Arts & Culture 

Revelations from the field

Studying photography through NAU’s Honors College brought Claire Sipos to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and gave her the opportunity to push her own boundaries.

Unexpected challenges can bring great opportunity. Ask alumna Claire Sipos, who graduated from NAU’s Honors College in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Photography. During her program, Claire had the opportunity to do fieldwork at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as part of the Canyon Country Aesthetics program. It didn’t start exactly the way she had hoped.

“The second and third day in the trip, I had a cold or the flu, or something,” she said. “I remember being so hot. We would go in the water and get our shirts wet just to cool ourselves.”

Distracting at best, and debilitating at worst, the hardships of the trip led Claire to see discomfort as a welcome teacher.

“You have to go to this place where you compartmentalize and focus,” she said. “Why am I here? What am I learning?”

For Claire, those answers came through the enormity of the landscape. Open and wide, it held space that could evade capture even from a week’s worth of photographs.

Claire seeks to raise consciousness about human impacts in the area: “It’s not just taking pretty pictures, for the sake of pretty pictures, but it’s what are you trying to say? The species that typically live there are dying off and going extinct,” she said. “There’s an undeniable feeling that comes with being outside. Creating art in nature takes it another step further. You’re connected to something greater. There’s a lot to be gained that you can’t get looking at that photo or learning about a place. It hits differently when you’re actually spending time in that area. Engaging with it.”

Things really changed for Claire when she joined a group that boated up to Glen Canyon Dam. Outside of photographs, this was her first time seeing the dam, and the sight presented a discomfort of another sort. She found it impossible to ignore. “Looking at this giant concrete plug we put in the river that has created a massive lake and completely changed the ecology and biodiversity downstream, it’s just undeniable,” she said. “You can see exactly how that changed everything about the environment we were spending time in.”

The more time she spent in the field, the more she saw the impacts of the dam. She saw it in water levels that fell and rose with the dam’s hydroelectric generation and in the strangely cold water released from the bottom of Lake Powell. By the end of the trip, she felt closer, more connected to her environment.

“Waking up in the same place taking photos, you get to know an area very intimately,” she said. “I could draw a photo of that area. I know exactly where the reeds are and how the light hits in the morning.”

Her first trip with the Canyon Aesthetics course was not her last. Through it she developed a relationship with Dawn Kish, the course professor, and returned to the canyon bottom as an assistant leader. Their relationship continued to grow. Dawn offered Claire an internship, which immersed Claire in the busy life of her professor, a National Geographic photographer, and engaged her with a rich, hands-on educational experience.

“Getting to see it in action is completely different than talking about the hypothetical,” she said. “The opportunity to work with real clients and watch the process from start to finish is invaluable.”

Through her internship, Claire lined up a job. But the COVID pandemic that broke around the time of her graduation shattered that opportunity. Like that of so many others, Claire’s career stalled, and she drifted for a while. Then came realization.

“I decided I needed to start my own business. That had been my goal throughout school. I knew I was going to try and do it at some point,” she said.

Determined, Claire stood on a foundation of solid education developed through good mentors and plenty of time in the field. She built Suppose Studios, a photography and visual design provider.

As she traces her trajectory back through her opportunities, Claire reflects on her experience: “I was really lucky. I wouldn’t have been able to go on any of those trips had it not been for the Honors College.”

Of course, she didn’t feel lucky when she was running a fever in 100-degree heat, but she found—in hindsight—that opportunity can arise from uncomfortable situations. If Claire learned one thing from the field, it’s that discomfort should not be a deterrent.

“Seek out opportunities,” she said when asked what advice she’d give to incoming students. “There are a plethora of opportunities through NAU that will completely transform somebody’s college experience.”