Photographs ©Hannah Pierce-Carlson
I’ve enjoyed following Hannah’s journey’s across the globe on Flickr over the last few years, so it’s exciting to feature her photographs and words in Issue #3. After her insightful response to my first question, I decided that this ‘interview’ might turn out a bit different. To me, she’s written three very interesting essays on photography, creativity and her practice. You can view her work and connect with her on her website.
You’ve done quite a bit of moving around the last few years, China, Miami, Texas, Taiwan, back to China. How has this inspired your photography? Do you feel that you use photography to connect with the places you’re living?
To write of forming connections to all of my various places–China, Taiwan, in and around the southern States– I would have to write of my passions for learning languages, travelling, teaching, reading about culture and places, having long conversations, finding and listening to new music, eaves-dropping, eating new food, and ultimately being and moving about outside. For me, connecting to a place, even making thread-bare connections to transient places, requires bits of all of these things and more. The short answer is that photography happens once those connections have already been fired-up.
Here’s the longer answer. I’m a digital, point and shoot picture-taker. I always carry my camera, but that doesn’t mean I’m always about to take a picture, although it does mean the possibility lies dormant in my bag, which is more of a comfort, if anything. As of the last few years, my picture taking has become like a whistling habit. Who whistles when they’re mildly disgruntled? Maybe you know someone, but not me. I “whistle” when I’m happy, when I’m open and receptive. Making pictures is an indicator of that feel-good relationship to my world, rather than a practice I employ to connect me to my world. This hasn’t always been the case.
I used to whistle my way to the connection. In 2006, my first year in China, and my first year taking pictures, almost every day, I’d put on my headphones and go on Beijing walkabouts, crunching over intermittent rubbly landscapes either toward or away from the new glimmering, monolithic ones. I took photos, followed whims, and tried out my Chinese on people. Taking pictures was my primary daily practice, and it was formative. It helped me learn some Chinese, provided momentum to explore Beijing, and eventually other parts of China. That was the year I inadvertently became a photographer; that is, I came to know that I had to mediate my world with picture-taking. And as a habit, it wasn’t going away.
But as a practice, my photography has changed. In 2007, I met Michael Julius; and as our first faces, we fell in love with each other’s photographic visions. Photography was the initial bond, and although the role was never defined as such, he became my mentor. He showed me photography books, told me stories about his life so far spent making pictures. I was only a couple years in, but he had been taking pictures since childhood. He had worked through so many ideas, challenges, projects, and creative stages thus far. And at some point, by nature of our creative personalities, inevitably our approaches to making pictures changed, and it still changes. We are each other’s biggest fan, critic, and mentor, and those aspects of our relationship are the bedrock of everything we make. I’m no longer working alone proving to myself that “I am a photographer,” rather I just am one. Photography is no longer a daily practice, but a non-removable other facet of a very creatively- explored life. It’s both habit/personality and a part of me, like dancing and singing, like playing music when I have instruments, like writing when I get the occasion, like adventure-seeking when there is time, and like telling a story when someone decides they’d like to listen. Photography will be there when the moment materializes and calls for it.
I will not necessarily find my connection by doing any one of them, but by never stopping the ways of seeing and engaging that underlie all of them. What is potentially scary is not not-taking-pictures, but getting mired in daily life minutia, where one’s head in burrowed down in insularity and emotional indifference, endless disgruntled-ness, to the extent that one stops seeing the world in any kind of potentially mutable way. This would be one symptom of some loss of connection to the things that make me me. I haven’t stopped taking pictures so everything must be fine.
I really like how photography seems to have become just one of the many things that you do. So often I feel that people are consumed with photography where that’s all they really think about and how they see themselves. I guess I’m curious about what it is about photography that you’re really attracted to. I mean, why not drawing or painting? What do you think photography communicates that perhaps other mediums can’t?
I’ll go with my gut, and it’s saying that making pictures makes me a better, kinder me. I think I’m seeking empathy when I take pictures of people. I’m drawing ties to them, me and them. I’m gentle to people in pictures in a way I’m not always so outwardly gentle in person. I smile a lot and I’m nice, but, of course, I’m more complicated too- sometimes I can give in to stereotypes (something I’ve learned about myself while living in East Asia), I can harbor disdain, and I don’t always give people the benefit of the doubt, although usually I try.
Perhaps, the people in my pictures don’t deserve my gentle characterization of them. Maybe they’re miserable, bad people, but that’s the “magic.” A photo can recast a person into an anonymous, archetypal role– an “any person” worth being dignified, seen as beautiful, and soft, capable of knowing their own of humor, even knowing their own peculiarity. My photographic world is a fabrication of the world I like to be in, with the characters I like to encounter, despite not knowing who the real people are, despite their complexities being totally un-explored, and despite me giving them a role that they have little say in directing. This small fabrication, a single image, is of course only for me and the people who end up seeing it. If my subjects ever saw a picture of themselves could they even understand their role? Wouldn’t they only see their own face and body, and be distracted by it? I think they’d be incapable of seeing themselves within the whole fabric I’m creating. My subjects hardly get anything so large from the exchange. I get so much more, and incrementally it really affects me.
But ultimately, I have spiritual goals. I’m trying to bring my creative capacity to bear on the goal of finding that allusive sense of peace, and figuring out a way to “just be” in environments that I feel are inherently peace-depleting. The City Broke My Heart is my on-going photo trail of that pursuit. And the pursuit is in how to see everything as potentially “nice” and to not take it for granted. Why strive to see everything as potentially “nice”? I think for me it’s the hardest thing to do. Right now, for instance, I’m looking forward to moving on from China, but I’m really trying to actively appreciate the last months of what has been years of a stops and starts acclimation, but what now feels like a gradual falling out of love. I’m trying to be here and now, and I’m trying to make nice with the present, which brings me to my next point.
Photography is a good present-moment activity; and it has a low-bar of entry—it’s portable; and if you’re shooting digital, it’s instant; and yeah, it’s democratic–it’s the guitar of the visual arts. Photography, at least the way I do it, requires a physical experience to precede an emotional-intellectual one. It involves walking and looking, and hopefully exploring and engaging. But sometimes it happens when I’m doing something quotidian. Suddenly, I see a picture, right in front of me and I stop what I’m doing, or I do two things at once, and I try to get it. I step to the right of my constantly chattering inner monologue. I’m slightly more present. I’m there just trying to make a physical experience, including its associated emotional and intellectual dimensions, fit “right” into a rectangle. Other visual arts start with the mind going out– the image materializes into the world through the hands, which, I guess, is very different than photography. The photographic process is both derivative and transformative– there needs to be a physical space and moment from which to draw on, and then transform. From the photographer’s perspective, it’s one present moment, forever.
Photography can be an incredibly frustrating medium. We fail much more often than we succeed. Sometimes it takes years to finish a project or body of work. Not to mention, once you do finish, the odds of the work reaching a wide audience are very slim. There aren’t many financial rewards. And yet, it seems that more people than ever are making photographs, and going on this journey. There are blogs and zines and Tumblr’s and self-published books. At times, it seems that we might be creating all these photographs for ourselves, or a very small group of friends. Beyond the pleasure of making the photographs, and sharing them with your peers, do you have other ambitions? How do you see your work evolving in the future? Do you envision your work and Michael’s work to continue to merge into one body of work? Is that possible?
As far as my work evolving, I will, at some point, make more digital movie assemblages. Right now, I’m playing with my off- the-shelf, low-tech tools; and with more time, I’ll figure out what I need to do to take it to the next level, but I need to play more. I need to make more digital camera assemblages like Presentiment, which was my first attempt to evolve outside of still images so far.
A while ago, before I came to China, around the time I was graduating college, in a period when I was figuring out that I wanted to be a teacher of something (geography or English?) and that I wanted to live abroad, I came across a Dorling Kindersley Press book called Children Just Like Me. It’s a reference picture book about how children live around the world. Each page is little glimpse of the material life of a child living in the countries of every continent– a picture of the child in his/her everyday clothes, their school, home, and favorite foods and toys. It’s a simple, uplifting little collection, and it shows how children pursue what’s good in their lives. And for some reason, this book was immensely inspiring. Before I even knew how to make a picture, I thought wouldn’t it be great if I turned my travels-to-come into something as valuable as this.
The photographer and writer of that series are a husband and wife team, Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley. In the same milieu, there are some other coffee-table books that I love, Hungry Planet, Material World, and Man Eating Bugs, which were also created by a husband and wife photographer-writer team, Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. They travel and make books that educate about the lives of the people who live in the heart of, on the edges of, and downstream from the engines of globalization. It’s a subject I’m very interested in, too. I’ve used Menzel and D’Aluiso books in my teaching, but someday I’d like to use my own photography to create something as valuable to the everyday, non-photography-affiliated person as their books. I like the idea of making something that’s like a visual encyclopedia or a pseudo-textbook, but draws on my style of lyric photography. Oddly enough, I haven’t bridged the divide between my photography and my everyday life as a teacher. They’re too separated at this point.
I had always thought wouldn’t that be cool to find a partner and husband to travel and make art with. By golly, that’s what happened! But Michael and I are not necessarily going to make work that , like for instance Menzel’s and D’Aluiso’s work. Rather, when I look at my work and then at his, it’s true that our aesthetic sensibilities are similar, the cameras are the same, et cetera, but the content and mood are very different. In our daily work, and in the work that we eventually create for our individual portfolios, we are working towards separate ends and we’re inspired by different inputs. It’s only when we anticipate experiencing the same event that we will plan on collaborating to make a single story.
Xinjiang Time is the most recent and best example of our combined efforts. That trip in particular was extremely stimulating and vivid. Sitting on 10 hour buses, and in boisterous Uyghur restaurants, walking through markets, crunching over inner-city burial grounds, we were always talking about and processing the exoticness that we were experiencing. From that constant conversation a thread emerged which ran itself through the images we happened to take. Once at home, from the pile of images, we pulled out those visual threads that seemed to cohere and complicate our unique takes on the same experience. Rather than a merge into one vision, we see our collaboration more as a duet of two visions. Duets and solos, that’s what we’ll continue to make. As I get better at story-telling, I’ll make grander plans to get my work seen by an audience that is larger than what I have now.
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