In photos, from top: Ellis Liang ’15; Zhan Okuda-Lim ’15
Steve Rosenfield

It’s easy to look around and see success at Princeton, but pressure and isolation often lurk beneath the surface. California photographer Steve Rosenfield’s “What I Be” project, which seeks to “build security through insecurities,” gave students an opportunity to confront their private insecurities in a very public way.

More than 80 students volunteered in February for portraits by Rosenfield, each photo revealing their face and a message written on their skin. In a statement accompanying their photo, they complete this sentence: “I am not my ... ” The purpose? To combat a campus ­expectation of “effortless perfection.”

Zhan Okuda-Lim ’15 was one of the group. His portrait shows him looking straight into the camera. Written in marker across his forehead are the words, “Will they remember me.” His statement reads, “I am not my thoughts” — a reference to the question he asked himself one dark night freshman year: “Will they remember me if I take my own life?”

The photographs were posted on the project’s Facebook site, which contains more than 700 images taken by Rosenfield since 2010 at locations across the country. They were displayed in Frist Campus Center and in the residential colleges during Mental Health Week, sponsored by the Undergraduate Student Government.

Shirley Gao ’13, with the help of the USG’s mental-health committee, brought “What I Be” to Princeton because she saw a lack of honest discussion by students about mental health. “Something was simmering in the Princeton community, and it clearly needed an outlet,” said Gao.

More than a third of students surveyed by the USG in 2011 reported having developed new mental-health issues at Princeton. Campus mental-health challenges range from body insecurity to school stress to clinical depression, according to members of the mental-health committee. 

While “What I Be” hopes to foster awareness of clinical mental-health disorders, the students who invited the project to campus have a broader target: Too many students believe that their peers are perfect and insecurity-free, said Bruce Easop ’13, former USG president.

In contrast, the Princeton students in Rosenfield’s photos are candid about what they perceive to be their flaws. “I am not my inadequacy,” “I am not my sexuality,” and “I am not my size” read three of the statements. 

The notion that Princeton students are less happy or confident than their façades suggest is not new, but a new round of discussions began after journalism professor Evan Thomas’ opinion piece, “The price of stoicism,” was published inThe Daily Princetonian. “I’m not so sure if this stiff-upper-lip attitude is entirely healthy,” he wrote. 

Ricardo Brown ’13, an anthropology major writing his senior thesis on mental health at Princeton, said he has found in interviews that students try to turn every personal weakness into a strength. Okuda-Lim said that may stem from the fact that Princeton students “go from being big fish in small ponds to small fish in something the size of a giant lake.” 

Within hours of posting the story behind his “What I Be” image on Facebook, Okuda-Lim said, he received a message from someone who, struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, resolved to seek professional help for the first time.

“Nobody should be alone with their thoughts, especially not at Princeton,” Okuda-Lim said. “That’s the point of these images — to share what is stigmatized at large, to show students they are not alone.”