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Photography by Sharon Panackal

January, 2013

Sharon Panackal, IEC Exchange Visitor of the Month, 2013

In November of last year, the International Exchange Center began publicizing our Annual Photo Contest. We received an email from Sharon Panackal:

“I am attaching the photograph with this email, and below is the caption I have written about the photograph...
On the day after the completion of my internship at Starbucks, and the day before I was to leave Seattle for India, I stood on the bridge I-90 under the blazing summer sun, marveling at the Blue Angels flying in breathtaking formations. While the Thunderbirds were proving what can be achieved with unity and effort, I took this photograph with my jaws literally dropping, realizing that it was one of the most amazing sights I would ever experience in my life. During the two months I spent in Seattle, I lucked into many first time situations ranging from cooking to hiking on snow; and, watching the Blue Angels fly in various patterns that day was an incredible windup to all those new experiences.”

I recently had the chance to speak with Sharon about the photo and about her time spent interning in Seattle, Washington at the Starbucks Corporation headquarters. During our conversation, we talked about her emerging passion for photography, her love of fish and chips, and following her dreams.

I love your picture, especially your description about what was taking place at the time you shot the photo. Can you talk a little bit about how that photo capped off your experience in the US?

Me and my friend were leaving the next day. We had our own little adventures that ranged from cooking, hiking on the snow for the first time to getting lost in Seattle. Watching the Blue Angels’ adventurous flight was a wind up to all those personal adventures.

What was your reaction when you learned that your photo won the contest?

It meant a lot to me. For me, to win this contest is like finding out that I am on the right track. Once I went to Starbucks, I met many people in the creative studio. I spent one day every week with creative studio team members. They knew I liked photography, so they took me out to the Olympic Sculpture park in Seattle, encouraged me to take photos, and gave me feedback. They told me that I could get a Master’s [degree] in photography. I hadn’t considered that option until then, although I was passionate about photography.

This is really rare in my country. The idea of a professional photographer for common people is that of someone who has a studio and takes photos for marriages and other such functions. People do no think about the wide possibilities of photography such as photojournalism, landscape or travel photography.

What did people back home think of your idea to pursue a Master’s in photography?

When I first told my family, they didn’t like the idea. I think my mother still doesn’t like the idea, but my father is kind of supportive. In my society, almost all parents want their kids to be engineers or doctors. Becoming a photographer is really rare. There were 44 students in my high school [graduating] class, and out of those 44, four of them study in my university. The other 40 stayed in India, and we [four] went to Bangladesh. Only those four are not taking either medicine or engineering... Engineering is kind of a status issue.

How has it been to return to Bangladesh from Seattle?

I think the biggest difference it [living in Seattle] made for me was to encourage me to smile at strangers. In India and Bangladesh, in both countries we don’t smile at people you don’t know. In the US people would approach [us] and were very friendly.

Other than noticing Americans’ friendliness, how else did your impressions of the US change while you were there?

This was my second time in the United States. I spent one month in Stanford University in 2011. When we hear of the United States we think of tall buildings; busy people living a busy life. But there is such greenery! People took time to talk to [us] and hear about [our] experiences.

Were most people you met familiar with Bangladesh?

I don’t think they particularly knew about Bangladesh. Maybe that‘s why everyone we met were eager to know about our experiences here.

Now that you’ve completed your program, what advice would you give to new J-1s?

I would ask them to travel around even if they are alone. There might be times they would get lost, but having GPS and people to talk to are helpful. Walk around the city and understand how helpful people can be. There were times we were completely lost and there were people there to help us. It was fun for me; we could just go around and ask anyone about the place and then we would find our way.

The exposure that I had to that city and Western notions… enriched me to take the path I am taking. People where I am from usually listen to parents and relatives and become what their relatives want them to become.
I don’t want to become a person just to fulfill the expectations of my society. I want to live my life according to my wish. The courage that I have to take decisions for myself comes from Western notions and professors that I have at university. Most students at my university want to be independent and do things the way they want to do them, according to their wish. Once they are out of university it is hard to follow their dreams, but I hope everyone will.

Before I submitted the photo, I went around asking friends from university, and partners from Starbucks [to give their opinions]. It’s not like you are just sending [without giving the photo much thought]. It felt like the first step I was taking towards what I really want to do with my life.

What was your most memorable experience from your time in the US? What do you miss?

The food! Fish and Chips! We were planning to go eat fish and chips before we left, but we were too busy. I really miss the food. My friends say, “It’s good to leave something in a city that would encourage us to go back.”

So, do you have plans to go back to the US?

I am not a person who usually plans for things. Whatever comes my way I just grab the opportunity. If I get an opportunity I will go back.