Stories have been, since the dawn of humankind, our way of making sense of ourselves, each other, and the world we have found ourselves in. These narratives are so deeply imbedded in our psyche that we don't even realize to what degree they inform our belief systems, our attitudes and our actions. These stories are never "stand-alones"...they are each part of a long arc of evolving patterns and beliefs, and to pluck any one of them out of that context and make it the ultimate paradigm is to miss the larger picture and meaning that they can provide.
In this series I'm considering the biblical stories of three women who have been systematically misrepresented, exploited or underrepresented by the patriarchal, hierarchical religious institutions as we know them today, and to invite the viewer to explore the traditions from which they are drawn, as well as the more recent feminist interpretations. It is not a manifesto, or a claim to "know" the ultimate answer - it is an invitation. I believe it's time to reclaim these stories and explore the possibility of a deeper and fuller meaning than what we have been given. My hope is that the images are both beautiful to gaze upon, and that they spark the viewer's curiosity to dive further into the conversation.
Being a woman, and having had that particular human experience, I am interested in the stories around the feminine that have shaped our past and current attitudes toward the "second sex", to steal a phrase from Simone de Beauvoir - who famously stated "the problem of woman has always been a problem of men". Themes that replay themselves over and over both in popular culture and personal interactions - the Virgin, The Whore. The perpetrator of Original Sin. You don't have to be religious to have had these stories inform your consciousness. If you live in the western world, that last narrative in particular has historically been used probably more than any other to subjugate women socially, religiously, economically, sexually, and politically in obvious, and not so obvious ways.
The story of Adam and Eve for instance was not original. Most of us know that, but we still generally understand that story as the "Fall" and Eve's role in it as "Original Sin", as coined by St.Augustine. It's interesting to note that the Jewish interpretations of the story can be quite different than the traditional Christian one. And if, as in the earlier similar stories from which it is drawn, the snake represents wisdom how does that change the narrative? In one of the more ancient traditions woman actually becomes the tree of knowledge. “Wisdom” is referred to many times in the bible, and early on is distinctly feminine…but by the end of the New Testament has morphed into maleness.
While one can argue that the exegesis was incorrect, or that it was a product of the culture of the time, the fact remains that the damage has been done. The popular understanding of these stories and how that has played out in our culture is what I'm interested in. It's a pity that we can't go back in time and have them written, curated, translated, and interpreted by women....what would that look like? Especially when we are talking about sacred texts and the power they hold over society, literally half of humanity was left out of the conversation. The best we can do, unfortunately, is take what has been handed to us and apply a feminine understanding to them to draw out more of their potential, and rectify some of the illegitimate claims. I want to be clear - my purpose is not to do some kind of reversal of extremes. I'm not interested in upending the status quo just to apply an equally unbalanced interpretation - I firmly believe we need both the female and male energies at work in their fullest God-given potentials to achieve harmony. One is not "better" than the other. They are two aspects of the whole, and when that is grossly out of balance - as it has been in the past few thousand years of patriarchy, both sides lose. It harms both. I think it's fairly obvious to state that the perpetrator of a crime can hardly be portrayed as a "winner"...the soul pays a price.
There have been in recent years some really wonderful efforts at feminist interpretations of these texts which is so encouraging...I think there is an assumption, however, that just because something has a female author it will bring a feminist viewpoint, but too often women have had to play by the male's rules just to have a seat at the table - when what we really need is an entirely new table for us all to sit at. I hope this series both inspires the mind, and entertains the senses of the viewer.
More to come…. this is part of a series on ocean awareness, which began with the image inspired by Mission Blue’s “Hope Spots” . This image focuses on all of the plastics that end up in our landfills and oceans, which do not break down - only as microplastics which find their way into every part of the ocean’s ecosystem.
Big thanks to the amazing team:
MUA: Anne Timss
HAIR: Jessica Rockwell
MODEL: Alexandria Fairall
Inspired by a hero of mine since childhood when my mother would take us to Scripps Institute where I heard Dr. Sylvia Earle speak for the first time, I wanted to make something beautiful - something hopeful, as an entry point to considering how very important our oceans, and the delicate balance within them, are to our survival. I’ll leave all of the science to back this up to those who are well versed and knowledgable in that arena… but for my part, I believe that the sheer wonder of it that takes your breath away when you experience it first hand, is God speaking to us in the language of beauty. We should be listening more carefully.
Check out one of Dr. Sylivia Earle’s projects, “Hope Spots” at Mission Blue https://mission-blue.org
Outfit designed and made by Suzanne Rothmeyer
Gorgeous handpainted sea creatures on the skirt by the talented Abbie Kunch… you can find her on Instagram at @wanderandgroove
HMUA Kelsey Ekstrom @kelseyekstrom
On set stylist Rainchild Stylist @rainchildstylist
Our lovely Model was Isabell Murray @izzyleigh33
A revisiting of The Feminine Mystique...that particular ennui so well explored by Betty Friedan in her book by the same name - first published the year I was born.
I carefully researched and sourced the details for this shoot...everything from the magazine to the ashtrays. Color was so important to me to convey not only the era but also the film stock that would have been used.
I wanted to show the tension of the the male presence (without giving him a face), and also of the changing society - the feeling of not belonging to either world, but desiring something you cannot quite yet articulate.
About three years ago I started thinking about doing a conceptual shoot with a Rococo vibe (I love the colors, the motifs, the sheer over-the-topness of it), but like most of my ideas it didn't see the light of day. Then, 2016 happened. The idea resurfaced and seemed to be a good fit to visually explore the the widening chasm between the have and have-nots, and the perception of “The Other”.
In this case, I'm particularly interested in the interplay between what we idolize and how that informs our choices and viewpoint. What we see, and what we are blind to because of it, and what fears and self perceptions those idols speak to. I am curious about the deeper fears that "the other" brings up for us, and how even when suffering and devastation is right in front of us, we are able to remain indifferent. I decided to “frame” the tableaux - a bit of a nod to the idea that history will remember (and judge us for) our current actions.
For example, Americans love and idolize stories of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps", "I worked for everything I have - nothing was given to me", "you can achieve anything if you just work hard enough" etc etc. We love these narratives. They make us feel empowered - and often self righteous. But what does it look like when you really unpack those ideas? First, we tend to become defensive - as if we are being accused of something we didn't do, or were not directly a part of (and often this is where the conversation ends). But it isn't about that. It isn't about assigning blame. It's about deeply considering where we have been, where we are going, and who we really want to be in the world (and most importantly, why).
I mean, were you really not handed anything? If, for example, you were born at this point in history, in this country, white, anywhere remotely in the middle class, were provided with a basic education, then you have already been handed a tremendous amount... most of which we take for granted, and are generally not even conscious of the vast extent to which we benefit from it on a daily basis. I work hard and come from a middle class family of hard workers... but I am under no delusions that I have achieved my modest gains solely by my own efforts.
Bear with me here.
Let's do a little exercise. For all of us who are fortunate enough to have a roof over our head, to enjoy things like art on our walls, fresh produce on our tables, music to dance to on Friday night, and all the fabulous gadgets that make our daily life more enjoyable, let's just for a moment close our eyes and remove all of those things from our sphere. I'm serious. Take a moment and visualize it. Take those fresh local berries off the table. Take the art down from your walls. Silence the music. Remove the gadgets. Live in that space for a little while.
Here's my point. Those who pick your berries can work 12 hour days in the fields - it isn't that they aren't working hard enough. It's that there are so many jobs and endeavors that inherently have an income cap that is crushingly low - no matter how many hours you work. The vast majority of artists do not make enough income off their work to live off of. All those people who make your clothes, and all those gadgets - many of those jobs also have very low income caps. Now, I'm not saying that any one of those individuals couldn't decide that they want to do something else - to follow some dream, and make it happen. I do believe that - in rare cases we see it it happen. But regardless of the simplistic nature of that argument, don't we still need people to make clothes, pick produce, and make art and gadgets?
At some point, our hyper-individualistic religious-patriotic fervor is faced with the question: Do we, as a society, value these things - and by extension, the people who produce them? Do we, as a society, value individuals simply by nature of the fact that they are human beings? Do we believe that every human is entitled to a certain level of dignity (that includes things like access to basic health care and education). Or do we only value those who look like us? Who act the way we think they should act? Have the kind of job we think they should have? Do we only value money and income as the litmus test of a person's value (both inherently and to society)? If we were stripped of all the aforementioned things, I think we would quickly see the scope of their value - both physically and psychologically.
Peter Wohlleben states, in The Hidden Life of Trees, "A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what.If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance."
I realize that this is a huge paradigm shift for a country who has bought into the cult of self to such a degree that any form of communal responsibility rings the fear-bell of "socialism" - a kind of Pavlov response imbedded by those who benefit most from the current structures. But maybe let’s step out of the cacophony of voices telling us what patriotism is, what makes a country "great", and what gives us our value in the eyes of society. Let's step back, close our eyes for a moment, shut off all of those voices and think about the things that really give value to our life....and then think about what the minimum standard of that should be for every human - just because they are human.
Anyone who has suffered from depression, or is close to someone who does, knows just how debilitating it is and how far reaching its ripple effect can be.
Dating back to Hippocrates and his "Four Humors", and mentioned multiple times in Chaucer, it's clearly been with us a while - yet despite this there remains a seemingly impenetrable stigma around it.
William Styron, who suffered from and wrote about his experience with the disease commented on the term itself, saying "'Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but it was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness." I tend to agree.
This theme - more than any other I have tackled thus far, has taken the most time - has been shelved repeatedly, and has had the most roadblocks logistically. It seems fitting that a topic so rife with social taboos and still largely closeted from view by individuals who suffer its grip should have been so problematic.
When I first approached doing this series, I desperately wanted to avoid the clichés so often depicted. It's part of the reason why it took 3 years to do just a few frames. The last thing I wanted was to minimize, or present a flattened image of what a person experiences with depression. It seemed like a series was the best way to approach it - no single image could possibly stand in. Admittedly, I still feel that it all falls so short - of course it does. But...I still felt a personal need to explore it visually - because even though it has never affected me personally beyond a temporary funk, it affected my early life peripherally, and affects people I love to this day. I can only speak to it as someone who has been rocked by the ripples.
While each of the images speaks at least to the perspective of the onlooker, it is the courtroom image that I personally was the most attached to. It also took the most time, energy and planning.
While the other images are more self-explanatory, the courtroom scene came from the idea that the depressed person typically judges themselves harshly...especially if they feel they have no "excuse" for being depressed. They not only judge themselves, but feel as if they are being judged by everyone around them. The truth, however, is that they are judging themselves far more than anyone else is. I kept thinking of how the sufferer judges every part of themselves - a woman, for instance, is critical of all her "roles" ... as mother, as daughter, as sibling, as employee, as boss, etc etc. Hence the idea of a courtroom. Then I decided that the entire courtroom would be populated by that single model - by way of multiple exposures - donning different guises, representing the various aspects of her life, and of her self-judging.
In a serendipitous turn of events, this conversation came up with a woman I had known very superficially who invited me to lunch somewhat out of the blue. She was interested in collaborating as a model in one of my conceptual shoots. After some conversation about possible projects, I mentioned the one I had (yet again) shelved about depression. She then revealed how she had suffered from bouts of depression her entire life. At that point I had such a strong feeling that this was my model...not only a model, but the model, for the series.
The courtroom scene took over a year to find the the right location, and get the proper permissions - including a written proposal and a personal interview with the powers that be of that particular courthouse... I kept thinking how am I going to explain this to an attorney and a judge? Turns out, they really engaged, and were intrigued enough to graciously allow access... and I am so grateful.
That image took a full 8 hours of shooting... the model changed outfits, hair & makeup, - and genders, 15 times. The final image is a composite of over 20 images....that one model is every single person in the courtroom. I placed the cloud at her feet to represent the kind of disconnectedness inherent in the disease, and the crow as a nod to a small death of sorts.
She emerges from water and ash...water because it is mysterious, and is what we are born from - dark and moody and somewhat menacing. And what is left after you have burnt yourself up?...after you've burnt it all down? Ash. And in that landscape you are reborn - in spite of whatever or wherever you have been before, and it's all part of it. There is no separation. Your feet can still be in the dark, in the fears that we conjure, while at the same time you see the beauty and reach for the light. At the top of the image, just barely within her grasp, is a lunar moth ...symbol of intuition and transformation.
I love the original version of the circus. The curious, hobbled together fantasy world brought to us by outcasts and misfits. I remember a small traveling circus just of this sort that came to our little town when my son was about 4 years old. He was mesmerized. He fell instantly in love with the girl on the ropes and, mouth agape, could not take his eyes off her. I could almost feel his little mind being blown open as I sat next to him.
There is something about the provocative mix of daring feats, voyeurism, and oddities on proud display that draws us in and feels both exotic and a little dangerous. Who are these people? And what is that life like - in that tightly bound eclectic community on the road?
This shoot was an homage to one of my favorite movies, Amelie. I love how this movie uses color as such a direct corollary to emotion, and the bittersweet tug-of-war between the desire to connect and the fear of exposure. The theme of how we create excuses for not fully living our lives is one that I return to again and again as a gentle reminder.
I love alien films - and anything having to do with outer space. I wanted to explore an ongoing theme that fascinates me - how we perceive of "the other" and the fears we have around that, and how in the end we always realize we have more in common than not.
“You are made of stardust…don’t forget to twinkle”
I wanted to visually revisit the sweet time of childhood when everything was still possible, and nature held magic behind every rock and knoll. When the appearance of a particular configuration of mushrooms held the promise of tiny ethereal beings that beckoned you into their otherworldly domain. Where is was possible to be friends with butterflies, and one with nature.
Ideas are elusive. Thoughts come and go like so many quarks. I wanted to try to capture this in a much more literal sense - something grounded in earthly measures. Like rats. Those creatures that manage to survive in even the most subterranean worlds - how they circle our consciousness and pop up in inopportune moments.
Theories abound when it comes to The Magdalene, who’s name also means “The Tower”....but what really interests me is who she was as a real woman who clearly had an important role and voice as a close follower of Jesus, but who was maligned and minimized by the other apostles, and who’s true importance was overshadowed by popular myths that had no foundation in scripture or history. Scholars now believe, in spite of the possible conflation of all the Marys, that she was indeed a healer and a practitioner of the art of anointing, and very likely taught those skills to Jesus himself. Being the first to witness the risen Christ she was technically the first Christian - the Apostle to the Apostles, even though as a woman she was not given that title or stature. She seemed to grasp the more metaphysical understanding of who Jesus was and what his message was, rather than the mere literal understanding that was the more dominant male, hierarchical view. I wanted to show her as a real woman standing in her power of vulnerability and feminine understanding. Her story is as relevant today as it was then...we still see the same minimization and defamation of women as common tactics of subjugation. Suggest that she is a prostitute, and you immediately lessen both her status and her legitimacy… And it’s interesting to note that so often it is the woman’s sexuality that is the target, whether it be elevating her virginity or denigrating her as sexually promiscuous. What would the written text - as well as the translations and interpretations of it be today if the other half of humanity had had a voice in it? Huge thanks to the fabulous HMUA @lisaboehmbeauty and to our gorgeous model @kiran_a_r_quadeer