Kayana Szymczak - the photographers ability to hold space before pain and suffering
by Sandra Radja
Have you ever wondered how a photographer prepares themselves personally before a shoot? I have. I think of it on the same level as a health practitioner. As part of our ethics procedures via the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, we are required to pay attention to our own needs and to make sure we are in good spirits before working with others. I find this to be one of the most important aspects of being part of someone's transformation. When acting as a conduit, we all strive, both photographers and practitioners alike to get to the heart of the matter, to allow impressions to come to us and ideally not control the serendipity, to be alert enough to see opportunity where it lies. It's what they call holding space.
I sometimes find it hard sitting in the stillness of pain and suffering and not trying to change anything. The medicine of being fully present can be a gift in itself. We do the work on ourselves by checking into our heart on a regular basis if only to be there for others.
I saw one of Kayana's photos and almost burst into tears.
As a global citizen there are parts of our world we ignore, just as there are parts of ourselves we don't want to deal with. Pain is there to show us there is a story lying beneath, an opportunity to find the key to our questions. Suppression of the feelings that arise will transfer that concentrated unresolved energy to a greater form of pain, be it via our bodies or society as a general notion. What is your pain threshold? What situations could you survive as a human? How frail do you feel in the environment you live in?
I googled the definition of art " the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power." Power can be thought of as Prana or that all-penetrating-subtle-force that is higher than our way of thinking. If we can produce an image that creates a force like this, we can shift perception.
Kayana Szymczak takes us into her art behind the camera. Here are raw powerful images that will test your inner world of poverty, helplessness and non support. It will show you how the world of excess looks like on the other side. The truth is one, but there are many ways to express it. I find a kinship with artists such as Kayana. We both strive for the ability to "see" the subject. She has taught me much about myself from her own work. At first where I saw pain and hardship, when I sit in the photos long enough and watch the range of emotions unfold, I can't help but see potential.
Be the first to arrive and the last to leave to experience the complete picture. I like that.
1. I was a traveller for many years exploring the world between jobs. Since I've stopped I've had flashbacks of in-between memories. In hindsight I see I must have been most present then. I would describe your photos as "just about to happen moments". How do you know when that right moment is?!
This is a great question -- it gets right to the heart of the practice. The approach to capturing any moment is as elusive as the moment being captured itself is. Much of how I approach a given situation depends upon the context of what I'm shooting -- whether it's a daily news assignment, or work on a longer-term project. The more time I have in a place, in a scenario, the more opportunity there is to capture those "just about to happen moments". I think what you are referring to when you use that phrase are moments that are not the obvious "action shot". Something subtle, interpretive, layered both in composition and meaning. Documenting those moments requires time, patience, and commitment. It requires going back, over and over again, and going deep. The best way to capture those subtle moments on assignments, or on a longer term project, is to be the first one to arrive at a given scene, and be the last one to leave.
Often, the most poignant and telling moments happen in between the obvious action shots. So much of the profound experience of life happens within our interior selves, in the quietest times, and often in our minds/imaginations. So, being able to show this in some way can be important in longer term projects. Photographers often say that "some stories just aren't visual" -- which I tend to agree with in general. But the best visual artists are able to express the most subtle and sublime human experience through their craft - and I think the best photographers can do that, too. These are concepts I've thought about a lot over the last few years. I haven't developed that ability yet, but I keep it in mind when shooting. To sum all of this up, I would say that often, the most powerful moments happen when you least expect them to, and where you wouldn't obviously look to find them.
2. Your portrait series is so truthful. Not one person resembles the other, meaning, how did you take yourself away from the picture? As a health practitioner, it is the ultimate practise to "get out of the way". You seem to have created an efficient medium of yourself. Do you have events in your own life that helped create this connection?
"Getting out of the way" is exactly what I strive to do with my portraits. I think the best portraits reveal themselves in the fleeting moments when a person forgets to project their photographic persona. I work hard to make the person I'm photographing feel relaxed with me, and relaxed about being photographed. I don't have a particular approach I use with everyone to make that happen, except that I do try to spend as much time as I can with a person, much longer than they anticipated. I try to generate a space where their private self can emerge, if only momentarily. I want to see the person they are when they're alone, still, and their guard is down. I think that editors would sometimes rather have the projected persona, especially if they are an entertainer, but I think it's more interesting to try and capture something unexpected, and hopefully more real.
I love portraits that are able to capture a part of the person that the viewer doesn't normally see in the movement of everyday life. I think that the term "stealing your soul" when referring to photography, may have come from the experience of looking at a portrait, and seeing a powerful, emotional essence come through, stripped of the constant, moving artifice we construct around ourselves in our daily lives. It can be arresting. And when it's a portrait of someone we love, it is often one of the most valuable keepsakes we possess. It's something I would love to be able to create.
3. In one of your essays, the Great Recession in Ohio, it hurts to view the photos. It taps into my base fear of non support and helplessness. Do you find yourself absorbing heavy feelings post shoot or do you have means to detach yourself from the subject?
It's interesting that you bring that work up as an example, because it also taps into my base fear of poverty, and all of the struggle that comes with it. Yes, I am able to detach myself while I am photographing -- I think that is an essential skill in the photojournalist toolkit. I remind myself that the story I am documenting is more important than my personal feelings of sadness or pain. It's not that I don't feel -- those empathetic feelings are what motivate me to do this work in the first place. I simply tap into the need to complete the task at hand, and focus on the work in the moment, because I have committed myself to that role, and it requires me to discipline myself emotionally.
4. Do you prepare yourself emotionally before a shoot? Do you have a daily practise of self care? Does it vary when at work vs at home?
If I am working on a story where I know I may be photographing something emotionally difficult, I will do what I mentioned above -- just remind myself of why I chose to do this work in the first place, and that the importance of the work trumps any personal feelings that may come up in the process. My daily self care is pretty basic, but very important. I make sure that I always get a full night of sleep every night. During a really busy or stressful work time, that is the one area where I will not compromise, because it has that much impact on my mental clarity, emotional equilibrium, and physical wellbeing. I also eat a very clean, healthy diet, and exercise and meditate regularly. I find when I start slacking on even one of those areas, its a slippery slope to feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and unhappy.
5. What does your home look like? I'm curious about what colours and decor that you're drawn to. What parts of it are your comfort zones?
That is an interesting question because I am in the middle of moving right now… My work can be very demanding and draining, so it's important that my home is a sanctuary from the chaos of the world outside. It has to be a place of rest and rejuvenation, and also a place where I can work and be inspired. The feeling of quiet, peace, and solitude is ultimately more important to me than colors and decor.
I'll tell you about the space I'm moving into, and what I'm hoping to do with it. It's a live/work warehouse type space in my favorite Boston neighborhood, Jamaica Plain. The building is an old horse stable built in 1870. The space I'm moving in to is on the top floor -- there is a big, open floor plan, with 3 private, 500 square foot studios, with 15-foot ceilings and lofts built into the rooms. I just finished painting the walls of my studio white from floor to ceiling. It feels bright, light, and airy. The colors I am drawn to in a living space are white, dark reds, and shades of gray. Materials I am drawn to are wood, stone, glass (windows), and metal. Because my new place is such a raw, live/work space, I'm going to try and keep the feeling as open, airy, and clean as possible. The exception to that will be my loft bed, which I would like to be a dark red, warm, cozy sleep chamber. My bed/bedroom is definitely the comfort zone of my home, it's where I go for complete privacy and escape.
6. What do you want to tell the world? Is there a fire in your belly about making a change?
Ideally, I would like to use my photography to both inform viewers about something they were not aware of previously, and to inspire them to think, feel, or act differently based on that new information. I consider creating change a multi-layered, collaborative effort, that often occurs over years and years, with all contributions -- even the seemingly small -- adding to the final tipping point. But, I also think that strong work which is simply an unflinching look at life as it is -- with no particular political advocacy or agenda -- can be just as powerful, and create change in a more subtle, but profound way -- within people's minds, and lives. For example: Robert Frank, "The Americans", or Eugene Richards, "Dorchester Days". A viewer cannot look at those images and not be changed. And so, if I can stop someone for a moment, cause them to linger on an image, and make them feel, make them think… If I can touch them in some way that leaves them changed -- however subtly -- I will have done my job.
Kayana Szymczak is a photojournalist currently based in Boston, where she works full-time as a freelance editorial photographer for news clients including the Boston Globe, NYTimes, and Getty Images. Kayana has received an OSI Documentary Distribution Grant, the Marty Forscher Fellowship for Humanistic Photography, and a Dart award in Excellence for Coverage in Trauma.
Her work has been shown in galleries, universities and civic space throughout the US and abroad, including the International Center of Photography 2006-2007 Triennial. Her project documenting the impacts of irresponsible oil development in the Ecuadorian Amazon was published as a book by City Lights, "Crude Reflections: Oil, Ruin, and Resistance in the Amazon Rainforest". Her work has taken her from the jungles of Ecuador, to river valleys in India, to coal mines in rural America. She has a particular interest in documenting life at the intersection of human rights, social justice, and environmental issues.