For seven years in the 2000s, photographer Andrew Moisey captured what life was like in an unnamed fraternity at an undergraduate university in the US.
A decade later, these shots comprise the bulk of Moisey’s new photobook, “The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual,” published by Daylight Books.
Shot in black and white, the images show candid moments shared between members of the anonymous Greek letter organisation. Men drink, vomit, and wrestle; brothers carry pledges in a coffin during an initiation ceremony; women are pictured topless and inebriated, lying down on couches and beds with their eyes closed.
We recently talked to Moisey, a professor of art history at Cornell University, to learn more about his provocative series. Below, take a closer look at 12 shots from “The American Fraternity.”
Editor’s note: Some of the images below show partial nudity and suggest an act of animal cruelty that may make readers uncomfortable.
Between 2000 and 2008, Andrew Moisey photographed members of a Greek letter organisation at the University of California, Berkeley.
Moisey, who attended the same college, began to visit the fraternity house after his younger brother became a member. At the time, the professor told us, he had just taken an introductory photography class and always had his camera with him.
Sensing a rare opportunity to observe a fraternity from the inside, he slowly began to take pictures of the organisation’s members until “people got used to having [him] around.”
At first, Moisey mainly captured photos of brothers partying and spending time together.
But after a while, he realised that his project had to “transcend” what people “already knew about fraternity life.”
“It took a long time to get pictures that were more than brothers hanging out, playing video games, and every once in a while, drinking too much,” the photographer told INSIDER.
Moisey believes this common depiction of fraternity life is one reason why people do not “take it seriously” as a culture. “They don’t see how influential [fraternities] can actually be,” he said.
“So I stayed around to see what I would find,” he added.
Over time, the photographer was able to get a more intimate look inside the fraternity.
Moisey said the members invited him to take increasingly candid photos after seeing his initial work.
“They enjoyed seeing themselves in my pictures,” the professor told us, “even when they were doing things other people might look at as scandalous.”
Four years after he started photographing the brothers, Moisey compiled his work for a show in 2004. “It seemed like a success,” he said. “But I didn’t think I was finished, so I continued shooting.”
In his book, Moisey’s photos are accompanied by excerpts from a 60-year-old “ritual manual.”
The manual outlines the organisation and history of a fraternity called the “Secret Order of Psi Rho.” It includes, among other things, an initiation ritual, a drinking ritual, and a candle ceremony – all described in extensive detail.
Throughout “The American Fraternity,” Moisey’s contemporary shots highlight the lasting ritualistic nature of modern Greek letter organisations. In one particularly unnerving image, brothers can be seen carrying a pledge in a coffin for an initiation ceremony.
Speaking to INSIDER, the professor also pointed out one scanned page from the Psi Rho manual, which includes the lyrics to a song called “Yo-Ho.”
Sung in six verses, the song contains lyrics such as, “I put my c— inside her mouth”; “Shove it in, shove it out, quit f—–‘ about”; and “She died from sucking an Alpha c—.”
Some may say the song is “fantasy,” the photographer said, “but not many people actually get together and sing that fantasy.”
“The American Fraternity” opens with a list of US presidents who were in collegiate Greek letter organisations or secret societies.
Among those included on the list are former Presidents George W. Bush (Delta Kappa Epsilon), John F. Kennedy (Phi Kappa Theta), Ronald Reagan (Delta Kappa Epsilon), Woodrow Wilson (Phi Kappa Psi), and Theodore Roosevelt (Alpha Delta Phi).
“This project isn’t really about any one particular fraternity,” Moisey said. “It’s about our leaders.”
“This is about the kind of society that the fraternity shapes,” the professor told us. “Their secret society is our society.”
He continued: “These men become our leaders. That is a uniquely American thing. It is absolutely significant that our leaders go through the experiences you see in my book. And if there’s any doubt about that, you can ask yourself why we have a reputation around the world for being the ‘ugly Americans.'”
In 2007, a year before Moisey completed his series, fraternity men made up, historically, 76% of US Senators and 85% of Fortune 500 executives.
According to data from the Center for the Study of College Fraternity, cited by University of Kentucky professor of communication Alan DeSantis in his book, “Inside Greek U: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure,” fraternity men also made up 85% of US Supreme Court justices since 1910 and 63% of all US presidential cabinet members since 1900.
At the time, only 8.5% of American male college students were members of fraternities.
The professor said there were several elements of fraternity life that he admired and came to respect — up to a certain point.
“There’s a stereotype that fraternity guys have, and a lot of that is well-earned, but not everyone participates in the fraternity as uniformly as you might expect,” he told us. “And a lot of the people who join it have actually very different interests and demeanors.”
Over time, the photographer began to see the fraternity as a “space for people to explore being wild and ridiculous.”
“We live in a very micromanaged world,” Moisey said. “We live under a lot of surveillance, and we have a very rigid behavioural structure.”
He continued: “There’s a part of the fraternity that just throws that aside and says, ‘We’re gonna be wild. We don’t care.’ And I kind of respected that, and I never thought that I would.”
“But I was also surprised by how often it would spill over,” he added. “And how much it could spill over into the rest of society.”
Moisey said he was taken aback by “how violent things could sometimes get” between the brothers in the house.
“I was surprised by how often there was a competition to see who could be the most intense, or the most debaucherous, or the most outlandish person,” the professor said.
Speaking to INSIDER, Moisey recalled one particularly “unsettling” incident, as seen in the photo above. According to the photographer, the image was captured during the “middle of a celebration of wildness” and shows the moment “a dog is having a punch thrown at it.”
The dog – a house pet that was officially adopted by one of the fraternity’s members – is pictured several times throughout “The American Fraternity.” In one photo, the dog is seen licking up vomit (“Someone had had far, far, far too much to drink,” Moisey told us). In another, the dog looks into the camera while tearing apart a carton of beer.
The photographer came to see the dog as “the perfect metaphor for both the world outside [the fraternity] and the brothers themselves.”
“The dog just kind of didn’t have a master,” Moisey said. “It didn’t really know what to do. It wasn’t trained. It didn’t have any rules or structure. Which was exactly the environment these guys were growing up in.”
He continued: “[The fraternity brothers] came to college and decided to raise each other. You could read the results of that on the dog, which was not particularly well-behaved.”
And the photographer was sometimes thrown out of rooms without explanation.
In one picture in “The American Fraternity,” an unidentified man can be seen sitting with his genitals exposed. Standing to his right, someone holds a beer up to his lips. To his left, someone holds his head up, tilting it back.
When asked about this photo, Moisey said he couldn’t remember the incident “very well,” but he remembers “being shocked by it.”
“And I remember being thrown out of the room as soon as I entered it,” the professor said. “I remember passing by the room, and seeing it, and then being like, “Oh s—,” and getting my camera ready, going and photographing it, and then being thrown out and having not really any idea what I photographed.”
Moisey said he wants readers to “feel really close to all of the people in my photographs.”
“The only way that you can make people realise the gravity of what they’re seeing is by making them actually intimate with it,” the professor told us.
By capturing candid shots of the brothers, Moisey hopes viewers will see the subjects of his photos as “flesh and blood,” not just as stereotypes.
And while readers might feel uneasy about this intimacy, about confronting the “realness” of what they’re seeing, that’s exactly what the professor wants.
“The uncomfortable part is that there’s going to be a question as to whether or not men should be joining a secret society,” Moisey said. “And whether or not part of going to college should be looking like this.”
“The American Fraternity” ends as it begins — with a list of former and current US leaders who were members of collegiate Greek letter organisations.
In total, the book includes names of 400 American leaders including Vice President Mike Pence (Phi Gamma Delta); numerous sitting senators and congressmen; several bishops of the church; and over 60 chief executives and founders of major corporations.
Among those named is Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh (Delta Kappa Epsilon), who has been accused of sexual misconduct in high school and college by Christine Blasey Ford,Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick. Kavanaugh has denied each of these allegations.
According to Moisey, the lists in his book are by no means exhaustive. But he hopes this “small, tiny fraction” helps people understand that what they see in his book “is a culture that continues beyond the fraternity.”
“At the individual level, there are so many of these guys that I admire,” the professor added. “I admire and look up to a lot of these men. But they did join a culture that provides some protection for some very questionable behaviour.”
“I hope that young men have the opportunity to ask themselves when they look at this book, ‘Do I really want to look like this?'” Moisey said.
The professor said he also hopes that people “who are concerned about the institutions that shape” America – and about “what the future of our country” might look like – will read his book and ask, “Isn’t it time to stop this?”
“The American Fraternity” is not supposed to capture the “entirety of a fraternity man’s experience,” Moisey stressed. “There is a lot that it leaves out.”
Rather, his series explores, and lays bare, “an institution that produces American leaders.”
“My project is about this uniquely American phenomenon and the kind of culture that it produces and protects,” he said.
See Andrew Moisey’s full collection of images in “The American Fraternity,” published by Daylight Books.
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