April 3, 2012

Interview: Thea Coughlin

I've just come home from a mini trip with my next guest: Photographer, Thea Coughlin. We talked a lot about photography, mainly how it has evolved for the both of us as a form of storytelling. I have seen her personal growth over the years reflected directly in her work, each moment holding her presence within the frame. I am super delighted to welcome her here to 52 Photos Project!  Please meet:

Thea Coughlin

When did you begin to develop an interest in photography?

My interest and exploration in photography began a few years after my mother passed away. Being the only child of a single parent, losing her was a uniquely painful experience for me, and my sense of loss was rekindled after my son was born in 2005. I longed to have my own mother's love, support and shoulder to lean on in my brand new role as parent. I had a powerful need to have her present in some tangible way as part of my life, as well as my newborn son's. My mother was an avid gardener and had a personal, non-professional passion for photography. I found comfort in looking through printed photographs she had taken of her world around her, and the pictures of us together. When the anniversary of her birthday came around in November, 2005, I picked up my digital camera (it was the original Canon G1) and began to take nature photographs as a way of feeling more spiritually connected to her. My practice and study of photography evolved into a meditative process where I grew closer to her spirit and expanded my own. I have explored other ways of expressing my creativity, but none have resonated with me like photography, which has over time become a deeply personal celebration of beauty, creativity and love...and the memory of my mother.

Take me back to those first years and if you could, tell me about the paths you explored to expand on your craft.

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time on flickr. I posted images and joined various groups, spending a lot of time studying the images that "spoke" to me and experimenting with my photography technique. I read countless threads in flickr groups and on message boards where people talked about their various photography and editing techniques. I am a researcher and explorer by nature, and a teacher by education - when I become interested in a topic I love figuring out how to do it to the finest detail. I have read photography books, watched instructional/technical DVD's and taken a number of excellent photography workshops taught by some renowned professionals, but I have found that for me, hands-on experimentation and exploration is by far the most valuable way I have improved my craft.

Do you feel as though your photos reflect or reveal pages of your own story?

Absolutely!  How so?

As I mentioned earlier, I have a deep passion for learning. Observation and information gathering are fascinating exercises for me. Photography has been a form of self-discovery and a serves as my life teacher. My subject matter tells a story about what I am deeply interested in, what speaks to my heart, what I find fascinating.

Early on, flower and still-life work allowed me to connect with and visit upon the spirit of my mother, while fostering an appreciation for the limitless beauty that surrounds us.

Shortly thereafter, I began exploring self portraiture through Self Portrait Tuesday. At that time, I was reevaluating my work/life balance as I transitioned from being a full time high school Biology teacher to a stay-at-home mom.

I then migrated to portrait work as I pined over memories of my own childhood. I wanted to be sure my son Trey would have plenty of photographs to look back upon later in his life.
Concurrently, my husband and I were going through infertility treatments and suffered multiple pregnancy losses. After we decided to stop our attempts to have a second baby, I soothed the longing in my heart for another child by surrounding myself with the love of photographing newborns.

Being an only child of a single parent I learned, and continue to learn, much about the dynamics of families through the act of photographing them. In the process, I meditate on what qualities are most important for me to have in the relationships I have with my own family.

The idea for my Spirit Sessions developed as I began exploring my creativity more deeply and found a need to better balance my role as mother and as an artist. Being able to envision, look back, nourish and validate this process in others is essential to my own growth.

Tell me about your Across the Room series of self portraits and what stories the photos you've taken so far have revealed to you?

Across the Room arose from the convergence of a few different idea paths. As I began to meet and learn about other artists and creatives, I was consistently intrigued by their stories, their lives, and their processes.  I wanted to help tell the story of who they are, to share all their humanness and uniqueness with others. Capturing the "realness" and normalcy of their lives in photographs. To my astonishment, I learned that many of these absolutely amazing artists often felt self conscious about what their house/studio/spaces looked like. To me, this was a huge disconnect. Here were all these creative, amazing people who felt their surroundings didn't reflect them as they wanted to be seen, yet this was where they lived and where they create from.  Then it dawned on me that I too felt the same way about my home and work space, and in the sense of tackling my own disjointed perception face-on, the Across the Room series came to be.

It might help better explain things if I step back a bit, please bear with me...  along the way of taking family portraits for a living, I felt something missing in my style. I wanted candor and realness, yet couldn't figure out how to get to that level of comfort and ease out of my clients, where I could just be an observer in their home without my presence influencing their behavior. Could anyone become that comfortable while having a photographer around? Would they like what they saw? Many of my clients wanted more "traditional" portraits, or at least I thought they did and ended up doing relaxed but posed shots. Hey, if someone was going to invest time and money to get photographs of their family, I was responsible for giving them the images they wanted, right?

At the same time, I longed for photographs of my own family to tell the story of what our life was like, yet I couldn't find any photographers that had this style of work in their portfolio. I started to question if I wanted to see the truth. How am I living my life? How are we as a family? What does our love look like? All these questions I pondered for months. It seemed to me that it might be possible if I was able to photograph a family multiple times a year. This intrigued me. I really wanted to help people capture the day-in and day-out...the love in our everyday experiences. I found that many people love photography and would love this sort of documentation, but can't budget the hiring of a professional photographer to follow them around to capture all these daily, day-in-the-life moments. Many of the moms that hire me are very self-critical of themselves, this isn't a flaw, it's something I think most of us moms kind of gravitate to as a normal state. What if I could teach moms how to photograph themselves with their families? Hmm, I guess you have to learn something before you can teach it, right?

It clicked for me that I could practice this type of self-portraiture just like I had practiced self portraiture at arms length years ago.  I decided to challenge myself to capture myself from "across the room", while doing some normal daily activity on a weekly basis.   I welcome anyone else interested in this type of exploration to join me. I look forward to sharing what I learn with others so that they can be empowered to do the same.

When did you begin your Spirit Sessions and what inspired you to move into sharing other people's stories through photography?

The notion for Spirit Sessions was born at Squam ArtWorkshops, when I began photographing those artists who came to the retreat to open up new possibilities and see themselves in a new light. I began a creative journey working with Elizabeth -  I photographed her during each session I attended and through that process Spirit Sessions were born. Spirit Sessions are about the connection between me and my subject. It begins with what I like to refer to as "spirit work", where we reflect back to them the love and beauty I see, so they can personally resonate with the truth of the beauty that resides within them. Then I take out my camera and document through pictures the discovery that was done through our conversations and time spent together one-on-one. On some level, we all crave to be really seen and loved - to have others truly see us as we see ourselves on our best days. Right now, Spirit Sessions are more personal declarations than stories. I have a new offering in the works that combines Across the Room with Spirit Sessions, it will be coming out soon.  I am so excited by this new idea, it will focus more purely on storytelling.  So often people don't see themselves as others see them. Having people see themselves as I see them, in all their wonderfully creative and inspirational glory, is one of the greatest gifts I ever receive.

When do you feel most inspired to go shooting, just for fun?

When I am taking a trip to a new place or going on an adventure with my family.

Would you share the links to the photographers or books that have guided or inspired you?

The most valuable book I have read is Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson.  The most valuable instruction I received was from the One Light Workshop DVD by Zack Arias.

Photographers that inspire me?

Oh this question overwhelms me a bit, because there is such a plethora of photographers who have inspired me and so many that I admire and enjoy their work that there is no way I could put together an inclusive list here.  I am a very in the moment person so I will share who is inspiring me the most right now. That seems a bit more manageable.

This weekend you documented our time together so beautifully, yet I didn’t even notice you doing it. I was so focused on connecting with you that I didn’t take any shots. I have been holding on to this notion that picture taking has to be a deep meditative process. You inspire me and I thank you for being the catalyst to my lightening up and bringing some play into my day by capturing little details and sharing them on Instagram. This is a really big shift and I am excited about it.

I also recognize that I miss the meditative experience I have when on photo dates with myself and that I no longer make time for them. Elizabeth Duvivier regularly makes time to get out and take pictures and the progression of her photography simply blows me away. I want to see that progression in my own work and the only way to make that happen is to shoot more.

Currently I am very interested in exploring black and white candid life photography. SallyMann’s  family portraiture is so raw and the quality of the images is phenomenal. Her images bring me to tears. I have been looking at her work a lot lately and recently watched a documentary on her work.

DebSchwedhelm’s black and white photographs of her own children in the living moments, stay with me long after I view them and are a great inspiration. The rawness of her images, her technique and style bring me back to viewing her images on a regular basis.

I love the spirit work that Jesh Derox does with his Beloved sessions. He inspires me to be bold in describing what I do authentically rather than get caught up with that it may sound too woo woo.

Photographer AshleyAnn documents her family story and day to day details, and shares the technical and artistic process with her readers. I admire how she chose to let go of her thriving portrait business to teach photography and empower people to not only photograph their own families but also encourages the photographer to get from behind the camera and into the shot.

She wrote two great posts about getting yourself in the shot that really moved me here and here.

I also love how Amy Gretchen photographs her day to day life. She does an amazing job at getting out from behind the camera. She values the documentation of her life and I get a true sense of the love she shares with her family from her photographs. I love visiting her blog.

On the subject of family photography, Denise Andrade is a dear friend who does an amazing job at documenting her life and her son daily. Although I haven’t had the chance to meet her son, I feel as though I truly know him, simply through her photographs of him in action. She explores every moment and you are able to see a full range of emotions, and experiences through her work.That to me is powerful. She inspires me to photograph my son more.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a deep passion for learning. Observation and information gathering are fascinating exercises for me. Photography has been a form of self-discovery and a serves as my life teacher. My subject matter tells a story about what I am deeply interested in, what speaks to my heart, what I find fascinating.

Thea ~ Thank you so much for sharing so intimately how your photography journey unfolded. You are a storyteller, an inspiration to me and so many others. I cannot wait to see where your creative path will lead to. xo

Bio:  In addition to her portrait and commercial photography business, Thea has also collaborated as photographer on book projects with Sarah Ahearn and Samantha Cotterill. Her work has been featured in numerous magazines including: Country Living, Somerset Studio, Where Women Create, Connection and Healthy Life. When she is not photographing commercial jobs, clients, or teaching photography workshops, you may find her hiking in the woods with her husband and son, climbing trees, riding her bike with the wind in her hair or laughing with those she loves.

You can connect with Thea through her website Thea Coughlin Photography, Across the Room Flickr Group, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram (@theacouglin)

*All photos have been posted with the permission of Thea Coughlin.
*Photos of Thea by: Bella Cirovic


michelle gd said...

such a lovely, lovely interview...reading through this brought to me a sense of peace and wonder. so much of what you've said, thea, resonates with me, and your images are infused with love and life. i am looking forward to taking your spirit session class at fall squam! so lovely to get this glimpse of you here...

Jennifer said...

what a lovely interview. thea's words spoke to the heart of why i first picked up a camera as well. thank you for posting this. i love the idea of giving someone the freedom to open up and tell their secret story and show them their true selves, that to me is true portraiture...

thea said...

Bella-thank you for giving me this opportunity to reflect on and share my story. It is something I haven't given time to do and the practice provided me with much insight. Thank you for seeing me and for the beautiful photographs. It is so rare that I am seen through another photographer's eyes. Being the subject is enlightening. I now have a sense of how important it is for us as photographers to gain perspective on the tenderness involved with having your photographs taken.Thank you. Your work is so lovely. xoxoxo

Bella Cirovic said...

Love you big!! xo

thea said...

Michelle~I loved the insight your interview shared and enjoy your photographs. I so look forward to having you in my class in the fall! So lovely meeting you Jennifer. I really enjoyed looking through your blog, your images are beautiful and your post about turning 40 really resonated with me.

mysticvixen said...

oh Bella--- THANK YOU for this. Thea is such a magic spirit and has so much to share with all of us. My life has been totally and completely enhanced, expanded and enlightened by our time together and there is not one day I don't give thanks for her being in my life, I feel so blessed to know Thea and wish that every one could. xoox, e

Karen D said...

I loved learning more about your Story Thea..truly lovely.


Sam said...

I love reading more about Thea's process and how it's evolved - so fascinating! I love your work, Thea!