Senior pictures

Graduating senior Isabel Zapata photographed 57 of her peers to create a magazine with their reflections.

Student holding magazine
Penn senior and photographer Isabel Zapata created Torch Magazine to feature her portraits of fellow graduating seniors, along with their reflections. 

Capturing her classmates in places of significance to them is at the core of the magazine project created by photographer and Penn senior Isabel Zapata

Each of the 57 graduating seniors who volunteered to be in Torch Magazine are featured in a double-page spread, with portraits shot by Zapata and accompanied by their personal essays.

“It was more than just a photo shoot. It was getting to know someone and getting to know why this place is special to them and how we are going to think about them in the future,” Zapata says. “Getting to photograph that part of people’s lives, and to commemorate them in a printed platform, was really special to me.”

Using her Nikon D-810, she photographed about 20 students in the fall and nearly twice that many this spring. The subjects chose the location, what they wore, and what they were doing. They also wrote the copy, 100 words about the significance of place, and a 300-word personal reflection. 

“The goal was for seniors to provide some sort of guidance to the other readers, reminiscent of the phrase ‘passing the torch,’” she says. 

The locations were mostly on campus, in apartments, restaurants, parks, the library, with the Philadelphia skyline as a backdrop. Many students are pictured with their favorite things, such as a huge stuffed bear, a dog, a bicycle, a guitar, a bag of Cheetos. The copy is varied, with poems, songs, short stories. 

“All of the pieces are really honest and personal,” says Zapata. “Knowing that the project meant something to them made me super nostalgic as I was going through and reading them.” 

Zapata spent 10 days editing the photos and designing the magazine, teaching herself the necessary software. Friends helped her proofread the copy before she sent it off to the publisher. The magazines arrived during finals. 

“It’s so weird seeing it still,” she says, carefully turning the glossy pages during an interview, sitting on a sofa in a campus coffee shop. “It was just kind of an intangible digital thing that I worked on during the weekends throughout my entire senior year. Sometimes I would forget I was working towards a tangible, physical product.”

The Torch project was self-funded and break-even: Zapata had 63 magazines made, the number of $25 copies that were pre-ordered. The photos are on her website and Instagram, but the entire magazine only exists in print. “I wanted it to be a very limited-edition thing,” she says. 

Nine student portraits taken in different places.
The portraits taken by Isabel Zapata for Torch Magazine are on Instagram @TorchZine. 

Torch is not her first publication. Two summers ago, she and a friend created “The RAW Book” about young adults and their relationship with food. The 200-plus-page book features Zapata’s photographs and copy written by Penn students, poetry, short stories, personal anecdotes, as well as research pieces about food. The book was funded by Kelly Writers House and Penn’s Visual Studies Department

The book came out of her experience as a photographer for the student-run Penn Appetit magazine and its first cookbook, “Whisk.”

“After that, I decided I liked being in the publication space and having my work in print form, so that is what I’ve been trying to pursue,” she says. 

Photographing food led her to a freelance assignment as a photographer’s assistant for a new cookbook by Questlove, a producer and drummer for The Roots. The gig has been the highlight of her growing freelance-photography business, on and off campus, including events, headshots, weddings, and engagements.  

“It was incredible. We shot 10 meals a day, which meant 15-to-16-hour days for a week,” she says. “That gave me the confidence to know that I could succeed as a photographer if I want to; and I want to, so that’s what I’m going to do.”

Although mostly self-taught, Zapata took photography as a fine arts minor, one in the darkroom, another on fashion photography, and her favorite, The Body of Photography, taught by Gabriel Martinez.

“I learned a lot about photography as fine art from him, which I hadn’t really explored before,” she says. “I loved it.”

Zapata’s major, however, is biology, as she is also interested in the environment and ecology, specifically marine biology conservation. She has also studied Japanese at Penn, earning a minor in East Asian languages and civilizations. She is fluent in Spanish and French in addition to English.

Her goal, she says, is to combine her passions and create a career as a freelance photographer around the globe. “I have always wanted to be a freelance photographer for National Geographic,” she says. 

Born in Colombia, she is already a citizen of the world. Because her parents work for the U.S. State Department, the family lived in several countries while Zapata was growing up, including Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Mexico. 

Her interest in film started in middle school, when the family was living in Egypt, and she gathered 600 followers on her YouTube channel. She went to high school in McLean, Virginia, before coming to Penn. 

Storytelling was the key to her approach to the Torch project, she says. She started by asking her friends and then gathered more volunteers through word-of-mouth. About a third of the students in the magazine she met for the first time through the project. Most are Penn seniors, but there are a few friends attending other colleges as well. 

Student sitting on railing next to her bicycle, the Philadelphia skyline in the background.
Senior Michelle Lyu, an economics major in The Wharton School, was photographed with her prized possession, her bicycle, with the Philadelphia skyline as a backdrop. 

“Each photo shoot was special and intimate. I think that was maybe my favorite part of the whole project, getting to spend time with people, and also meeting new people, being thrown into an intimate setting, showing me a part of their lives they really care about,” she says. “And I got to photograph them, which is my favorite thing to do.”

Zapata is not herself featured in the magazine. “I’m not into self-portraiture. It didn’t feel like it’s my place to be included in this,” she says. “I felt like it was my role to put it together.”

The magazine was distributed at a launch party a week before Commencement. “My best friend started crying. It was a really heartwarming experience, with all my favorite people coming together and celebrating. I’ve gotten so emotional about it,” she says. “I’m happy to say that it turned out exactly the way I wanted it to.”

After graduation, Zapata plans to live in New York City, and has been interviewing for jobs.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” she says, “but I will be working in photography.” 

Photos by Isabel Zapata.