Featured Artist: Astrid Caratzas
Gandy Dancer: When we looked through all the art, we saw your five pieces and we were like, “These are great!” And the thing that we really liked about them was, they made me want to know the story, which—as, like, a literary mag- azine and art magazine, was cool to see. That photography made me want to know a story. So that’s kind of also why we wanted to interview you. So, will you tell us a little bit about yourself as a student before we get into the art stuff?
Astrid Caratzas: Sure! I’m a senior geography major, I’m graduating at the end of the semester. I transferred here, so I was here for two years and then one semester. Before I went to school here, I went to Monroe Community College in Rochester for two years, and before that, I went to a private school for one year called Drew University in New Jersey. I’m from Brooklyn, New York. So basically, I graduated from high school, went to school for one year, didn’t know what I wanted to do, didn’t want to pay private school tuition to figure it out, so I went to community college. And then I came here.
GD: Where are you from in Brooklyn?
AC: Park Slope.
GD: Do you do photography outside of—I mean you’re a geography major, so obviously not…
AC: I’ve always liked to do it as sort of a hobby. I got a camera from my parents for my sixteenth birthday, it was just like a little point-and-shoot camera but I love taking pictures and when I was a student at MCC, I took as many photography courses as I could take, just because I was trying to figure out what I wanted to study so I figured I might as well take things I liked. So I was one class away from being a photography minor before I left, and ever since then just I sort of do it because I enjoy it.
GD: So why did you pick geography over photography?
AC: I picked geography because I thought that it was incredibly interesting to study people based on the places they come from. Place has always been really important to me because place is home, place is far away… I understand the feeling of being homesick for a place you’ve never been before, so I think that that comes a lot from, like, having moved so far away from home, and from—like my family lives all over the United States. My mom grew up in South Carolina, so I have family there. Her brothers and sisters moved—some live in California, some live in Vermont. My mom was a single parent for a long time [while I was] growing up, so we used to go visit family members in all those various places around the U.S. for like, summer vacation and whatnot. So travel has always been something that I really enjoyed, also, even if it wasn’t international travel, just because I like experiencing new places. I like the food in new places, I like the people, I like the way people talk, like, their new accents or words that they use that I don’t know. So place has always been really important [to me], and geography…I found it by accident, taking an elective course in geography, and knew I needed to, like—that needed to be what I studied.
GD: That’s really cool. So, you went to Africa. Where did you go?
AC: I went to six countries in Africa. I went to South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
GD: So was this through the school, or just…?
AC: Um, sort of. Because I saw a flyer hanging up—right on that billboard, actually—for an organization called International Student Volunteers, and they came and gave a lecture here—like, I guess an informational meet- ing, not a lecture—about the trips that they take people on, and I just so happened to see the flyer, the meeting was like 10 minutes after I saw the flyer, so I went to one. And I went on the trip! It’s basically—you do two weeks of volunteer work, and then you do two weeks of “adventure tourism.” And I stayed for an additional week, so I was there for five weeks. And the first two weeks were in South Africa, working at the Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Center, which is where the cheetah picture comes from. So then, after those two weeks of like working at that wildlife center, we went to the other countries and did, like, rock climbing and white water rafting, all kinds of stuff. More volunteer work, but it was more like, fun than it was work.
GD: So what did you do at the cheetah center? The—center, the reserve…?
AC: It’s a wildlife preserve, it’s like the first place in South Africa that successfully bred cheetahs in captivity. And so they rehabilitate injured cheetahs, but they also breed cheetahs to release back into the wild and to use for educational purposes. There’s a big problem in South Africa with farmers killing or trapping cheetahs because their livelihood comes from raising cattle or whatever, and then the cheetahs have nowhere to live because there’s all this mining going on in the mountains in South Africa and that’s where they live. And the mining scares them, so they come into the farmland and they kill people’s [livestock], so [those people] want to hunt the cheetahs. So what the center does is bring their “ambassador animals,” which are animals that are somewhat socialized with human interaction—so you know you can’t like hug them and pet them and treat them like a house cat, but you can interact with them, and those cheetahs they will bring to public places like schools, or like a fairground, something like that, to teach people about the breed and how it’s endangered and how like it’s not [the cheetahs’] fault that they’re killing off livestock, they’re just like hunting because they need something to eat. And [the center’s] goal is to spread awareness about the population problem, we got to like work with them a little bit. We got to watch something that’s called the Cheetah Run, which is basically—the way that they make their money is people go there to see the cheetahs and also to like take a wildlife tour of the grounds and see all of the animals that they have there. So one of the things that they do is they have—it’s a lure, the same one that is used at like a greyhound racing track, and it’s set up and they like just tie a little flag that gets the cheetah’s attention, and they like…it goes all the way like down the hallway pretty much is the length or the distance that it was, and then like back, and you get to see the cheetah run as fast as it can. So that’s really exciting because they run like 60 miles an hour…amazing. So that was really cool to see too. So [our role involved] lots of like grounds work, and getting, like, pruning trees and like planting trees and all types of stuff. But it was really rewarding because we got to have those experiences afterwards.
GD: So you keep saying “we”—how many people? And were they from Geneseo, or?
AC: One was from Geneseo. We didn’t know each other before we went on the trip, but we’re really good friends now. And there was probably a group of us—maybe 25 kids—in that first two week section of the trip. And so we would get split up into groups of like four or five people and then we would each have projects to tackle on our own. It was probably half-and-half American students and Canadian students. So there were people from all over the United States, all over Canada, and it was a really good time.
GD: How did photography come into it? Was it just you just wanted to take pictures of your experience, or?
AC: Yeah, I think I came back from that trip with more than 10,000 photographs. Like, I just sort of, wherever I went, I had my camera with me. Because it was overwhelming, all of the new things and new people and new places that I was experiencing, and I wanted to be able to keep as much of it with me once I left, so anywhere I went I brought my camera. Like I was handling rocks and like shoveling dirt with my camera on my back. Like, it was…wherever I went, it went, so and then also within the cheetah center they will rehabilitate cheetahs that get trapped in a snare or something like that. So a lot of what the cheetah center does is, when they bring those animals—the cheetahs—to the common places for interaction with people, they’ll say—if you know a cheetah is like hit by a car on the side of the road, or one is caught in a snare somewhere, or one is sick on your property—don’t shoot it, call us and we will come get it and bring it back to our wildlife center and we’ll take care of it, and then we’ll release it back into the wild. So that’s basically what they do. At the cheetah center they also have other animals—there are wild dogs, which are really endangered, tons of other animals—but they focus specifically on working with cheetahs.
GD: Wow, that’s really cool. [We] didn’t even know there was a cheetah problem in South Africa! So what was your role at the center?
AC: We did a range of things. We did things like, we built new enclosures for cheetahs, we put new roads down, we helped maintain enclosures that had not been used for several years in order to put new cheetahs in there— because there was a litter of cubs born like pretty recently before we got there, so these new cubs needed somewhere to go, so we fixed up enclosures for them to go into. And we helped with lots of like manual grunt work stuff that they didn’t really have a staff to do, you know, we removed invasive plant species, and we stacked rocks and packed them with dirt to make ramps so that they could like drive over roads that had been washed out from flooding. But then we also got to do fun stuff like interact with the cheetahs one-on- one. So the ambassador animals, we could go up to them, you could take a picture with them, you could pet them. We were involved with preparing their food, which is really disgusting because it’s made up of like ground chicken, and horse meat chunks, and all kinds of things you don’t want to smell or touch with your hands. But they like it, so. And then we would go on feeding rounds, so literally just like sitting in the bed of a pickup truck with dozens of bowls of like slop meat for the cheetahs. And it would splash all over you and it was really disgusting! But then we would like go around and feed all of them, go around and make sure all the cheetahs were account- ed for. There’s a problem with people like cutting holes in fences, just because they don’t know that it’s a fence that contains a wild animal. So like people will cut a hole in a fence, and then the cheetahs will get out, or something will fall over and break a fence and a cheetah will get out. So—have to make sure everyone’s where they’re supposed to be! We were involved with working with—there were wild dog puppies that were born while we were there.
GD: So then, how did you decide to submit the photos that you did?
AC: I decided to submit the ones that had the most meaning to me.
GD: So, can you tell us a little bit about—I think the one, at least for me, that I really wanted to know the story behind, which now I understand it better— was “Alan’s Big Girl”. Can you tell us a little bit about specifically that?
AC: That cheetah [in the photograph], her name is Alan’s Big Girl. Every- one just calls her Big Girl. Alan is one of the guys who works there, he’s sort of one of the guys in charge, he’s amazing. Real character, never met anyone like him in my life. But Big Girl is the largest female cheetah that they have, who is an ambassador animal, and she is totally majestic and like—she has these long legs—she’s like the supermodel version of a cheetah. Like, she would be the Tyra Banks of the cheetah world for sure. She walks with like, she knows that everyone is watching her, because she knows that she’s regal, she’s amazing! And just because she was so much bigger than a lot of the other animals, she’s really beautiful and like just breathtaking in the way that she moves. Like a house cat when it walks, you know, it has a walk that’s different than a dog because it’s a cat but the way that she—the cheetahs—moved was just unreal to me. I had never seen anything like it before. So she was my favorite. I felt like I had the most connection with her than I did with any of the other cheetahs that we got to interact with. I don’t know, I just felt like she was… she had a lot of story behind her, even though she was an animal who couldn’t speak English, so. I liked her a lot.
GD: Tell us about “Ink Dipped”. We thought that one was really interesting.
AC: That one was taken in Botswana. I was in a boat going down the Chobe River, and as we’re like just cruising along, the boat stops—there were like 5 people in the boat, but the engine was super loud so we couldn’t re- ally hear anything. And we’re all sort of like “Oh God, there are crocodiles everywhere, why are we stopping?” And it was because there were elephants on the bank, and the guy driving the boat—our tour guide—knew that they were going to cross the river. So we stopped, and they just—like they swam across, they actually swim, they don’t like touch the bottom and walk, they actually swim. They like used their trunks as little snorkels the whole time, it was amazing. And so I remember being in the boat, watching the elephant cross the river and just thinking to myself, like, this is The Jungle Book in real life. Like, they really—the trunks of the little baby elephants, they hold their moms’ tails, for real. That’s not just a thing in The Jungle Book, they really use their trunks as little snorkels, it’s not like just something that you see on Animal Planet and hope is real. It’s a real thing. And so he came out of the water, and he had the line on his body—of, like, from being wet—and then the sun, and the dirt being the other lines, so. I just thought it was a really striking, powerful image, but it was also just one of those things—there was never a day I woke up in Africa where I [didn’t think] to myself, like “Something amazing happened yesterday.” And that was one of those moments where I was like “This is unreal, like I cannot believe that I’m here, I can’t believe I’m seeing these things!” And that was one of those moments, where I was just like…whoa.
GD: How many elephants were there?
AC: It was in Chobe National Park, so they have the biggest elephant concentration out of like anywhere in Africa. There are hundreds of thou- sands of elephants. But in that one situation, he [the elephant in the photograph] was the first one to cross, and then there were maybe like four or five behind him that were coming.
GD: [Gabi] This is a question that I just want to ask you ‘cause I went to Africa this summer, so. How has your trip changed the way that you think about your future, or that you think about America, or anything like that?
AC: Well, I don’t know if you have experience with this, but I am definitely that person—that like annoying person that always talks about Africa. [Gabi: “That time I was in Africa, yeah.”] Yeah, “this one time in Africa,” yeah, like, I can’t stop. I get made fun of for it and I don’t even care. But when I went to Swaziland, it was 3 days into starting like the second half of the trip, and one of the pictures I submitted was called “Peekaboo,” I don’t know if you remember that picture or if you had seen it, but there were a bunch of little children like lined up in a row—[GD: “Oh, we didn’t get that one…” L]—oh. Okay. Well, anyway, that specific picture was taken at an orphanage I went to in Swaziland. And all of the kids there were infected with HIV, and like didn’t have any possessions, didn’t have family members because they were orphans, they had literally nothing but the clothes on their back. And the clothes that they had were given to them by someone else—so they didn’t fit right, they were too small, they had holes. And we brought them fresh fruit, because in Swaziland, fresh fruit is really expensive. And so we were handing out these oranges to them, and I expect them to like run away and have an orange to them- selves, because they don’t have anything that’s just theirs, they have to share everything. And the first thing that the first girl I handed an orange to did, was go to one of her friends and share the orange. And I was just like, “This is unreal to me, that I think any of the problems I have in my life are actually problems.” Like, I complain about hav- ing too much homework—I should be thankful instead that I get to go to college. Like I complain that I have to spend money to fix my car—I should be thankful that I have a car. I complain that I have to turn the heat on because it’s cold outside—like, I should be thankful that I have a house to live in, you know what I mean? So being there and being with those children—and even with those animals—just taught me that like the things that I think matter, the things that I invest my energy into and have anxiety about or stress about, like, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. And I should be nothing but thankful for anything that happens to me ever, because there are people who have it so much worse and if they can smile and like be generous and be supportive of the kids in the orphanage with them—what’s my excuse? You know what I mean?
GD: So you’re graduating in December. What do you see for the future?
AC: I’m sort of at the point where I have a degree in something that I love, and I have so many directions that I can take it into, that I’m having a hard time finding one specific thing to narrow it down to. I really want to focus a career on helping improve inner cities and making the abrupt change between inner city and suburb not be so severe. I think it’s tragic the way that all of that is handled these days, and I think that there are—there’s no one easy fix to making an inner city better for everyone who lives there, but there are definitely things to do, and so I hope to do some type of work with com- munity development. But I also would love doing like cultural preservation, or, like, you know, tornado hunting, so. [Gabi: Wait, you can do that with a geography major?] Why not? I mean—I would have to go to graduate school probably, and do climatology work. But geography is like the humanities of the sciences, so I don’t know what to choose, but I know that all the places I’ve travelled to in my life are going to have a big impact on what I end up doing, so. Whether that’s in 5 years or like 5 months, I’ll figure it out eventually.
GD: So have you travelled to other places before?
AC: Mm-hm! Africa was the first international travel that I did, besides going to Montreal once for like three days. But since then, I went to Argentina on a study abroad trip. The picture with the pigeons, the girl feeding the pigeons, that’s from Argentina. I’ve studied environmental issues in Buenos Aires, so I would also like to do environmental work! So who knows what I’ll end up doing. And then this summer I backpacked with one of my friends and my boyfriend in Europe for two weeks, went to Germany, France, Lon- don, Brussels. We went to the Netherlands. Sort of went all over the place. Amsterdam. It was a good time. I figure I need to get it all out of my system before I like have to enter the real world and not take time off to go travelling.
GD: So what year were you? Were you in Geneseo—you were in Geneseo, when you went to Africa?
AC: Yup, I had been in Geneseo for one year, because it wasn’t this past summer, it was the summer before. [Gabi: So like your junior year, ish.] Mm-hm. I sort of did junior year twice. So, yeah. [Chrissy: It happens.] Yeah. Especially when you transfer. Twice. I’ll figure it out.
GD: [Gabi: Do you have any more questions?] [Chrissy: Uh, I don’t think so. But it sounds like you’ve got a really promising future ahead of you. [Astrid: Thank you!] Like it sounds like you may not know exactly what you want to do, but you know where you want to go. And I think that’s really important for finding a career path that speaks to you.]
AC: Yeah, I think so too. I’m going to move, like 3 days after Christmas, to Austin, Texas. So, going to get to experience a new city and new way of life there. I’m really big into cities and like seeing new cities, I don’t know if you’ve gotten that from, like… So, yeah. That’ll be a good time. I don’t really know what I’m going to do yet, but I will one day.
GD: Do you have any questions for us? About the magazine, or?
AC: Have you been published?
GD: [Gabi: I had my art in the last issue, but I don’t write as much as I should be, as an English major.] [Chrissy: I had a poem published in Geneseo’s Opus last spring. I have yet to actually submit to Gandy.]
AC: Do you guys know Jeff Handy? [Gabi: I read his poems from last semester.] He’s my boyfriend. He’s why I submitted—because I went to the Launch Party last semester, and we were looking at like the photography slideshow, and he was like, “You should submit your photography!” And I was like, yeah, I should! [Gabi: That’s so funny!] Yeah. Small world.