Julia Kozerski: Lately I have been doing a lot of investigative research and reading about the theme of “courage” with relation to the creation of art. For me your work is highly courageous in that you not only use yourself and those close to you as your physical subjects, but you also deal with extremely personal issues. Is this “courage” something that just came natural or is this something you had to work towards and build up to?
Sarah Sudhoff: I think there are a few parts to this answer.
First, it might be hard to believe but as a child I was extremely shy. My father was in the military so we moved a lot. I seemed to always be the new kid. I can still remember my father telling me to get a tougher skin. This constant push to have me adapt and have thicker skin has impacted all aspects of my life and art making practice.
Second, graduate school challenged and reinforced the aesthetic choices I was making in my art. I was fortunate to have professors and advisers who encouraged me to keep pushing the boundaries. While working on Repository, I used myself as a model one day to illustrate an idea never intending to become a physical part of the project. It was my professor and peers who pointed out that my image strengthened the project and more clearly defined my intention with the series. Since graduation in 2006, I have had to learn to be confident in my ideas without the support of a small student body or professors. However, I still email colleagues to show them new work and get feedback before anything is seen in the public realm.
Lastly, working from personal experience has always come naturally. I'm not sure I could devote so much energy, time and funds to something I did not feel passionate about. I don't explore every aspect of my life or photograph every experience. I select the ones I think can translate visually in to a project and are worth sharing with a larger audience.
Juiia Kozerski: A majority of your work (if not all of your work) deals with humanity. Whether the images are about societal aspects of life or are about the uncertainty and morbidity of illness and death, the common thread seems to always be about humanity. Why? Do you feel (as I do in some of my work) that you have an unspoken obligation to bring awareness to certain problems and/or situations,? are these themes just of general interest of you?, or . . . ?
Sarah Sudhoff: In 1999 I earned a Bachelor of Journalism with a concentration in photojournalism. I went on to photograph for newspapers and work for Time Magazine in New York. Telling stories and shedding light on the world around me has been ingrained in me from the time I first became a photographer. I once heard a beautiful quote during a photojournalism panel discussion–"Photographers are like flashlights, they bring light to the darkness". I often think of this phrase when beginning a new project or in the face of criticism.
I tend to focus on themes that I have personally experienced. I feel this brings a certain level of compassion that wouldn't otherwise be possible.
Julia Kozerski: I read an interview you did with The Intrepid Art Collector where you spoke about criticism you had received with regard to your Repository series. In that interview you said that “Some argue the series was a form of therapy for me and lacked artist merit.” Hearing that about such an obviously personal project must have been difficult. What were your thoughts, after hearing that, about continuing the series? Do you feel like, in hindsight, that receiving such criticism helped or hindered you in achieving a full realization of this series? (In relation to my own work, as well as my current work for this semester, I risk hearing the same criticism. My photographs are very personal and, I suppose, in a way, therapy but they also mean so much more that perhaps deals more with how the viewer interprets the image.) Do you feel like it is acceptable to make deeply-personal work that may not make an outright statement but rather engages the viewer to form their own thoughts and opinions?
Sarah Sudhoff: I was asked point blank why should this work be shown. It happened in a critique in front of my peers and other professional artists. As you might imagine hearing that my work might not have merit beyond satisfying my own needs was hard to swallow. Due to the nature of the Repository series it was difficult to separate this valid question from my personal feelings about the work. However once I left the critique and was able to sit alone with my thoughts I discovered I was pleased someone had asked this. It is what I should have been asking myself all along. It was after this point that I began to include the figure in the series. Before the work consisted of empty hospital rooms, containers of uteri and medical waste. The body itself was not featured. I had feared by including the body the work would become too personal. However by adding the body and using myself as the subject it allowed people to picture themselves in the situation and identify with aspects of my experience.
As an artist we all have the desire to explore an idea or concept. For me this happens to be personal experiences and it sounds like this applies to you as well. I do not think every experience has a place in the public arena however depending on how the project is developed, composed and positioned it can be appropriate for the public and as you said to "engage the viewer to form their own thoughts and opinions". I think the right projects have this ability to engage the viewer allowing them to bring his or her own history to the work. I challenge my students to create works which have the potential for multiple interpretations. I feel Repository while it stems from personal experience raises questions about our heath care system, the treatment of women, reproductive cancers, illness and loss. I hope each person who looks at an image of mine finds something which grabs hold and doesn't let go.
Leep 1 © Sarah Sudhoff
Julia Kozerski: What is one piece of advice that you could share with us (21, junior-level photography majors?) This question is pretty open ended; it could be about photography, about creativity, about showing work, about schooling, about being an artist/photographer, about education, about after graduation and being out in the world, about life. . . anything that you think would be important for us to know.
Sarah Sudhoff: I was fortunate enough to have dinner with the legendary Texas photographer Keith Cater recently. We discussed my Repository series and the challenge of finding the right audience. He said to me to just keep pursuing the work I am doing and that it will eventually find the right home. He also said, "The world doesn't need another Sally Mann". Little did he know about my more recent series At the Hour of Our Death but I got the point.
This would also be my advice to anyone in school or thinking of going to school for photography. Anyone can create an image similar to something already produced. The challenge is creating something wholly unique and allowing ourselves to be influenced by our own experiences. I tell me introductory photography students that it isn't what to photograph that is hard but what not to.
Clean 2 © Sarah Sudhoff
Julia Kozerski: I feel like your work, as well as this interview, are very “deep” and “heavy” in nature. I'd like this to end this interview on a happy and upbeat note. Would you mind sharing with us a funny (or interesting story) about something that has happened to you with regards to your photographic career and/or education?
Sarah Sudhoff: People often ask me about the making of my self-portraits in the morgue sink titled Clean 1 and Clean 2. I had attempted several times to create a strong portrait in this space to be shown with the self-portrait in the gynecological exam room titled Exam 2. I had trouble creating something as powerful and well composed. So I set out yet again and locked myself in the morgue. This time I barricaded the door with a steal gurney and locked the wheels. Mind you no bodies were around. There was a separate freezer area outside of the area I was in. Before doing so I taped a note to the outside of the door which said PHOTOSHOOT IN PROGRESS PLEASE KNOCK. The hospital where I was shooting knew I was in the morgue however they had no idea what I was photographing let alone myself. So in order to disguise this fact I took in along with my camera, lights and tripod a towel, blow dryer and hair brush. I wanted to leave the morgue looking the same way as I had come in. I often laugh when I think about myself blow drying my hair in the morgue just after I bathed in the sink.
For more information about Sarah Sudhoff please visit her website: http://www.sarahsudhoff.com/