|Whitney Saleski (left) and her mom
|Read what is behind Jessica Miller portrait session
|Read what is behind Rayna Flannery portrait session
Suicide does have a stigma. But by photographing the people left behind and those who survived their attempts, and by allowing them to also tell their stories, photographer Whitney Saleski is raising awareness. She's been recognized by Born This Way Foundation, Dayton.com and more and her photographs have appeared at the American Heart Association, High Street Gallery and more. But that's not all she photographs. Take a look at her incredible website.
I'm honored to host her here. Thank you so much, Whitney.
What makes you photograph what you photograph? What do you hope to express?:
I wish I could explain it! The urge to capture and document is overwhelming.
What surprises you in your work? And how do you work? Do you know what you are going to photograph before you photograph it?
How wonderfully and perfectly the elements of a photograph come together is always surprising. The act of balancing light and depth and the subject, itself, is always intriguing--it's a job that you feel is never truly complete. You're always adjusting in your mind long after the photo has been taken. I work in bursts of obsession. If I get locked on a subject, I will stay and photograph it until I know I have "the one." I feel physically and emotionally tied to the subject until that moment of relief arrives. I never know exactly what I am going to photograph when I begin either a studio session or otherwise. I have an idea, but I usually allow the mood and the subject guide me where I need to go. If I am shooting portraiture, I speak to the people sitting for me a lot, and I like to catch them when they are laughing or in the middle of telling a story. I like finding the "in-between" in life. That's where sweetness and vulnerability live.
Who are your influences in photography?
So many! To name a few: Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz, Ed Weston, William Albert Allard, Louis Faurer, Carrie Mae Weems, Amy Powell, Pierre Crocquet, Mary Ellen Mark, Warren Fu, Vivian Maier, Stanley Kubrick, David Guttenfelder, Colin Lane, Abby Ross, Jen Ervin, Sion Sono, and Andres Serrano. My biggest artistic influence, however, is my mom and best friend, Lisa Marderosian Saleski. She instilled in me a sense of hunger, purpose, and passion where art is concerned. She is an incredible writer and artist, and her sensitivity to (and perception of) humanity is unmatched. I look to her for guidance and so much more. Her support and love of life have carried me through my darkest hours following my father's death. When I am next to her, I feel like a true survivor. She is the greatest person I know and will ever know.
Please give me links to two photos and talk about them!
This first photo was during a Stanley Session. The subject, Jessica, was crying as she revealed her suicide survivor story. I like this frame--which is the one I ended up using--because she is photographed mid-sentence, and you can clearly read the emotion in her eyes. The most important aspect of the shot, however, is the slight movement. She is not static, and she engages the viewer with her expression... as though she is leaning in to speak to us more intimately. That's what you want in a portrait.
This second photo is another from the Stanley Sessions series. My friend, Rayna, was describing her complex and ongoing fight with depression. As I adjusted the studio light, I realized that the split lighting down her face perfectly summed up her internal battle. Her eyes are so engaging, and her stare compels us to read more about her. Even the little "happy accident" of her visible necklace clasp works as a means of us "participating" in the dialogue of the photo. Our brains are trained to find small details like that, and when we discover them, it's a great moment. She's got such power and strength emanating from her expression. She is one of the strongest people I have ever met.
What is obsessing you now and why?
The Stanley Sessions. It is my largest ongoing project. My father, Stanley Saleski, died by suicide in October of 2014. He always loved critiquing my photography, and I named the project after him. My employer, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Montgomery County, Ohio, is also my sponsor (they provided me with a space to shoot, as well as studio lights and other necessities). My boss/supervisor/friend, Michelle Maloy-Kidder, has made my dream possible, and believed in my Stanley Sessions vision completely.
My goal, with the Sessions, is to photograph suicide survivors--both those who have lost loved ones to suicide and those who have attempted suicide, themselves. The aim is to reduce the stigma surrounding suicide discussion. Through the universal medium of art, I believe we can achieve that. Society is slow to change, but I believe that people are mostly good, and the majority will listen to new ideas (even if they are scary). In total, I have photographed about 30 people so far, and my goal is 50 people. Once I have 50, I intend to publish a coffee table book featuring the photos and people's personal stories. Right now, we are searching for a publisher, and are mapping everything out!
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
A question I keep hearing is: "Can anyone be a photographer, and if so, is the medium dead?"
Lately, society has turned a bit of a jaded eye toward the art of photography. We feel, deep down, that it isn't as unique and powerful as it once was (then, after all, it was practiced solely by the masters). I disagree. Time and technology have altered our methods of capturing memories, but not the underlying techniques and talent behind them. Can anyone take a good photo? Sure. But are you prepared to lock yourself in for as long as it takes to get the shot and infuse every aspect of your being and spirit into it? Are you ready to live and breathe your artwork and, by extension, your purpose? As an artist, you are the mouthpiece of a curious but ultimately hopeful society. We want to explore our faults, but we also want to be soothed, and art seals our collective wounds.
Art is both the answer and the question. As a photographer, it is your duty to document what you see. When you do, you contribute to that larger societal goal.
If you have the talent and the ability to practice your art decently, then your moral obligation is to continue on that path until your journey is complete. I never want to rest with photography--not for one moment. There is too much to lose.