Freshmen Design Students Photograph “Stuff in a Box”

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A few weeks ago as part of their Photography class, freshman design students from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design were given a sealed box with a random object and asked to make interesting photographs using it. The project, dubbed “Stuff in a Box,” was assigned by Associate Professor Dylan Vitone.


Baby Powder by Grace Li

“The idea of the project is to get students out of their comfort-zones and thinking creatively to make visually interesting images and engaging stories,” said Associate Professor Dylan Vitone who teaches the Photography course. 

Normally, this project would take students and their objects across campus, their dorms, their studios and out into the greater Pittsburgh area, but then the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic struck a week after they were handed their objects for this project.

“As coronavirus hit, the student body quickly packed up all their personal belongings and headed home (or the places that would function as home for the time being),” said Vitone. “The dedicated design students crammed those objects into their luggage and brought them back to their homes around the world. As they unzipped their suitcases to start bringing order to their jarringly disrupted lives, they found themselves in a new reality. 

“This project became a sampling of those students trying to negotiate this new reality.”


Hand Sanitizer by Tate Johnson

“My first object was a gasoline carton, but I never got the chance to take pictures of it because I had to leave it at school,” said Alison Hu. “Instead, I chose blue medical gloves as my object from my room during my self-quarantine. A big part of this decision for my object came from its relevance to the ongoing events in the world and the rapidly shifting nature of the outbreak. On top of the conflict and struggles on the medical front, these gloves also reflect the deprivation of human contact in isolation. With photos that capture the physical and emotional wear of the situation, I hope that people can understand the value of human connection and the challenge of supporting each other in the face of hard times.” 


Rubber Gloves by Alison Hu

“I got hand sanitizer spray the Tuesday before Spring Break started, which is a pretty crazy coincidence considering the current state of things,” said Tate Johnson. “I joked with my classmates (who were getting KFC sandwiches, LaCroix, Elsa piggy banks, safety cones, etc.) that I had the most valuable object from the group, but this was before the scare and price gouging for cleaning and wellness supplies. I realize now that my comments then were scarily prophetic.”

Johnson’s original plan was to take the pictures in Pittsburgh after he returned from Spring Break and had considered a coronavirus-related concept, but he ended up quarantined in downtown Boston.


Caution Tape by Daniel Zhu

“I was inspired by the dismal emptiness of the usually busy downtown, using the context of the pandemic with my object, and the theatricality of Hollywood (Ghostbusters suits, zombie movies, apocalypse movies),” continued Johnson. “I went around my parents' condo looking for props to connect with the hand sanitizer I was given, so I used a CO2 canister and a blood pressure monitor cuff to create a mechanical/medical motif to connect with the spray, and the costume of a poncho, medical gloves, shoe covers, and a face mask. The face of the character is removed to emphasize the materiality of this story and to speak to the depersonalization of the pandemic response.

“The content matter is pretty grim and the images are desaturated and contrasted to show this, but I wanted to create some humor from the elaborate costume and accessory of the character.” 


Bubbles by Joseph Kim

While the School of Design’s Freshmen continue to turn in excellent work, there has been a learning curve for them as they deal with their new learning environments.

“As we've now moved to remote learning, although our class has mostly been able to maintain the integrity of our work and relationships, I would say that we can definitely feel the impact of losing the in-person studio environment,” said Hu. “Working in the studio with the rest of our class was one of the most rewarding aspects of freshman year, so being split up and isolated from people that we used to spend all our time with has been undeniably difficult.” 

“There was a learning curve but I'm settling into it pretty well now,” added Johnson. “I think the thing that I miss the most is the studio environment, where we could all collaborate and learn from each other very easily. Everyone's seemed to adapt to it well though.”

“I really miss being in the classroom with the students,” said Vitone. “When they turned in this first assignment it was a much needed pick-me-up for me. Their humor, thoughtfulness and sensitivity came through. The classroom experience is really different now, but the great things Design students create has not changed. 

“I cannot wait until we get back to Maggie Mo where no one has to be ‘unmuted,’ but I am grateful I still get to share in their insights.”

Learn more about Undergraduate Degrees at the School of Design >>

Basketball Banner Image by Bhakapol Bhakdibhumi

Band Aid Image by Chelsea Liu

Kettle Image by Eric Zhao

Balloons Image by Maggie Ma


Slime by Ian Lippincott

Date Published: 
Thursday, April 9, 2020
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