Alumni Success: Shaun Pierson ‘19 Talks MFA Candidate at Yale and Personal Photography Projects

Shaun Pierson in front of a mirror with his camera.

Shaun Pierson (he/him) is a Rowan University 2019 graduate who majored in Radio/TV/Film. He currently lives in New Haven, Connecticut, but during his time at Rowan, lived on campus as an RA. His work has been featured at the Midwest Center for Photography, the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art, the Foley Gallery (NYC), Vogue Italia, I-D Vice, and New York Times Magazine. He is currently pursuing an MFA Candidate at Yale University while also maintaining a focus on his personal work. 

Why did you choose to major in Radio/TV/Film?

I grew up — and I know everyone says this — but I grew up with such a deep love of film and a deep love of movies that extended far beyond entertainment value. I grew up very unsupervised, and so I spent a lot of time alone and I spent a lot of time sort of living vicariously through films because I didn’t really go anywhere, my family didn’t have much money to travel, so I sort of looked at film as a sort of passport.

I wanted to be an actor when I was younger, but I had really horrific performance anxiety, and you can’t be an actor if you’re shaking before you even get up in front of anybody. So around high school I really started to look behind the camera, and just really fell in love with the idea of filmmaking. So when it came time to choose a program, for tuition sake and being close to home and a great school, I looked into the program and it seemed at the time to be everything I wanted from a college program.

It seemed a really great opportunity to make work and connect with an incredible community of like-minded and ambitious students. I never really experienced that until college, people who were equally as ambitious and equally as creative and just so in love with film and the idea of making things.

Shaun Pierson outside in the snow.

Can you summarize your journey after college and up to your current role?

A few days before I graduated, I managed to secure this job in Manhattan as a legal assistant for an entertainment attorney — mostly because I really, really wanted to get out of New Jersey and I had always romanticized New York and just wanted to see what it would be like to live there. So I moved to New York right after the graduation ceremony, and I started work the next day. It was so jarring, because I didn’t have any time to relax, I didn’t have any time to sort of try to figure things out for myself. I was thrown into this job that was really interesting, and I’m not in love with the legal profession at all. I really don’t care about that side of the entertainment industry, but it really taught me a lot that I didn’t expect. Like things as simple as multitasking, which I was so awful with before, and just working under pressure and interacting with various groups of people. The social part of it was really important, just interacting with people on a professional level. It’s very fast-paced, so you are constantly working under pressure, but I really benefited from it.

I worked there through the pandemic; we went remote in March 2020, like everyone else did. And when we went remote, I realized I didn’t really have to stay in New York anymore and have to pay $1200 a month for a room in an apartment, so why don’t I go hop around for a bit? So I decided to Airbnb around. I went to upstate New York, which was beautiful, I went back to New Jersey for a while, I went to the Pennsylvania countryside for a bit, and then after I got into Yale, I went to Cleveland, Ohio for six months and just started making work. Because I had only photographed my family for so long that I didn’t really have that experience of photographing anyone else, so I just decided to only photograph people that I wasn’t familiar with when I was in Ohio.

How did Rowan prepare you for your career path? 

So I had two professors at Rowan, who I would say were absolutely instrumental in my career, and that’s Jenny Drumgoole and Danna Singer. I took my first ever photography class with Danna Singer, and she had just graduated from the Yale MFA program just a few months before, and so Rowan was her first teaching position. We just instantly connected, we both come from similar backgrounds. We both have a complicated relationship to home and we just kind of bonded over that, and she taught me so much and told me that I didn’t need permission to call myself a photographer and that I was already making exciting work. I was free to make whatever work I wanted to make, and that was so liberating to me.

They both prepared me as much as they could for my life after undergrad, and were so instrumental in giving me the confidence to apply to Yale. They were able to look at my work and give me feedback even after I graduated, which was so valuable to me. They’re gems.

The shadows making shadow puppets of two people on a wall.
Photograph from Pierson’s collection “Alvine Road”

What was it like shooting for New York Times Magazine? How did it compare to your other projects? How did that opportunity come about?

The opportunity came about because Kathy Ryan, the director of photography at New York Times Magazine, who is such an incredible person and champion of young and emerging photographers especially, reached out to me one night over email. She said that she loved my work and asked for a studio visit, so I emailed her back and told her I’d love to do that the next day over Zoom — because [at the time] they’re still operating very much over Zoom. And so I had a meeting with her and the deputy director, Jessica Dimson, and I basically just talked to them both for an hour and led them through my process and my work. It was such an incredible experience and they were so easy to talk to, and it just felt like this really easy going back and forth conversation, and it felt so organic. And then about two days later, Kathy called me and told me about this story that would take place over the course of a month and a half. Yes, I was approaching finals week at the time, but I had wanted to shoot for New York Times magazine for so long, so it really felt like the perfect story for my first assignment.

I was sort of going into people’s homes and photographing strangers, sort of the way I work in my personal work. The experience of photographing for them was really wonderful because they give you a lot of freedom, they’re very trusting because they hired you for your vision and they want to see how you see things. They don’t exercise so much control that you feel stifled or creatively suffocated. Even though it was stressful because I was in the final weeks of my spring semester and focusing on my personal work, which is paramount to everything else, I was really caring about that assignment and making the best possible pictures. I would love to do it again. 

Seven people in a shared living area, photographed for New York Times magazine.
The New York Times Magazine, 2022 “Their Solution to the Housing Crisis? Living with Strangers”

Can you tell me more about being an MFA Candidate at Yale?

It’s a two year program, it’s really intense, and you have complete freedom to make and do whatever you want, which is really incredible and something that I’ve never had the time or space to do with my own work before. It’s really a massive privilege and the program is so intense because we have critiques every six weeks where we have to bring in a completely new body of work—pictures, video, whatever you’re working on or thinking about at that time. 

So you’ll sit in front of your work, which is on the wall behind you and you’re in front of this esteemed panel of artists and writers and curators and your classmates—there are like twenty people in the program total between the first and second years—and everyone just kind of has at it. Your private life is completely out there for people to dissect. It can be brutal, but I think it’s truly the greatest thing about being here; you’re never going to have people look at and talk about your work in the same way out in the real world. Especially the people that are on the panel. I love critics, I think they’re so amazing. It can completely transform the way you talk about not only your own work, but other people’s work as well. 

It’s a really tight-knit group of artists that I feel like you’re hard pressed to find anywhere else. The program itself has twenty people total, but the School of Art has a painting/printmaking program, a graphic design program, a sculpture program—so you really do have access to this larger community of artists that I think is really important. I’ve learned so much about other people’s practices throughout this year.

What do you want your audience to take away from your work?

I’m hoping it reveals something about themselves when they look at my work. I’m hoping that they can project their own personal histories and their own baggage and interests and passions and fears onto the picture. I feel like most people do that when looking at a piece of art, but I think that I want people to feel a bit uneasy and maybe a bit disgusted. A lot of my newer work is about the transactional nature of photography, and how we sort of use people to get what we want. I think it’s so interesting how photography can be so deceiving as a medium and I’m really interested in playing more with that. No matter what the picture means to me, it’s never going to mean the same thing for someone else. People from different backgrounds, different lived experiences, looking at this stuff—it’s never going to fully translate the same. 

What direction do you want your career to take moving forward? 

I would really like to continue with a focus on my personal work, of course, and just try to tie together these different narratives I’m interested in, and see how everything fits together. I feel like especially when you’re in grad school, you’re so focused on making so much that you don’t really have time to think too much about it while you’re making it, so a lot of the work only seems to come together in hindsight, which is really interesting, because you’re at a loss for words trying to describe it in the moment. I think I really want to just continue making as much work as I possibly can, and just try as many different modes of working as possible. I’m never fully expecting to get to the root of it all or to arrive at something, and I don’t think that’s the point. Because if I did figure everything out, then there would be nothing to discover. 

What would you like to see in the future at Rowan?

I feel like Rowan could do more to promote inclusion and diversity. There simply aren’t enough resources or support that are being offered for queer students and students of color. I feel like there should be more institutional support for these programs. And I also think they could do a lot more to support the arts and give a lot more money to the arts. I feel so, so passionately about that, because the arts are completely underfunded. A lot of students and faculty suffer because of this, because they’re trying to create nurturing and safe environments that thrive on creativity, but there’s no money to do anything. Art is so undervalued, and everybody knows it. 

What advice would you give to incoming Rowan first-year or transfer students?

It’s tough because it’s so overwhelming, coming into any program for the first time. But I would say try to forge genuine connections with people. I get that there’s this idea of networking, and how important that is to someone’s career, but if it’s not genuine then it’s kind of baseless. 

Work really, really hard. Even if it’s something as small as a group project, it’s actually so important in the long run—not the outcome of the project, but the experience of making it and being a team player. 

Follow your own path and never look for someone’s permission to do something, just make whatever you want to make. Even if it’s really terrible, you have to work through the terrible stuff to get to the good stuff. You just have to make a lot of terrible things to get to something remotely good, but it’s worth it. 

Like what you see?


Story by:
Skyla Everwine, senior English and writing arts major

Select photos courtesy of:
Shaun Pierson

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