The FOCAL POINT Q2.16 photographers Rocio de Alba, Carla Jay Harris, and Hannah Cooper McCauley are artists who use photography as a means to examine themselves introspectively. We decided we wanted to get more personal with these mysterious women and had a little chat about their lives beyond the camera.
Can you provide us with some background information on your artistic career? How did you get to where you are right now and what influenced your decision to be an artist?
Rocio: My father was a large-scale portrait painter and a graphic designer in our country, El Salvador. He was a tremendous influence on me as far as pursuing an artistic career. But, it was my mother's work ethic and dedication that drives me to work as hard as I do. I think I've only scratched the surface of where I am going or where I want to be as an artist. I am extremely active in the art community and attend as many exhibitions as I can. I have also educated myself in photography by attending lectures, workshops, and retreats, like with the Flash Powder Projects.
Carla: I've always had an interest in artistry. My parents are both artists, so art, museums and material culture were always a part of our home. I started working in photography about ten years ago commercially and then later as a documentary artist. My fine art practice developed slowly as both of my earlier pursuits started to become less fulfilling.
Hannah: When I was 17 after a routine trip to the eye doctor I learned that I have a degenerative, hereditary eye condition called optic nerve head drusen. My eyes are unable to dispose of waste properly and that waste builds up in the form of calcium deposits that embed themselves in my optic nerve which cause gradual visual field loss and sometimes blindness. Because of this, my parents bought me my first camera—a small, digital point and shoot. For the first time I was beginning to see the world differently, and I discovered a new kind of voice way more powerful than any words my quiet lips could form. In undergrad, I began to pursue photography seriously and after graduating I made the choice to get my MFA in photography along with my husband. Now, I’m at the end of the experience and preparing to graduate.
How does your personal identity inform the work that you make?
Carla: My work is inspired by or derived from my personal experience. As the child of a military officer, I spent my childhood in flux – moving every 2-3 years for the first half of my life. This pattern of transience continued into adulthood due to familial obligations, financial restrictions and indoctrinated habit. Through my work, I connect to each new physical, economic, and emotional landscape by exploring its impact on the lives of its inhabitants. My identity and personal history informs my understanding of space but I do not take either alone as a point of departure.
Hannah: My personal identity fully informs the work I make. Every decision I make when creating a photograph is informed by my personal experiences—my upbringing as the child of a Southern Baptist minister, my vision problems, my transition from childhood to adolescence to maturity, etc. In fact, the loudest question being asked in my photographs is my own question of who I am. I’m trying to work out my own identity, and I use the act of making photographs to search for answers.
How relevant is the notion of role-playing in your work?
Rocio: Role-playing is a huge part in my work and the majority of my series consists of self portraiture. I invest an extensive amount of money and time into wigs, make-up, custom jewelry, as well as staging the scene with backgrounds, wallpaper, and paint. For instance, in my series Honor Thy Mother, I attempt to define the gamut of the contemporary mother archetype by portraying extremely surreal, yet undeniably realistic female characters of today. My twenty-two-year-old daughter is a master at make-up so she has been very helpful in the production of these characters. While it takes a great amount of work to make these images, it is a process that is fun for me.
Carla: I'd say it is very relevant to my most recent works. These pieces combine collage, digital imagery, illustration and portraiture to blur the line between the actual and the artificial. Each subject is simultaneously playing her(his)self while also illustrating a historical and social political figure of subjectivity.
Hannah: I think it’s incredibly relevant. For me, the performative act of making my photographs is therapeutic—that’s the biggest reason why I’m drawn to self-portraiture. There’s something about being able to act something out in front of the camera, even if it’s for an indirect audience, that I find so fulfilling.
Are you satisfied with the representation of female photographers in today’s artistic community? Are there changes you would like to see?
Rocio: I am a feminist by definition and I think that is visible in my work. The world has a plethora of inequalities in gender specificities, but in the short time humans have existed, female leaders have helped pave the road for the rest of us in positive directions. I am in no way saying that we are where we should be, but we continue to move forward. Acceptance of one another is the change I would like to see.
Hannah: No, I am not. I think there are a growing number of strong female photographers out there with powerful stories to tell, but they aren’t getting recognized. Overall, I think that women are widely underrepresented in the canon of photography. I’d like to see more opportunities for female voices to be heard throughout the medium, exclusively—in exhibition, print, and otherwise.