant of how a camera allowed him to participate in events and emotionally process experiences.
Determined to “be the change you want to see,” in high school, with a better camera, he voluntarily covered parades around the city and built an audience on social media. He became the first photography student intern for the Chicago Public Schools.
Traveling by public transportation from his West Pullman home to the CPS office in the Loop, he regularly witnessed the disparities between the neighborhoods and the sparkling downtown. After graduating from Columbia College in May 2021 in television production and directing, Jordan joined the Chicago Tribune as a photojournalism intern.
That same year, Jordan documented many of the city’s racial justice protests, which he then collected in his first book of photos, Chicago Protests: A Joyful Revolution. Some of his photos are now on exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. Jordan currently works as the Staff Photographer at JB for Governor, which is Governor Pritzker’s re-election campaign.
This was Vashon’s second visit to work with HumanitiesX; in 2020, he met with students from the DePaul Documentary Corps to share work from his Chicago Protests book.
“One of the most powerful messages that Vashon conveyed is how the technique of photography can create a very distinctive message for viewers,” said Sergio Godinez, a sophomore majoring in American Studies.
The one HumanitiesX Faculty Fellow in attendance, ethicist Yuki Miyamoto, co-creator of the course Geographies of Displacement: Migration and Immigration in Atomic-Age Art, was struck by what she learned. “I analyze narratives, their purposes and social impacts. I tend to ‘interpret’ photos to see what people in the photo wear, how they look at the camera, and so on. I never thought of a photo’s angles, lights, or focus — and they make a big difference! The session taught me a different way to appreciate (and ‘read’) photos.”
Jordan uses photography and videography to showcase authentic stories and moments that reflect the people of Chicago. The students seek to showcase similarly authentic stories and moments that reflect the courses they are helping the faculty and their community partners to run. On May 13, Jordan will return to critique some of the photos the Student Fellows have taken and offer his advice.
Sometimes, Jordan’s advice reads as equal parts photography lesson and life lesson: “Focus on who you’re centering,” Jordan told the group in April. “Get eye-level shots.” And above all, he said, be intentional. “Think ahead about the one shot that you really one to capture, the one that represents.”
Deborah Siegel-Acevedo PhD coordinates HumanitiesX.