Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Meet Joe Smith

The 1986 graduate developed friendships along with his photos.

January 24, 2023

Oberlin Alumni Magazine Staff

Self portrait in a mirror using a 35 mm camera (black & white).
Joe Smith learned to meet people through his love of photography. "You rarely saw me on campus without a camera,” he says today.
Photo credit: Joe Smith

“All you’ve got to do is stick your hand out and say, ‘Nice to meet you.’”

That was Joe Smith’s approach to making friends and taking photographs, both of which he did prodigiously as an Oberlin College student in the 1980s.

Smith ’86, now a computer network engineer in the Cleveland area, arrived on campus with a Nikon he received from his mother as a high school graduation gift. “You rarely saw me on campus without a camera,” he says. When he wasn’t shaking people’s hands, he was taking their photos, amassing hundreds of images that capture—through mostly straight-ahead portraits—the look of an era, and sometimes more. “I’ve got people’s entire relationships on film,” he says, adding that he can’t share some of them because he doesn’t want to upset his friends’ current spouses. He took pictures of his
fellow students, teachers, and campus staff members.

Oberlin’s campus of the 1980s was sometimes divided by race, subculture, clique, or class, but Smith constantly crossed divisions to seek out people to get to know. For that, he became well-known himself—“Oberlin famous” before that term existed.

“You’d be amazed what an introduction can do,” he says.

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