5th Grade Dreams: 5 years in

In 2017, I was struck by the idea to reconnect with all the classmates from 5th grade and photograph them. At the time I was working a brutal internship here in LA with zero opportunity for creative expression, and the idea of pursuing my own project instantly brought me back to life. I think I was also kind of homesick for my roots.

The following day, I started reaching out to my classmates on Facebook and planning a trip to photograph them for the first time. I was brimming with excitement and when I started sharing this idea with others (prematurely, might I add), most people greeted the idea with well-meaning questions.

“Why 5th grade?”
“How are you going to include yourself in the project?”
“What is the reason for using film instead of digital?”
“What exactly are you trying to say?” 

Before and after: Geno, Donna, Lauren H.

From the jump, I felt pressure to try and “make sense” of the work and put it in a neat box so I could pitch it for publication, apply for grant money, and use the project as some sort of evidence that I was a clever photographer. 

Surprise! — Nothing worked out.  The publication that wanted the project ghosted me after two years, I was never awarded a dime in grant money, and the I was altogether drained of my gusto. My intentions were misplaced, the work was in its nascent phase.

Brady, fka Brandi, photographed with Frankenstein, the truck. 2018.

Brady and girlfriend Kat, 2020.

Brady, Kat, and baby Stevie Ray. 2021.

Only by taking a fat break from photography (still keeping my distance, actually) have I found the time to reflect upon where I went wrong. 

When I started this project, I felt the pressure to make some big point about inequality in the American public education system; however, I now know that my intention was really naive (I will always have compassion for my 25-year-old self who had the chutzpah to undertake this project, however).

Tae’tianna and Nuk at home, 2018.

Tot and Nuk photographed in 2019.

Tot and. Nuk are getting married this November.

Five years in, I have come believe photography makes a better tool for exploration than it does for explanation. For the first few years, I was trying to answer people’s critiques instead of just letting the project unfold organically. I’ve come to know this quality as people pleasing. If you’re an artist, you can’t be a people pleaser.

Nesa and her son Justus, January 2018.

Nesa posing as a symbol for her spiritual awakening, 2020.

A person’s true essence is only something that can be experienced in the present. All photographs, by nature, depict the past. The past is not where I wish to create from, and this conviction presents 5th Grade Dreams in a complex light — WHY do I keep doing it?

Kelsey marries her husband. Aaron, in summer 2019.

Kelsey and Aaron photographed outside of their new home in Indy, Nov. 2021.

For me, I now know that I find happiness in connection, creation, observation, and learning. I will continue this project as long as my classmates allow, for it epitomized connection, creation, observation, and learning. I’ll continue to work through the project’s shortcomings as I continue to work through the shortcomings of my own. 

Me in 2019, organizing negatives. I am actually sort of disturbed by how much time I used to put into this project.

Me, working on a spirit drawing. Photographed in 2022.

The funniest part of this whole thing is that I wanted to document the changing lives of my classmates without ever considering that my life would be changing too. I think the camera can do that to a lot of dedicated photographers; I think it can remove us from our own lives in a way that is quite dangerous. Since age 21, I was insistent upon being a full-time documentary photographer, even when there were a million red flags along the way. I kept pushing this goal until I was forced to surrender.

I now own my own business as a professional spirit medium. This career is a good fit for me right now because I can now explore the things we cannot see with our eyes — something photography rarely allows. I operate in a world where nothing can be proven. Nothing can be seen as objective. Nothing is really explained. And everything is up to be explored. I like it here— for now.

The power is with the people

Joy is subversive. Joy is an essential ingredient in sustaining a successful social justice movement. I know I am supposed to feel joy right now, but I don’t. Fleeting relief might be a more accurate description.

Country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell most accurately described my feelings in his clever tweet last Saturday: “America just got dropped off at rehab.”

The recovery process is difficult, brutally introspective, exhausting – and I would not call it fun. There’s a saying my substance abuse instructor says every class: “Recovery isn’t for people who need it, it’s for people who want it.” And America has got to want it. We have to be willing to heal ourselves and defend each other. The road to reckoning with our nation’s past is long, and it will require authentic humility and sacrifice.

These images were taken from a ‘Defend Democracy’ demonstration (hosted by Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment) downtown LA last Saturday, only a few hours after the Presidential race was called in Biden’s favor. The event felt like place to come together and connect with other human beings in a world that’s been devoid of real human connection for more than 8 months. The full spectrum of leftist politics was on display.

All power to the people.

Soul discovery via self-portraiture

Me and my doves, 2020.

I’ve spent the majority of my life hating myself. It’s not like one thing happened that changed me forever, but rather a thousand tiny things happened  and the pain compounded over time.  This year, in all of its unprecedented isolation, has gifted with me with ample time to heal. I got sober (245 days ago, as I write this), started meditating daily, got a therapist, started a vegetarian diet, and fell in love with yoga again. Before the global pandemic, I did not think I deserved any of these things. Why? I don’t know, exactly. 

I’ve really fought self-portraiture as a genre since sometime after age 12 or 13, when I took photos for MySpace. Perhaps some of you know what I mean when I say: if you hate yourself, you don’t want to be yourself, and if you don’t want to be yourself then you certainly don’t want to see yourself.

It makes sense, then, that starting in my early 20s I decided I wanted to make work about other people. I made work about people who seemed so *unlike* me that I had to use an artistic process to understand what it meant to be human on planet earth.  And I still think there’s value in that. But what started happening was a slow erasure of the self. In lieu of living my own life, I chose to spend my time watching other people live their’s.  

There’s a particularly damaging line of thought that I internalized as a photojournalist and later as a documentary photographer: “Act like you’re not there. Disappear. Be a fly on the wall.” I applied this notion to all of my work for at least six years. Eventually I applied this *watch me disappear!* tactic to all aspects of ‘my’ life.

But that’s changing. I’m here, I’m alive, I’m well, and I have a bunch of camera stuff that I can use to prove it. It took until October for me to want to be in front of the camera and explore who I am not just on the inside, but what that looks like on the outside too. It was a transcendental experience akin to psychedelic drugs. Yes folks, art is a mind-altering drug.

Diversifying my artistic practice with still life and self-portraiture has allowed me to find my soul again. Sunny is just who you’d think she’d be (given her name): warm, fun, welcoming, compassionate and sometimes intense.  This week, I’m starting a substance abuse counseling program with the hopes of helping other addicts understand the power of art and healing. Because it’s not that I think art can save your life, I know it can.

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