Photographer Jaina Cipriano’s Space for Self-Expression

jaina cipriano

Jaina Cipriano is making magic (and a little bit of a mess) in her Cambridge apartment.

It’s tough to define Jaina Cipriano’s “Immersion,” but here’s the gist: Last summer, she started hosting and photographing women-only gatherings—she describes them as “three-dimensional, immersive photo shoots”—out of her home. The idea was to make a place where people could really let loose without feeling pressured to act a certain way; all the fun of a night on the town, without the anxiety and stress that can accompany one.

The nights have gotten bigger and messier—think paint, balloons, streamers and sparklers—but they’re still a safe (and sober) space for self-expression. We asked Cipriano to tell us about building a community through photography and why selfie culture actually rules.

Scout Cambridge: The phrasing you use to describe this project is a little vague. Is that intentional? Can you tell us a little more about what Immersion is?

Jaina Cipriano: It is kind of intentionally vague; I’m trying to give it space to let it grow into whatever it wants to grow into rather than putting a box around it. At first I was saying it was a space for women, but now—how did I put it?—it’s for non-normally-gendered humans. It started as a way for me to connect with a lot of people in my life who I knew had a lot of social anxiety, because there are a lot of people who I wanted to see or who wanted to see me, and I could feel a lot of this anxiety around us seeing each other. So I was like, “Why don’t I take this into my own hands? I’ll create a night that carries itself, so nobody has to feel stressed about how they’re portraying themselves or what they’re bringing to the scene.”

It was such a big hit, and it was so much fun for me, because I’m used to being more passive and being behind the camera. Making a space—delving into a different type of art, really working with my hands and creating—was so cool for me. It was such a big success that I reached out beyond my circle of friends, and now it’s getting quite large for my small apartment, actually.

jaina cipriano

SC: Do you like that about it?

JC: I’m not sure if I like that or not! It’s also a sober space, which is really important to me for a lot of different reasons, but that’s a difficult thing to enforce as things start becoming less intimate and bigger. It’s hard to create a space of we’re making a mess, we’re letting loose, we’re having a party, but not having substances involved because that’s not productive in this environment right now.

SC: Where did the idea come from?

JC: I’ve always had a flair for big parties, ever since I was a kid. I would decorate my little-kid birthdays to the extreme—balloons, streamers—even my mom would be exhausted. I’ve tried to create that kind of atmosphere, an atmosphere that’s almost childlike but still adult. And very messy. One of the last parties I threw I actually filled my entire apartment with balloons. If we’re going to make a little bit of a mess, it might as well be a huge mess. I really like that feeling of being surrounded by whatever thing I’m going to create a mess with.

SC: What’s been most rewarding for you about Immersion?

JC: It’s become a place where people can network, actually. I can watch photographers who are younger than me and less experienced than me grow in their work, and I love watching that. I love being able to support people who are in that stage—a place where I used to be.

jaina cipriano

Photography can be such a man’s world, a place where if you don’t know all the technicalities of your camera you get laughed at. That used to happen to me all the time. There’s an idea that if you’re not technically perfect then nothing you do matters, and I don’t think that’s true at all. It’s okay to not know what your camera’s doing; just have fun and explore.

I also think it’s really important for women to see themselves. I know it’s important for me; I do a lot of self-portraiture to help me through things. There’s a lot of stigma around “selfie culture,” as if it’s vain to see yourself looking good or see yourself not from the vantage point of your eyes looking down. Which is a weird way to see yourself! To see photos of yourself in an environment where things seem kind of magical and out of the ordinary, I feel like that can be a really beautiful thing for a woman. To be like, “Wow, I look beautiful, I look happy. That’s who I am, that’s what I look like.”

SC: It’s striking to me, looking at these photos, how that happiness seems really natural. But also, all the emotions seem genuine; there’s a great shot of a woman surrounded by balloons looking totally uncertain, and you get a sense that during Immersion people feel comfortable just being themselves.

JC: It’s funny, there are people I’ve tried to get to come to several of them, and finally they’ll come and be like, “Oh, it wasn’t anything like I expected at all. I expected to feel so stressed and out of my element, but I could kind of do whatever it is that I wanted to do.”

That’s the point: It’s supposed to be, in a gentle and vague way, a therapeutic space for people to feel how they’re feeling. I feel like so often when you go to a big event or a party, there’s a pressure to be something or to feel something or to experience the night a certain way. I don’t want that.

This story originally appeared in the March/April issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 250 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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