Sarah Wilson began photographing at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2005 while working as a stills photographer on the PBS-funded film “The Eyes of Me.” Wilson was awarded the 2008 PhotoNOLA Review Prize for her “Blind Prom” series and will present a solo show of this work at the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery, opening this month (November 27 – Jan.24). Interviewed here by Ann Marie Popko.
How do you describe your photographic style?
I typically describe my work as documentary portraiture – telling the story of a community or subculture through portraits of individuals that comprise that group.
When and how did you start your career as a professional photographer?
I would say I officially started my photographic career the day I graduated from NYU. Each year, one graduating senior from the Photography and Imaging Department is awarded the Daniel Rosenberg Memorial Fellowship. This grant helps to support one project of the graduate’s choice and a solo exhibition one year later. I was the fortunate recipient of this award from my graduating class.
I believe that having this opportunity made an impact on how my career has progressed. The pressure of a solo show looming on the horizon was a call to action. I was charged with working on my photographic point of view right away. The impetus to realize a solid body of work led to the next body of work…and the next chapter of opportunities.
I would go on to assist photographers for several years after that, but I was always working on a personal project simultaneously.
How did your “Blind Prom” work begin?
I began photographing at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in 2005 while working as a stills photographer on the PBS-funded film “The Eyes of Me.” This documentary follows four visually impaired teens through one academic year. Since then I have volunteered as the prom night photographer for the school each Spring.
How is your experience different when photographing the blind vs. the sighted?
The students have varying degrees of visual impairments, and those that were once sighted usually have memories of how they were photographed in the past. For those that were born blind, however, the definition of “smile for the camera” can be very different. They didn’t tend to self-consciously posture themselves as sighted teenagers often do, thus their true vulnerability and humanity is accessible to the camera.
As the winner of the PhotoNOLA 2008 Portfolio Reviews, what do you think made your work stand out to reviewers?
I came to last year’s PhotoNOLA with a box of prints from my BLIND PROM project and my editorial portfolio. My first reviewers responded very well to the images, and I guess they spread the word to other reviewers. I had several requests to see the work over the course of the weekend, even from reviewers with whom I did not have scheduled meetings. I believe that the project was successful at PhotoNOLA because the concept and title spark immediate interest. It’s a unique look at a familiar rite of passage, but what I have come to understand is that the structure of the prom night photo sessions is simply a vehicle for introducing the viewer to the lives of blind and visually impaired teenagers.
The images are colorful, and they document the emotion and teenage energy of the night. I am always clear in that I’m not telling a sad story with these pictures, but I feel they are almost impossible to take lightly. More than anything, I believe that viewers have had an emotional response to the subjects in the pictures.
Could you offer any advice to photographers who will be bringing their portfolios to the 2009 Reviews?
I think it’s a good idea to bring one or two strong, well-edited bodies of work with you. Depending on which reviewer you are meeting, you may want to share one dimension of your work over another.
I would study ALL of the reviewers’ bios before coming to PhotoNOLA, because you will definitely have an opportunity to meet more than just the reviewers assigned to you.
Also, give some thought about what you want to say about your work during your reviews, because those twenty minutes fly by very quickly. You don’t have to memorize anything, but make sure to have a few goals in mind for each meeting. Share your passion and insight about your work with the reviewer. Your ability to talk about the work can make a difference in the success of your meeting.
Do you have a mantra that you follow in your creative life?
I try hard to listen to my instincts about things. The reason why I like one image over another or one angle over another can be hard to explain in words, but sometimes, when I am shooting, I can almost physically feel an adrenaline rush when I know I’ve got it right. Listening to these instincts defines one’s style.
If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be doing?
If I were not a photographer, I think I would be a therapist. Much like a therapist, I enjoy listening to people’s life stories and helping them sit with their emotions. Additionally, when I am taking someone’s portrait, I am inviting them to be vulnerable. The camera lens acts as a mirror, which can be sobering to stare into. As photographers we have the power to distort reality, so it is with real trust that someone allows me to create an interpretation of who they are.
What are you currently working on? Any upcoming shows/projects/news?
I am excited to announce that BLIND PROM will be featured at the Lishui Photography Festival in China at the end of November. I also continue to photograph at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and have started documenting the students’ lives and activities beyond prom night.
Sarah Wilson Solo Exhibit
New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery
1111 St. Mary Street
Nov. 27-Jan. 24
Wilson will give a Gallery Talk about her Blind Prom series at NOPA on December 13, 7-8pm.
Free and open to the public.