Student protest
With his camera, anthropologist Frank Cancian has documented the ebb and flow of activity on Ring Mall. His "Main Street UCI" photo project includes a blog where students reflect on university life. Photo: Frank Cancian

Frank Cancian, UC Irvine professor emeritus of anthropology and an avid photographer, has used his camera to document the lives of peasant farmers in Italy, Mayans in Mexico, and women who clean houses in Orange County. For his latest project, “Main Street UCI,”he’s captured Anteaters in action.

Cancian has produced a photo exhibit that chronicles the comings and goings on UCI’s Ring Mall. Like any Main Street, the mile-long walkway encircling Aldrich Park draws people together to exchange goods and ideas, to perform and to protest, and to seek out food and friends. Hosting everything from blood drives to barbecues, it’s the focal point of campus life.

In February 2009, Cancian decided that Ring Mall — and particularly its hub, Anteater Plaza — was an ideal spot to photograph people.

“I tend to wander around with my camera looking for photographs, and I happened to be in the plaza on a nice day,” he recalls. “I saw a student running for homecoming queen, and I took a picture. Two days later, I went by again, and there were evangelists talking about religion. It was very electric.

“That’s when I decided, ‘Wow, this is an interesting place!’ So I started taking a bunch of pictures.”

Over the next two and a half years, Cancian took about 3,000 shots. He photographed students and others protesting, praying, campaigning, street dancing and peddling wares. Select images have been displayed in the UCI Student Center’s Courtyard Study Lounge and at the Irvine Fine Arts Center; he plans to donate the collection to the university archives.

“I’d like it to be a little trove of UCI history,” Cancian says.

Because his photo projects typically include text, he’s created an ongoing Main Street UCI Blog to which anyone with a campus ID can submit entries.

“I decided this project needed words. So I asked myself, ‘Who are the people in the photos?'” Cancian says. “They’re people who are here today, talking about all kinds of different things, including how to get the best couch in the art school’s CyberA Cafe.”

The bloggers offer unfiltered observations of their campus experience. As one commented:

“Whenever I walk down ‘Main Street’ on Ring [Mall], I have to dedicate a small yet significant part of my focus to navigating a sea of people (especially between classes) to avoid slow walkers, persistent solicitors and obnoxious peers. Yet despite the annoyance these groups of people give me, they also define who I am. At least, they define UCI, which is a large part of my life.”

Cancian has been passionate about photography since he was a teen growing up in the 1940s. He likes taking pictures of people engaged in ordinary activities — “things that are not officially important.”

He can spend hours hanging out in public places with his camera. “I stay around long enough so my subjects forget I’m taking their picture,” he says.

His past projects have led to books including Another Place (1974), on the Maya community in Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico; and Orange County Housecleaners (2006), which tells the life stories of seven women — most of them Latina immigrants — who clean houses in Irvine, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach.

“I’m not sure what will interest me,” Cancian says. “I try to go in without preconceived notions. I’m an observer. I just take pictures because I love to take pictures.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 4, Iss. 7