TVO for non-Ontarians!

This just in:
If you’ve been reading my reports of the TVO photography documentaries with envy, guess what?!? You can watch some of them online. So what should you watch first? The Mother Project fer sher. And I’m also happy about this because I missed Girl in the Mirror… woot! Now go forth and watch movies that are VERY hard to find from rental stores.
But first, here are some recent pictures of mine…

left over


fallen things-6


more thoughts on exploitation

Thanks to TVO, I’ve now seen Tierney Gearon: The Mother Project and What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally Mann.

In my explorations of motherhood and photography, I’ve mentioned Tierney Gearon here and there, but not in much detail. I was troubled by her work, but also felt that I hadn’t seen enough of it to comment on it. Today I discovered that you can actually see her pictures on her website. I don’t find it intuitive, but if you go to Exhibitions, you can select which exhibition you want to look at, then scroll through the pictures through arrow buttons on the images.

I watched The Mother Project halfway through, then stopped because I wanted to discuss it with my husband. So I got him to watch it all the way through with me. (Although, funnily enough we haven’t actually discussed it yet. Whatever. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.) Going into it, my vague feeling was that it’s kind of wrong to use your kids for your own expression, especially if you’re using them as a metaphor or archetype (as I touched on here). I’ve also always bristled at language around one’s children being one’s great work of art or one’s great project. Children are individuals too, not just products of their parents. Not only that, but I suspect that publishing pictures of your children naked makes them vulnerable, although to what I don’t really know.

Before watching the two documentaries, I probably would have put both Tierney Gearon’s and Sally Mann’s work into the category of using their kids as metaphors. Indeed, just before I stopped The Mother Project halfway through, Gearon was speaking to the camera about how her photography is her way or processing things and that sometimes she feels bad about it but that she doesn’t think it’s really hurting her children. The first time around, I thought “Yeah, right.” But once I finished watching the whole documentary, I’ve changed my mind.

I mean, mothers are people too.

I guess what I realized is that Gearon wasn’t really using her kids as metaphors. She was using photography as a way to express and process her own experiences, and given that her own mother is mentally ill, chances are her experiences and expressions are going to be strange. And there’s no doubt that her pictures are weird and disturbing. But they’re also fascinating and original, and I don’t really think she is damaging her kids by making them. (And from a practical standpoint, clothing can really interfere with universality, since it situates them in a specific time and place. And I suspect that great photographs need an element of universality to be great.)

Well, maybe she is, but that’s kind of what parents do, isn’t it? Parents wound and embarrass their kids, and often in ways they have no awareness of. And kids are pretty resilient.

I think the reason that Gearon’s and Mann’s work has been controversial is not because the children are naked or semi-naked. I think it’s because the work challenges our idealizations of childhood and family.

* * *

Around the same time, I checked out some videos on youtube of Jeff Mermelstein, a New York City street photographer that Donald Weber mentioned. (The video is in three parts.) In the first part, he says:

“I’m a voyeur. I’m not asking people if I can take their picture. Even if they’re on a public stage, I’m in a sense stealing something from them without asking them. [...] You couldn’t do the kind of photography I do if you spoke to the people before taking their picture. I myself feel no guilt about that. [...] I’m totally comfortable and cosy because I know I’m not trying to hurt anyone with the camera. It’s what I do, it’s how I respond to… people.”

Which got me to thinking.

All this time I’ve felt guilty for making pictures of other people, pictures that people might not like of themselves. Pictures that they might not want published. It’s kind of been my standard: would the subject be ok with this picture being published? My response to that guilt has been to be totally transparent with my subjects and turn it into a collaboration. But maybe that guilt is just a product of our culture’s obsession with image. Why should people have control over their image? What harm can really come out of having a less than flattering image of you published? I’ve already said that I’m not interested in making pretty pictures of people. And many, many photographers have talked about the tension between the photographer’s agenda and the subject’s, the challenge of getting behind the subject’s facade to capture something real.

So what do you think of all this?

* * *

PS TVO is showing The True Meaning of Pictures, which I blogged about last October I think, tonight at 10 p.m. Be sure to check it out if you can.

Also, So You Think You Can Dance (US) starts tonight. And finally, Fox renewed Dollhouse AND Castle, two of my new favourite shows. Yay!

day 2

Day 2 of the Donald Weber documentary photography workshop was just as great as day 1. Here are a few quotes from him that really have me thinking.

“It’s not about making one picture to say 25 things. It’s about making 25 pictures to say one thing.”

“You lost out because you wanted to make a pretty picture.”

“Take the bloody picture and think about it later.”

“You need to both react and anticipate.”

“My favourite pictures almost never make it into the edit.”

“Put everything you have into making an excellent photo. Then top it.”

“You’re not their PR agent.”

“You have to do your subjects justice but you also have to do the story justice.”

“If you see something interesting, follow it. You never know what’s gonna happen.”

“Sometimes it’s ok to be out of focus. Maybe it’s not a bad picture that’s out of focus. Maybe it’s a good picture that’s out of focus.”

“Tape your zoom lens off at 28 mm. If you want it, walk for it.”

And finally, the one that’s really got me thinking:

“Stop being the photographer you think you should be and just be the photographer you want to be.”

It was an amazing two days, and the week of shooting was great too. It didn’t result in great pictures, but I pushed my boundaries and I learned a lot as a result. I think I got the most from having Don critique my actual work. It’s the first time I’ve gotten feedback from such an accomplished photographer. But all of his critiques were gold no matter whose work he was talking about. If he gives another workshop, even if it’s very same one, I’d totally go again. He’s got a charming combination of brusqueness, compassion, and zeal for the medium.

If you’re in the Toronto area next weekend, be sure to check out his free artist talk at the Pikto Gallery in the Distillery District. It’s on Saturday, May 23, from 2 to 4 p.m. Also, buy his book, because Don’s awesome and so are his pictures.

over before it started

Last night I went to bed with visions of the images I could make today, of people I’d begun talking to yesterday that I would approach for photographs. The visions were the first thoughts I woke to this morning. I went to the centre with more spring in my step than I’ve had all week.

Shortly after I arrived, however, Sister Christine told me not to make anymore pictures. She said I had enough already, and besides this isn’t a place for taking pictures. She told me to go to a church or Tim Horton’s. I tried to explain what I was doing, but she didn’t remember the conversation we’d had about a year ago, when I thought I’d gotten her permission to photograph there, provided I always got consent.

Well, shit.

(I get why she said this, I do. And I’ll totally respect her wishes. But I’m sad. Partly about project, but also about what she may think of me.)



These are the key points from Donald Weber’s workshop last weekend that I’ve been trying to put into practice this week, in no particular order:

  1. You have to take risks.
  2. Just shoot it. You never know.
  3. Know what you want to say. This one is hard. It took him four years to figure it out for himself.
  4. Shoot when you don’t feel like shooting.
  5. There’s always something going wrong. It’s all about how you deal with it.
  6. You need a body of work. Get that first before you chase assignments. They will come from the body of work.
  7. Connect with people. Have empathy. Eat and drink and laugh with them. Be willing to put yourself out there.
  8. Editing (that is, selecting and sequencing, not post-processing) is key. It’s not just about choosing the best pictures. It’s about stories and concepts, both literal and figurative.

I’ve been going to the drop-in centre every morning. On Monday, I tried to go all day, but I ran out of steam and dropped into an exhausted and stressed-out heap as soon as I got home. I didn’t feel like going back. I worried that people thought I was intruding, exploiting. I worried that I actually was. I felt uncomfortable, and yet compelled to continue.

I went back Tuesday morning, even though I didn’t feel like it. But this time I knew I had to pace myself. So I only planned to go for the morning, and I had to meet someone else at noon anyways. I was exhausted again when I got home around 2. I had scheduled a photoshoot with a belly dancer for the evening, and I was dreading it. I didn’t know how I’d get my energy up for it. And what was the point anyways?

But I remembered Don’s words, about shooting when you don’t feel like it, so I did it. And I got my energy back and we had a lot of fun. Here are a few of my favourites:




This morning, I went to John’s house, who very kindly agreed to let me photograph him there. It was kind of intense. I left feeling a bit weird. Emotional or something. Feeling bad again, that I’d invaded his privacy even though he invited me in. I felt like my photographing him and his home made him sad. He talked about having distanced himself from everyone in the 24 years since his MS diagnosis.

Afterwards, I almost didn’t go to the drop-in centre. I was feeling raw, and like I’d probably just annoyed people anyways. But I also felt like if I didn’t go back today, I might never. And I really didn’t want that to happen.

I saw Tony there shortly after I arrived, who I photographed a few weeks ago and whose prints I’d been carrying around almost ever since. He was delighted with the pictures. “You’re a good photographer,” he said. “Has anyone every told you that?” He was even more delighted when he realized the prints were for him to keep. “Thank you SO much for taking my picture,” he said, and then he gave me a huge bear hug.


The woman on the right is Jenny. I’d talked to her about my project on Monday, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to ask her if it was ok for me photograph her. Today (before I took this shot), I asked her. “Oh!” she said. “That’s so nice you asked. Some people don’t.”

She said it reminded her of something she learned in rehab. There, they had to make sure to ask people permission before they touched anyone, even just a light touch. Because some people don’t like being touched.  I really like that analogy, of photographing being like touching. Certainly, it feels like that to me.

Throughout all this, I noticed a guy I hadn’t seen there before. I would love to make a picture of him, but I refrained, not sure of whether he’d be ok with it. So instead I just smiled, and he smiled back. After a while, I realized in fact I’d photographed him a few years ago, outside the youth drop-in centre (he’s in the first picture in the post I linked to). He came up to me and introduced himself. His name is Door, like front door. We talked about the photo I’d made, and I offered to give him a print and we talked about how I could get it to him. Our conversation seemed to be coming to a close, when he said, “I just have to tell you, I get a really good feeling from you. I just have this good feeling about what you’re doing, that you’re doing a good thing. So keep doing it.”

I went home and cried, but it was kind of a good cry.

I still don’t know if I’ll be able to make the kind of photos I want to make on this project, but I feel a lot better about trying.

this week

I booked this week off work in anticipation of the shooting assignment for Saturday’s workshop with Don Weber. So my goal for this week is to get out in the world and shoot. I’m easily distracted by the machine that I’m typing this on, but not this week.

I’ve spent the last several weeks thinking of projects. I know what I’d like to do, but it’s scary for me, so I kept coming up with other ideas to replace the scary one. But Don’s whole theme on Saturday was about taking risks – not physical risks, per se, although it certainly sounds like he’s taken his fair share – but pksychological risks. He urged us to use this assignment to face the things that we avoid. And so I will just do it.

Stay tuned later this week or early next for updates…

In the meantime, you better not see me on twitter or facebook too much.

random stuff

Ok, last night’s episode of Dollhouse was AMAZING! Surely Fox can’t cancel it now?!? (Dear Fox: DO NOT CANCEL DOLLHOUSE.)

This morning I’m off to my very exciting workshop with Donald Weber. Not only am I looking forward to hear about his ways of working and what advice he can offer us, but he has an exhibition up at the studio where he’s teaching, all as part of the Contact Festival.

And finally, there is a stunning slideshow up at burn magazine by Lori Vrba. I find it spellbinding. So I went to her website and looked through all her work. I love it. It’s magical without being sentimental. If she lived nearby, I would gladly hire her to photograph my family – which is not something I’ve ever thought of any other photographer since I photograph him so much myself. She shoots film exclusively, and processes and prints it all herself. She tones the prints with tea and selenium, and I love the warmth of that effect. I also see she’s created a short film, which I really like, but I was frustrated by the lack of streaming – it seems to take a long time to download and it kept stopping. I expect it wasn’t really optimized for the web, but it’s worth being patient to watch it.

six degrees

Yesterday morning I walked to work by myself, and it was stunning. Everything was dark and shiny with sun and recent rain. I watched raindrops all lit up by the sunlight like diamonds or something fall from trees. I saw sunrays streaking through a slight mistiness in the air. I wanted to take pictures at every step, but I was late, and my camera was packed under a bunch of other gear.

I cried a good part of the way, from the beauty, and exhaustion, and this week’s reminders that life is just way too short to take anything for granted. I feel weird that things that really have nothing to do with me – or at least that affect other people far more profoundly than I could presume to imagine – would affect me so deeply (and I’m not talking about swine flu). I found out on Wednesday that a local flickrite – one of my first contacts on flickr I’m sure – died on Monday. I only found out on Saturday that he was sick, and it really upset me.

The thing is, I never actually met him. I kept thinking that our paths would just cross naturally. I thought it was just a matter of time. We both have young families, we live within several blocks of one another, we have overlapping interests. Indeed, my husband met him once or twice in job interviews. Surely one Saturday we’d see one another with our families and cameras in the park or something. But it never happened.

I keep thinking about the word hospice, how the report I saw said a crew of loved ones were making his living room into a hospice. I keep thinking about how it must feel to know you are dying when your kids are still so young, or how it must feel to know your partner and the father of your kids is dying. But it’s truly unimaginable. I wondered how to reach out to them now, or if that would even be appropriate. Could I leave a lasagne on their stoop? Or send a flickr message to him? Would he even be online? Probably not… A message to his wife? To say what? I thought I had at least a week to figure something out, but on Wednesday I was forwarded a message from one of my work friends. He had already passed on.

Sometimes procrastination doesn’t pay.

I wasn’t sure whether to blog about this. It seems presumptuous to feel so sad about someone I didn’t really know, like an insult to his friends and family. But he did touch my life in a small virtual way, and I am thinking about him and his family a lot, and maybe that’s not an insult at all.


Our house is being invaded by spiders. It peaked last week with the heavy rain, but they keep coming – between 5 and 10 a day. And the squished carcass that we left in the shower as a warning has done nothing. The only thing that comforts me is a vague memory of once reading that spiders bring creativity. Now if only the heebeejeebies didn’t prevent me from sleeping…