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Proms do mark a milestone in a teenager’s life. As such, they probably have served as a springboard for many marriage proposals and first sexual experiences.

-Alisa Booze Troetschel

Harriette Ellison. Senior Prom. SaturdaySIN/GIN: Would it be fair for me to compare ‘prom’ to initiation ceremonies all over the world? A transformative moment in the psyche of the young American man and woman? The moment may be real, symbolic, even fantastical, think of Cinderella, poor and worked to the bone becomes a princess on prom night. What exactly do you become after prom night? And what do you become after senior prom night?

Alisa: The prom is a highlight of American high school life. I envision the dances magical, fun and exciting. Having no date, I didn’t go to my own.

But, several years later, my husband at the time worked with a boy who was in the same boat. He really wanted to experience his prom, so I filled in as his date.

While it was fun getting dressed up, there was no returning to high school that night. I knew no one, and found a definite difference in levels of maturity at 24 and 17 years old.

Proms do mark a milestone in a teenager’s life. As such, they probably have served as a springboard for many marriage proposals and first sexual experiences.

It’s possible that some folks at this dance for older people socially extended themselves that afternoon, or enjoyed a liberating break from caregiving to an infirm spouse. There could be as many stories as there were people there.

I saw the woman I photographed simply having a wonderful time. She was a widow, lived in a comfortable home near family, and led an active life.

SIN/GIN: On my morning run, I jog past one nursing home after another. I live in a neighborhood where at 38 I look to be as vibrant as an adolescent. At school my students burst out laughing when I try to explain that Madonna is famous…yeah like 100 years ago professor. Age is such a shifting identity marker. Your photographs capture the build up to senior prom: an elaborate and professional do up, first dance, shoes off. What emotions about age and aging did you encounter in your relationship with Aging Together?

Alisa: Aging Together is about networking communities, service organizations and businesses to meet the needs of the elders in communities. As the name implies, it is about integration as opposed to isolation. The group lifts up seniors by encouraging them to live life to its fullest. And, in training caregivers, and providing support groups, it offers compassion and empathy for their struggles.

Getting old can be hard, especially if you don’t have resources of transportation and support for your physical needs. But it can also be a vibrant time of life where you can share the wisdom and talents you’ve grown over the years.

SIN/GIN: This summer National Geographic celebrated women photographers. What are you? A woman photographer? A photographer? Do you join in the celebration of women photographers?

Alisa: First and foremost, I am a photojournalist. Being a woman behind the camera rarely crosses my mind.

 In male-dominated environments, like at a construction site, while I wonder how the men will relate to me, I conduct myself as a photographer, not as a woman.

 My gender has worked to my advantage in some situations, like in having access to brides’ dressing rooms and receiving trust to photograph children in public scenarios. I suspect that people are more likely to be open to a woman with a camera than a man.

 It’s wonderful to celebrate the achievements and contributions of photojournalists, women and men. Women have grown tremendously in the profession since Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange and Dickey Chappelle did their ground-breaking work. We share what is happening in small towns, battlegrounds, prisons, slums and the White House.

 I am a member of the Women Photojournalists of Washington (WPOW). We are a supportive group that nurtures creativity and careers.

 SIN/GIN: We were 7 years younger when we first met in Utrecht. At our/your age what have you learned and unlearned in the past decade about yourself.

 Alisa: Apparently I communicate friendliness and warmth to others, in such a way that allows them to relax and be open to me making pictures of them.

 I am a strong extrovert. In the past several years, I have moved from enjoying solitude, to wanting to be with people more, back to acceptance, if not enjoyment, of more time alone.

 I discovered that I can write. The Richmond Free Press, for which I freelanced soon after I switched careers from the IT world to journalism, published my first article in 2000. But I had little interest in writing until I took courses in grad school. Now I’m grateful that I can communicate with pictures and words.

SIN/GIN: I remember the 2009 inauguration. I was living in at the Thompson Markwood Home, a home for young women on Capitol Hill. It was cold, and I would not be moved. But you came down from Virginia and camped on a cot in my little cubicle, and you disappeared into that freezing winter day with your camera, looking for and finding American hopers, dreamers and believers. I watched you go, and I knew that no amount of winter layering would keep you warm. Tell me something special about your photography that day.

Alisa: Oh, the cold air was intense. I especially remember how it spread from the hard ground through the soles of my shoes and socks to my feet.

Two women comprise my treasure of the day that Barack Obama became President of the United States. One is black, older, and made her home in Texas, in the southern part of the U.S. The other is younger, white, and came from the northern Midwest – Illinois, Ohio or Wisconsin. Of different generations, races, and parts of the country, they met that day on the Washington Mall, the day that each had traveled hundreds of miles to witness.

In my photograph, the two women stand shoulder to shoulder, with their hands together below their chins in prayerful positions. They gaze in the direction of the podium from which Obama speaks. Tears fill the eyes of the younger woman. Her face expresses hope. Below her dark sunglasses, the older woman’s cheeks shine from crying.

I wish the world could join in finding common ground as those two women did that day.

 SIN/GIN: How have you and your lens been accommodated by communities that were separate from you on racial, ethnic, sex and gender grounds?

Alisa: I have had challenges because I am a woman. The most significant one I’ve faced occurred in developing a story in Holland centered in a community of Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, With the leaders’ permission, I inserted myself into a community center environment of a few men and lots of boys. Some boys, I think, viewed my presence as an intrusion and felt that I did not belong there. They expressed their feelings through rudeness, disrespect and sexual insinuations. It took time and persistence to get that story

During this project, American soldiers carried out military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, Many of my subjects, especially Moroccan boys, felt solidarity with the Iraqis and Afghanis. While I was a foreigner to them in many ways, this state of affairs widened the distance between us.

Because I am an American, I was unable to get access to photograph in one situation in the Netherlands. A teenaged Moroccan girl who wore jeans and a blazer, played soccer with boys, and planned to be a doctor — all anomalous behaviors in this community – intrigued me. Her mother, who wore a hijab and a loose ankle-length dress, was afraid for her daughter’s safety. She told me that George W. Bush might see the photograph and come get the girl.

The Lithuanian pagans welcomed me to photograph and write about them. The group, the Romuva, resulted from a resurgence of centuries-old beliefs. They incorporated traditional songs and dances into their worship, which was influencing the development of Lithuanian national identity.

SIN/GIN: The January 2009 issue of News Photographer magazine featured your cover story about shooting for charities and NGOs as a career-building and portfolio-expanding exercise, as well as nurturing the photographer’s soul while also building some new business. What do words like ‘recognition’ mean when you are working with NGOs?

Alisa: Valuing the outcome of my work is critical to feeling rewarded from my efforts. Promoting peace, and building the world community, brings me deep satisfaction. Generally speaking, this is the mission of many NGOs.

I am developing a business, One Boat Media, to provide photography, writing, and eventually videography, to humanitarian and environmental nonprofits.

SIN/GIN:  My impression is that your photographs are community, even family oriented. Is this a fair characterization?

Alisa: I photograph for a locally focused newspaper, and cover a lot of events held in small towns and rural areas. Pictures made on these assignments may be the family and community-centered images you remember.

SIN/GIN: You are the first young person I’ve ever met with a hearing disability. To this day, I find it difficult to acknowledge this anomaly: to ask if you can handle a phone conversation, if I should speak more clearly or louder, if I should pick a quieter restaurant, or alert others about it. How has your disability impacted your relationships with your subjects and your work? How has it shaped the assignments/images/stories you are drawn to?

Alisa: My habit is to show my photography subjects how I’ve written their names in my notebooks, to get verification that I’ve heard the spelling correctly.

As a former newspaper reporter, I wrote less than robust, and even inaccurate stories because I could not hear well enough. Now I wear better hearing aids.

 On many occasions, I have sat with other journalists in noisy restaurants, where it’s been difficult to almost impossible to get to know them. WPOW hosts monthly networking get-togethers at bars. One reason I don’t attend is that I expect having a conversation to be difficult.

My hearing difficulty has not significantly shaped the stories that pique my interest. I can only recall one story where it may have had an influence. While I interned at the Kalamazoo Gazette, I became interested in how blind people learn to use canes. My editor encouraged me to pursue an in-depth story. There is a training center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Their staff, and one of the residents, agreed to work with me. Unfortunately, the student left the center before she finished her training.