Eli Dreyfuss – Regional Campuses / UCF Connect
UCF Photography major Eli Dreyfuss ’22 wants to change the world with his camera
When you read about all the places Eli Dreyfuss ’22 has lived, it’s not surprising that he picked up photography. What better way to chronicle growing up in places as dissimilar as Ohio, Mexico, Miami and Israel? What’s noteworthy is how quickly the 12-year-old snapping pictures of the scenery in Mexico grew into an award-winning portrait photographer, and the other doors that journey opened up for him along the way.
“When we moved to Mexico, my family gave me a cheap point-and-shoot camera. It was the first time I had traveled out of the U.S., so I couldn’t put it down,” explains Dreyfuss. “Capturing those scenes with my camera inspired me to start drawing. I had trouble with my hands, coordination problems, that made it hard for me to do simple things like opening a jar. But I found that I could pick up a pen and paper, sit down and do detailed ink drawings for ten hours at a time.”
From those roots in photography and drawing, Dreyfuss branched out to filmmaking, creative writing and poetry, a skill he shares with his mom, a poet and musician. He has also started teaching and believes that, rather than photography, will be his ultimate calling.
“I get my love of teaching from my dad, who is a physics teacher. That’s what I enjoy most, sharing my gifts with other people and seeing that spark,” says Dreyfuss. “My ninth-grade teacher changed my life, so I feel like it’s my duty to do the same for others. I’ll probably spend fifteen years focusing on photography, but I’ve already started teaching workshops, working with communities to bring that education to them, so I know I’ll end up teaching.”
Dreyfuss first identified himself as an artist during his time in Mexico, but it took an extra push two years later for him to fully embrace that identity.
“I grew up in the Jewish community, and oftentimes art is looked at as a distraction,” explains Dreyfuss. “So, it got suppressed until I was 14 and my teacher, Nate Tonnessen, gave me a little nudge. He pulled me aside after class and said ‘I really enjoyed how you how you shot that assignment. You should consider picking it [photography] up.’ That was all I needed.”
Dreyfuss bought his first real camera from Thompson in his first few weeks of high school, and soon thereafter approached a Jewish youth group called the National Congregation of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) about taking pictures for them. What started as a hobby quickly turned into a job when NCSY asked Dreyfuss to be the photographer for all of their events.
“I eventually became the official photographer for NCSY’s southern U.S. region, and I was able to go to an event almost every weekend,” says Dreyfuss. “I’m a practicing Orthodox Jew, so to be able to combine Judaism and art like that was incredible.”
After graduating from high school, Dreyfuss leveraged his NCSY experience and connections to act on a growing desire to use his talent to help others.
“I reached out to the director of marketing at NCSY and told him ‘I want to make a difference with my camera,’” explains Dreyfuss. “He suggested I work at the Hebrew Academy for Special Children (HASC) summer camp.”
Located in upstate New York, Camp HASC is a summer sleepaway camp for kids and adults with special needs. Dreyfuss was familiar with the camp from a period during his childhood when his family worked there. In the summer of 2016, he became the camp’s director of marketing and began using his talents to get the word out about the camp and the people who attend it. It’s a role he has happily continued to fill every summer since.
“I learned about the struggles they face every day and how they overcome those struggles,” Dreyfuss says. “I did a campaign for them called ‘Dreamers,’ where I photographed six or seven campers and showed how the camp gives them the ability to achieve their dreams. I used the camera to share their stories in a dignified way, to put them in the best light, and that tone is reflected in everything I do now.”
In addition to building his photography business, teaching and being involved in social issues, Dreyfuss has been pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Photography through UCF Connect and the 2+2 degree program.
“I chose UCF because the 2+2 program allowed me to transition seamlessly from earning my associate degree from Daytona State College to pursuing my bachelor’s degree at UCF Connect Daytona Beach Center,” Dreyfuss explains. “I had spent two years at another college and when I left, a lot of the credits I had earned didn’t transfer. With UCF Connect and the 2+2 program, everything flowed very smoothly.”
One of the people who has played a pivotal role in Dreyfuss’s progression through college is Steven Benson, Chairperson for the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies at Daytona State College.
“Steven was at the core of my whole experience from the very beginning,” says Dreyfuss. “He really helped shape my college experience in a positive way, connecting me with people at Snap! Orlando and with the artist community in general.”
Outside of his studies, Dreyfuss has been active in the UCF community through his involvement in the Chabad Jewish Group. He also recently participated in UCF’s seventh annual Healing Art Exhibition, which celebrates two-dimensional artwork created by students, alumni, faculty and staff that showcases the connection between art and healing.
“In 2015, I started doing self-portraits,” says Dreyfuss. “I was able to step outside myself and look at myself from a different perspective. I got to know myself and photography ended up becoming my voice, my way of communicating with the world, when I wasn’t able to do that verbally or socially.”
Dreyfuss is on track to graduate in the spring of 2022, after which he plans to continue building his photography business, teaching and working as a creative director on bigger campaigns and projects.
“My ultimate goal is to use my camera as a vessel for change and shine a light on the things that make us human,” says Dreyfuss. “I always say, there are 7.5 billion people in the world, but when someone stands in front of my lens, it will feel like they’re the only one.”