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  • Writer's pictureIrie Sentner

On Building a Personal Brand

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

Everything is a photoshoot when the gram is life.

By Irie Sentner

Twenty-five feet below 116th and Broadway, bathed in flickering fluorescent light and soundtracked by a perpetual, unplaceable drip, stands a geometric metal throne. An ornate array of Pantone-292 subway tiles provides a grand nametag: “COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY.” Perched atop the royal seat, paying no mind to the rats or suspicious puddles, a first-year arches her back, displaying her crest-embroidered navy face mask and thrifted lace corset. She turns and kicks and tucks and twists with the confidence of a seasoned contortionist before hopping back down to the cracked concrete. As she collects her iPhone from her dedicated comrade and they trade places, she asks if the image “should be part of a photo dump, or, like, stand-alone as its own post?”

Across town, a group of teenagers gathers on the steps of the Met. Like clockwork, they arrange themselves into two levels, squatting and flexing, clenching and craning as one organism. In order to include their entire entourage, one brave volunteer builds up the courage to request a stranger’s help, handing his phone to a hip millennial nanny toting two infant Fifth-Avenue fashionistas. She springs to action, shooting in portrait and landscape, making sure to capture the colonnades of the museum in the background. As the group scrolls through her handiwork, they struggle to come up with the most suitable caption. XOXO? Too obvious. Hey Upper East Siders? Too vague. Don’t mock the scarf, Nathaniel—it’s my signature? Winner, winner, Sweetgreen dinner.

Illustration by Madeleine Hermann

That night, under a full moon on an empty cobblestone street in SoHo, a couple walks hand in hand. With romantic gusto, the man drops to one knee. The woman gasps—“Here? Now?” The man nods, a single tear rolling down his cheek. He fondles the heavy rectangle in his pocket, then fishes it out and presents it to his love. She pops a leg in the air behind her as he snaps her photo. When they’re finished, they share an embrace. “I knew you’d look good in this lighting,” he whispers, caressing her ringlets. She giggles, knowing that she's finally found the one—the one who knows her best angles.

As a new day dawns in the city, hundreds of Columbians swipe and select and edit. They nudge up the exposure and coax down the saturation, adding a pinch of fade and a hint of grain to their immaculate social media ragout. Then, at the moment of peak engagement, with their fingers hovering over the “share” button, they remember something awful. They remember that New York is an epicenter of a global pandemic and that posting their “problematic” escapades will almost surely result in social cancellation. With anguish, they abandon their masterpiece and elect, instead, to share a screenshot of a tweet about today’s atrocity to their meager story.


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