By Allison Plitt
Jackson Heights resident Sam Oppenheim’s passion for travel photography means he is one of a select group of people in the world who can say he has visited more than 30 countries on six continents.
He currently works in Flushing as a social studies teacher at the East West School of International Studies, a public school that offers classes in Chinese, Japanese and Korean. While the job seems perfectly suited for Opppenheim’s background, it has taken a long personal journey for him to arrive there.
Oppenheim grew up in northern California near San Francisco. He says his parents’ spirituality and way of life left a strong impression on him as a boy.
“My parents, in the ’60s and ’70s, became influenced by India and learned transcendental meditation,” he said. “So I grew up in a household with a lot of respect for Transcendental Meditation. My parents were also really into Eastern philosophy, so there were a lot of books about eastern philosophy that I read growing up.”
For college Oppenheim moved to New York City where he studied anthropology and religion at Columbia University. He became interested in photography during his freshman year when he received a camera – an Olympus OM2 – that his father had purchased in Japan in the 1970s. Although he never took classes in photography, Oppenheim learned by observing others.
“I was lucky enough to have a cousin, Alicia, who went to The School of Visual Arts. She was majoring in photography and she took me into a darkroom and taught me how to enlarge and develop my own film negatives,” Oppenheim said. “I was trained in traditional film photography. I’m probably one of the last generations where that was really the only option because within five years of becoming really interested in photography, digital photography became a real viable option.”
At that time, Oppenheim also became an assistant to Lynn Saville, a professional photographer who lived near Columbia University and worked in New York City. From working with Saville, he was able to learn about fine art photography and work with online photo editing programs while designing and maintaining her website.
Oppenheim pursued a master’s degree in anthropology and archaeology at the University of Wisconsin. While working as an archaeologist for a year in India, he took pictures across all parts of the country. In the future, he hopes to publish a book of his photos called, “A Year in India.” He also self-published a book called “Portals,” which is a photo collection of “entrances, exits, windows, doors, arches and caves” from sites all over the world. You can view part of the book and purchase it online at Blurb.com or on Oppeheim’s own website.
Most of the photos on his website are of people praying or working peacefully. This reflects his interests in religion, spiritually, culture, history and archaeology in his art.
“I have a preference to travel somewhere a little farther away from home and experience something unique,” he said. “Then I try to represent it in an artistic way in my photography but not in a photojournalistic way. I like to show more the experiential feeling of traveling instead of just documenting the truth.”
Opposed to the idea of living far away from family and friends to pursue a career as an archaeologist, Oppenheim decided to study childhood education and became a school teacher. Since 2004 he has taught at four different New York City public schools. Because Oppenheim has recently married and become a father to a baby girl, he has had little time to participate in exhibits within the last two years. Although becoming a father will curtail his travels, he knows that Queens’ diverse neighborhoods will always satisfy his curiosity about other cultures.
“Queens is just phenomenal. You can really go to the most amazing little ethnic enclaves. Within walking distance from my house there is an Argentinean steak house as well as Nepali, Tibetan, Indian, Afghani, Colombia, Mexican, Malaysian and Thai restaurants,” Oppeheim says. “If you include the Flushing neighborhood, you have restaurants that specialize in specific regional Chinese cuisines. It’s really a blessing to be in Queens, especially for someone like myself who is inspired by travel and different cultures and traditions.”