Interview with Photographer Lisa Coker

Lisa Coker is a photographer whose photography feels like a direct reflection of who she is as a person. 

Anyone who has spent time around her knows the quiet confidence and depth to her personality, how she speaks in a way that feels thoughtful and intentional – a seriousness mixed with an easy-going levity. Her photos feel largely the same way, thoughtful, intentional, often serious yet filled with surprising amounts of joy. Deeply introspective with a sense of stillness – peaceful and intimate. They contain bursts of loudness that feel like love and also tension and pain.  Her work touches on all these things in a way that doesn’t feel indulgent or dramatic but understated, simple and honest.

Lisa’s photos have won 4th, 6th and 10th place in the 2020 Black Lives Matter Category and an Honorable Mention in the 2018 Environmental Portrait Category. She is a mom of four living in San Diego, USA.

© Lisa Coker from “I Was There Too”

Molly Menschel: Can you tell me about growing up in Hawaii and how that affected your vision as a photographer?

Lisa Coker: I think I’m very lucky to have been born and raised in Hawaii. When people learn that I’m from there, they ask, “why would you leave?” That response tells me a lot about how much they know about Hawaii. The majority think of Hawaii as a vacation destination and know of places like Honolulu and Waikiki, but there is another world that exists on the islands that aren’t as pretty and polished as the commercial ads that entice you to visit. We have the same issues as most places, crime, poverty, wages that don’t support the high cost of living, etc. 

I grew up in a countryside type of town with a green onion farm across the street and a chicken farm three minutes away. We had a grassless yard with cats and chickens running around and every now and then a mongoose at the edge of the metal fence. Our town was also very well known for its drug and crime rates.  Not exactly the Hawaii most people think of when they’re planning a trip there. I think growing up around this dichotomy between the local and tourists’ experience of my home is part of the message underlying most of my photography work. There’s a surface layer that most eyes can see, but I’m interested in taking a deeper look at what the ads aren’t telling me. This translates to making pictures of reality versus fantasy or posed versus unposed, or even just pictures of thoughts or feelings that are really hard to talk about.

© Lisa Coker from “Private Property”

Has your Polynesian heritage influenced who you are as an artist or how you see the world?  

Even though I’m half Samoan, the traditions and customs were not passed down to me. So the only Polynesian influence I have is growing up in Hawaii and learning about various different Polynesian cultures like Hawaiian, Tahitian, Tongan, and even the Maori culture.

So, in 2019 when I did a project on the Polynesian community in Salt Lake City, Utah, I felt emotionally distant. I felt like I didn’t belong since I didn’t know the customs, traditions, and language. But I learned that there were many Polynesians that felt the same way. They too were either mixed, or born in America, so this was reason enough for them to feel like they weren’t Polynesian enough. I found that this feeling is very common amongst children of immigrants who are born here in the U.S. 

Through this experience, I realized that this has affected how I approach photographing others. If I feel I don’t belong or am not wanted in a space, then I tend to shoot at a distance (physically and emotionally). This is why street photography would be difficult for me. With families, it just takes me a little while to warm up, which is why I like the documentary style of family photography; it allows for more time for me and the family to feel comfortable around each other.

© Lisa Coker from “Waiting Room”

Have you always been a visual person with a form of creative expression?

When I was younger, my form of creative expression was drawing or painting. It never developed into anything serious, but I enjoyed the process of creating something visual to represent a feeling, emotion, or even a message. However, I wasn’t very good at creating something from scratch; I’d mimic visuals, like a picture or scene in front of me, but often wouldn’t execute it properly. 

Later in life, I remember talking to an artist who was a refugee from Iraq and a painter. We talked about one of his pieces in which he painted a scene from a marketplace back in his home country. There was a red bike that he painted at the bottom of the canvas that looked out of place to me. I thought, why paint that? It seemed distracting. As a documentary photographer, I need to be creative in omitting distractions from images without interrupting the moment or interfering with the scene, which can sometimes be impossible. But as a painter, you could just choose not to paint it, I thought to myself. So, I asked him, “why did you include this bike?” He said, “because it was there”. He wasn’t painting from scratch but from memory.

I don’t know if I would have taken up photography if my memory was that strong.

© Lisa Coker

Can you tell me about your first experiences with photography?

My mom was always the one taking pictures in the family. She wasn’t a professional, but she’d have disposable cameras and would take them to Long’s Drug Store or something similar to have them developed. It was a store very similar to what most know as Walgreens or CVS. She still has old pictures and negatives in a large tub somewhere. The first experience I remember was using one of her cameras to take pictures of my siblings. They were blurry and ill-composed, but at the time I thought they were awesome. Picking up your photos from the photo lab to see and touch them for the first time is probably the same feeling you get when your amazon package is delivered. You remember how you made the picture but haven’t seen them in person yet, so it was like a fun surprise. So, my first experiences with photography felt fun and carefree, with no strings attached.

© Lisa Coker

In your bio it says, “This simplicity is evident in her work as she is often drawn to moments of intimacy, stillness, and joy, “ as well as the peace, pain and tension that lives in-between.” Can you talk about this? 

The way I photograph and what I photograph is consistent with who I am. Our photos can tell people so much about how our minds work. Whether we are quiet or loud, concrete or abstract, introverted or extroverted, etc. I’ve been told before that my photos can look too polished, which speaks to who I am as a person. I like things to be organized and if things are out of place, I feel the need to put them in place before I can move forward. It’s also why my motherhood journey has been challenging in this particular area, since children are messy. But, part of why I photograph the mess is to accept that having things out of place is a fact of life. So while I consider myself to be a consistent person, I can deviate if I need to. I think that tension between what I want and what I can’t control shows up in my work too.

© Lisa Coker, 6th Place Award in the “Black Lives Matter” category

What role has photography played in your life?  

For a long time, I felt that I couldn’t call myself a professional photographer unless I reached a certain point in my career.

When I was in high school and throughout college, I always took pictures of everything I wanted to remember. Friends, events, flowers, the crack in the sidewalk, and other random things with my little point and shoot Cybershot. My motivation at the time was that it was fun and I made pictures of all the things I wanted to remember. Later, I wanted to pursue photography professionally. So I took some classes and tried to learn about lifestyle photography for families so I could turn it into a business and leave the corporate world behind. 

This style of photography didn’t fit me, so I started taking pictures of moments at home with my kids, which felt more natural to me. At this point, I was constantly taking photos. I knew how fast my kids would grow up and I wanted to document every single moment. I didn’t know it then, but somewhere along the way, the fun in photography turned into work. I started to believe that it was my responsibility to document it all for my family’s history. Since it felt like a responsibility, I wanted to do my best. So, I took classes and workshops to become better. After I had become better, the pressure to photograph every moment around me grew even more. Eventually, photography became a burden. Something I had to do even if I didn’t feel like it. I remember hearing other photographers say things like, “shoot every day” in order to get better, whether you’re feeling it or not.

I later realized that my photography was driven from a place of fear. A fear originating from childhood. Having lost my father at the age of 11 and then my grandmother 6 months later, my family was propelled into a state of survival. I felt powerless but learned to absorb my trauma, delay my grief and cope through humor and art. The art medium I fell upon was a camera. In a life scarred by unexpected tragedies, a camera offered a sense of control; a tool that allowed me to choose what to remember and what to forget; a tool that, with the subtle act of clicking, conditioned me to believe that the lack of permanence doesn’t have to be absolute. At the time, this was the solace I needed.

This fear is what, unbeknownst to me, was driving my photography for a long time. The strength of our memories eventually weaken and that limitation scared me. Rather than collecting memories for the joy of remembering, I was hoarding memories for the fear of forgetting.

© Lisa Coker from “I Was There Too”

It’s really interesting that you’ve recognized in hindsight that you were photographing from a place of fear.  As documentary family photographers, that’s sometimes one of our main selling points – “Create a document of these ordinary moments so that when you and your kids are older you won’t forget them.” But I can see how this kind of mindset can be negative. How have you been able to combat that fear and move past it in your photography?  

It’s interesting to think about how different your actions are when you’re operating out of a place of fear and anxiety versus joy or love. For many decisions in life I ask myself, “am I doing this from a place of fear?” as a way to self-assess where my intentions are originating from. 

When I feel the fear of forgetting an ordinary family moment, I take a picture with my iPhone. The memory is captured very quickly and without all the pressure of making it a professional photographer’s type of photo. So the fear is still there, it’s just not as intense as it used to be. Mostly because I’ve taken a lot of time to heal from negative experiences that birthed this fear, and partly because I’ve accepted and embraced the limitations of my memory. I won’t remember everything, but I also don’t want to take a picture of everything. 

What is it that you work to express through your photography?

In any genre of photography, I always aim to convey something real. Whether it’s a moment or emotion, a portrait, documentary, or conceptual image. The depths that I try to explore are on a spectrum, but at every point in that range I try to convey something real, I think because reality comforts me. I’d rather face the pain of the truth than be cozy in something that’s not real.

© Lisa Coker

One of my favorite series of yours is your raw and moving collection of self-portraits depicting motherhood, called I Was There Too. Can you tell us about how this project started?

One day my son was looking at a photo of our family and asked, “where were you mommy?” I explained that I was clearly there, isn’t it obvious that I took the photo? Being behind the camera all the time had resulted in a collection of photos where I didn’t exist. This brief exchange between my son and I made me realize that my presence behind the camera added nothing to preserve my memory of me. I created these self-portraits to show my children now, and 50 years from now, that I was there too. I was there for all of it. This is how I came to call the series “I Was There Too”. 

Being a stay-at-home mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It challenges you in ways you could never imagine and causes you to question yourself and who you are every day. It is a life-changing experience that prompted an evolution of the self. All of these feelings, emotions, and changes are what I wanted to capture in my self-portraits, and the only way I felt I could do that, was to capture what it really looked like. While I set up my tripod with the intention of taking a self-portrait, most of the time, it was a real moment that unfolded. For example, there’s an image of me loading the dishwasher. I wanted a photo of a very ordinary thing I do while the kids were busy playing. Without knowing, my youngest daughter climbed up on the dishwasher door, and a few moments later, my son came and hugged me. This was the shot I chose from that scene. It was also a real moment that depicted how hard it was to even just load the dishwasher without kids wanting something from you. 

I also decided to create self-portraits in this way because I’m not great at setting up a scene and posing. It doesn’t come naturally to me and doing it that way would have been more work for me. I was also fascinated with the idea of self-portraits that don’t look like self-portraits. It’s as if I could somehow become disconnected from myself to photograph myself. This momentary disconnection was like the little mental break I needed to get through.

© Lisa Coker from “I Was There Too”

Is there a purpose that drives your work?  

I’ve struggled with this question for my entire photography career. I’m the type of person that needs to understand why I’m doing something before I do it. I try to be purposeful and intentional in my choices. With photography, I’d ask myself this question many times, “why am I doing this?” If I didn’t have a good answer, I’d just stop. At one point, the purpose was for fun. Then it was for money. Then it was to preserve my family history. Then it was to win an award. Then it was to fulfill my artistic needs.

I used to think that I had to pick one purpose and be loyal to it. Now, I believe the purpose of my photography can be whatever I want and it doesn’t just have to be one thing.

© Lisa Coker from “Waiting Room”

One thing I find intriguing is that you’re such a strong photographer, but you seem to be unattached to your identity as a “photographer”.

Photography is something I’m good at but it’s not who I am. It’s interesting to ask myself, “who am I?” or “How do you identify yourself?” If a set of roles and traits define who I am, then I can be a different person to many people. To my kids, I’m mommy, along with traits they know from my mothering them. To my employer, I’m an employee along with traits that allow me to continue to be employed. To other photographers, I’m a photographer. 

I used to be really tied up with my identity as a mom. If I failed as a mom one day, I failed as a person. If I failed as a wife one day, I failed as a person. I’ve found it more effective to disconnect myself from the roles I have in life and focus on who I am without them. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but something I try to practice.

© Lisa Coker from “Private Property”

How do you personally access creative inspiration? 

I believe inspiration comes through experiences. As much as I’d like to be the homebody that I am, going out provides me with new experiences that have the potential to provide inspiration. Even if it’s just going out for a walk or going to the store. There’s always an opportunity to be inspired when you’re interacting with people, animals, nature, and your general environment. 

One of my personal projects was inspired by the neighborhood I lived in. I found this new neighborhood fascinating in positive and negative ways. I didn’t know what to do with that feeling except photograph it. 

Creating a photo, from a feeling or nudge, puts that feeling into a visual form, which for me, helps me become more aware of my emotions; because I can see them and feel them in the image. The feeling can range from unsettling or exciting. Either way, photography is the medium in which you channel what you’re feeling into a tangible form that is easier for our brains to process.

© Lisa Coker, 10th Place Award in the “Black Lives Matter” category

You can view more of Lisa’s work on her website and on Instagram @lisacokerphoto.

To learn about self-portraiture from Lisa you can find a class she teaches through DFP Education.

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.