February 13, 2012

Interview: Sarah Stevens

What I love most about hosting this project is that I am always on the lookout to connect with photographers who are new to me. Such is the case with Sarah Stevens. I don't know how our paths crossed, but they did - and I am delighted about that! Through her replies, I've learned that Sarah is passionate about her work. I am so excited to share our chat with you. Please meet:

When did you begin to develop an interest in photography? Take me back to those first years and if you could, tell me about the paths you explored to expand on your craft.

I like to think of photography as something I inherited from my family. My grandfather was a photographer, as are my mom & uncle. There was always a camera around growing up. So it never occurred to me not to take photographs.

My first year of high school (back in 1995), I enrolled in photography as an elective. Up to then, I had only used a point and shoot or a Polaroid. Grandpa let me borrow an old Kodak Retina SLR for the course. I was thrilled at the prospect of learning how to use it and make my own prints! Plus, I had a whole romantic idea of working under the red light.

On the first day of class, we toured the school darkroom---I can still visualize the layers of butcher paper taped on windows to keep the light out. The instructor gave us an introductory lesson on “seeing” and the power of the photograph. He’d been a war photographer during Vietnam and shared his most moving work with us during the lecture. If I had to pick a moment when I distinguished photography as an art form & process, as a form of activism, it was in that first class.

Do you feel as though your photos reflect or reveal pages of your own story? How so?
Absolutely! The best way I can explain is with a story that few people know about me.

When I was 21, I married to a man who was handsome & charming. But behind closed doors he was unstable and abusive. At the time, I had a silly notion that my love might heal his wounds, so I stuck around despite the violence. As time went by, I stopped having friends of my own. I stopped having any sort of life or hobbies at all because he had me so emotionally confined.

Two years later, on a random Utah day, I received a Nikon SLR in the mail from my mom. I don’t think she had any idea how profoundly it would affect me. But, her gift rekindled my photography and my life!

That Nikon and I travelled everywhere together. I used to drop off my husband at work and secretly drive deep into the desert. I took photos of barbed wire, of abandoned railcars, rusting junked out cars, broken glass, abandoned gas stations. I took pictures of anything that resonated with how I felt during that time in my life… alone.. abandoned.. worn out.. friendless.

The camera became my best friend and my best therapy. It opened a door. Gave me a way out into the world! Because of that Nikon, I had a medium to reflect on “the pages of my story.” Those photos helped me see what my life had become. Three months later, it gave me courage to leave the abusive relationship. My camera led me to get a degree in art, and start a fresh new life.

What do you love to photograph most? If you had to step out of your comfort zone, what would you photograph?
I love using photography as a social practice that involves my community. But I am also lit-up by working with the land and the light. It gives me so much peace. I especially love to capture the beauty of family & friends, of artists, healers, musicians and fellow writers~ all the people in my creative tribe! For me, photography is so much about process & having my camera with me everywhere. It‘s hard to narrow down what I love to shoot the most.

If I had to step outside my comfort zone, it would definitely mean stepping in front of the camera. Funny though, I’m also very attracted to that idea. I know it would be cathartic for me to create a body of self-portraiture work. Maybe someday soon I’ll find the courage.

Would you share three of your own tips to capture a great photo with the readers?
The best tips I can give are ones I keep in mind for my own work these days. I hope they can help other photographers as well.

My first tip is to focus on the elements & principles of design---line, value, texture, color, rhythm, balance and harmony. Learning or brushing up on the basics of composition is helpful no matter where we are on our journey.

My second tip would be to ask what makes our work the most effective instead of what makes it great. I don’t so much believe in “great” photos when it comes to artistic growth. Questions of effectiveness can open space for us to step outside value judgments of good and bad. They create room for us to look at our photography with compassion.

Finally, the soul of me says the best tip I can give is to listen to your heart. To search out the soul of your subject and make that your focus. Trust your eye. Trust your intuition. Use the camera as a way to communicate how you feel. Your viewers will pick up on that emotion and respond with their own feelings. It’s beautiful when we can connect in that way!

When do you feel most inspired to go shooting?
In December I began a 365/366 project I call Solstice to Solstice. Since 2012 might be our last year, it’s what we do and experience in this moment that matters. Even if life goes on past this year, I am inspired by the question of 2012, the question of existence… of my own mortality. The one that says, “This is your one short life. What will you do with it?” The solstice project is a way to answer. It is a practice in mindfulness and gratitude.

I know it’s a broad answer, sort of existential but, I feel inspired to shoot when I remember what an unexpected occurrence it is that we exist! The very fact that we are here on this blue orb… you, me, cats, sea turtles, bacteria, we’re all these amazing miracles of being-ness. The sun shinning down. In the blink of an eye our lives come and go. Short and beautiful and brilliant! The fact that we can be AWARE of our lives… the fact that we FEEL… that we EXPERIENCE… we LOVE… we CREATE…  What a gift! When I am in the flow with life, or when I need to be healed, that is when I am most inspired to shoot.

Would you share the links to the photographers or books that have guided or inspired you?
There are many fantastic resources out there for photographers! I recommend reading God is at Eye Level by Jan Philips. She taught me about creating work with soul. Also The PhotographersEye by Michael Freeman has a ton of great compositional tips! The War ofArt by Steven Pressfield is amazing too! It’s a must have for anyone laboring to create. In terms of what inspires me, The Mother Project, a film about Tierney Gearon’s work is also so beautiful and inspired me in a million ways!

Thank you Sarah for sharing your stories so candidly here with us today. You work is so honest and inspiring. Here's to capturing many more moments in 2012.

Sarah Stevens is a photographer, writer, and social practices artist. She holds a BA in art practices from Portland State University and has shown her work at galleries in Oregon and California. You can find out more and keep up to date on her projects via the MountainRose Photography page on Facebook or through her Flickr stream.

*All photos have been posted with permission from Sarah Stevens