Arts & Entertainment writer Natalie Tran sits down with prize-winning UCSD photographer Erik Jepsen, who sheds some light on all things UCSD and photography in this interview.
Photographing UC San Diego, one of the world’s top research universities, is no small feat. How does one capture everything from the university’s biggest events and breakthrough accomplishments to the daily, bustling lives of its students and staff?
With over ten years of working for UCSD, photographer Erik Jepsen shared some of his insight and experiences. If you’ve attended, worked at, or simply visited UCSD, it’s hard to miss his work — his photographs can be found in official university brochures, newsletters, websites, and even Zoom backgrounds.
Before working for UCSD, Jepsen attended UCSD as an undergraduate. He graduated in 2010 with a B.S. in Management Science and a B.A. in History. Throughout his four years, he was a staff photographer of The UCSD Guardian and eventually became its Photo Editor. He photographed various campus events, including the racial injustice protests surrounding the 2010 Compton Cookout, and won various Associated Collegiate Press awards for photography.
“The Guardian put fuel on the fire for my enthusiasm for photography,” Jepsen said as he described how he drew inspiration from every photographer he worked with there. In particular, he thanked past Photo Editors Arash Keshmirian, Will Parson, John Hanacek, and Andrew Oh. “Their encouragement and willingness to always help has left a lasting impact on me,” Jepsen said.
As an undergraduate, Jepsen also photographed for several of the departments at UCSD. Working with the Qualcomm Institute, he photographed the research of scientists, such as Dr. Albert Yu-Min Lin, a valuable opportunity that led him to be published in the National Geographic Society.
Upon graduation, Jepsen continued to photograph freelance for various UCSD departments while working at the former North County Times. After a year, he returned to UCSD for a job at the University Communications and Public Affairs (UCPA) division, working on web content before transitioning into his current role as a photographer.
Work as a photographer at UCSD varies. On a typical day, Jepsen finds himself attending events and visiting labs while taking portraits of professors, students, and staff. While his services are requested by numerous departments, the UCPA also sends him to photograph noteworthy occasions and people. “I’m on campus at all hours,” Jepsen said. “I’ll be there at 1 a.m. or 5 a.m. to get a certain photo.”
After taking photos with his Nikon DSLR, he uploads them to Adobe Bridge and edits his selections in Adobe Photoshop.
One photo that took careful planning was Jepsen’s capture of Comet NEOWISE underneath Falling Star, a Stuart Collection art piece, in July 2020. To capture the moment, he camped out in Warren Mall for five nights in a row, trying to find the right angle and waiting for the skies to clear.
“I was greeted by a family of raccoons,” he laughed.
Besides raccoons, notable figures he’s encountered on campus include Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama, the latter of who was the keynote speaker for UCSD’s 2017 Commencement. Jepsen was the Dalai Lama’s personal photographer during that time.
“That was a really cool experience,” Jepsen said. “He’s a pretty funny guy, actually. I was lucky enough to be in private things a couple times, so I just had small conversations with him. He’d try to cheer up the room whenever it was just the two of you.”
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put an unfortunate halt to such opportunities. Campus events that draw crowds, like Commencement and Sun God Festival, have not taken place in the past year. Jepsen, along with the University, has adapted to the changing circumstances by producing virtual content for such events.
Today, work for Jepsen has resumed with some sense of normality. With the University gradually reopening, many on-campus events and newly constructed buildings need to be documented. Yet, while campus life still looks a little different, other things haven’t changed. In his free time, Jepsen continues to chase glowing sunsets at Scripps Pier and vibrant rainbows over Geisel Library.
Nonetheless, Jepsen is excited to return to photographing the moments that define the UCSD experience. To him, there is no “UC Socially Dead” — there’s always something to do and something to photograph.
“I love taking beautiful landscapes of the campus, but at the same time, I also love capturing the emotion of a student at graduation,” Jepsen explained. Capturing the happiness of people and spreading that happiness to others can be empowering. “When someone’s received a scholarship, just to show the joy in that and then be able to give those photos to our donors, so they can see the impact that they’re having, is really rewarding.”
When asked about his favorite photograph, Jepsen referred to his shot of Geisel Library during a lightning strike in 2018. On the day of the photograph, he had been photographing an alumni anniversary event for UCSD’s School of Medicine when he noticed a thunderstorm rolling in. “I booked it out of the event,” he said, and reached the Library as the thunderstorm passed over. It was perfect timing, and it paid off. The photograph went viral and earned a Circle of Excellence Award from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).
Having photographed the University as a student and staff member for 14 years and ongoing, Jepsen has won several competitions and awards, from the international Circle of Excellence CASE awards, including Photographer of the Year in 2013, to international photography awards in athletics.
Yet, the biggest reward to Jepsen is being able to share UCSD’s beauty and successes with others. “I love being able to tell people, through my photos, everything that’s going on on campus, from research to student excellence to even community work,” he said. “I’m not the one doing any of this awesome work, I’m not the one giving scholarships to students, but I am able to show people the impact that all those things have.”
Ultimately, Jepsen hopes that people come away from his photos feeling excited, empowered, or willing to learn more about an important issue. He pointed to his photographs of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. “If somebody sees those photos and then tries to understand what’s actually happening in the United States and tries to do something for change, that is more meaningful than anything that I could ever hope for. That’s why I love to photograph.”
“We’ll see where life takes me,” Jepsen said when asked if he has any future plans. “But right now, I’m happy at UC San Diego.” Wherever he ends up, Jepsen will undoubtedly leave big shoes to fill.
Images courtesy of Erik Jepsen.