Interview with guest judge, Mikaela Martin

Mikaela is an Australian documentary and fine art photographer, based in South Florida, USA. In the following interview Mikaela shares her thoughts on finding inspiration, truth in photography and motherhood.

Molly Menschel: I’ve always been moved by your photography and I want to know where it all comes from, how you do it. One of the main themes that I keep coming back to in interviews is the relationship between artist and inspiration. I’m especially curious to talk about this with you, because your work strikes me as photography that is created from a sense of intuition rather than a place of intellectualism. Artists create meaningful artwork from both ends of the spectrum, so my intention isn’t to deem one approach as better than the other. But an intuitive approach to shooting is something that comes easier to some people than others. Would you consider yourself an intuitive shooter?

Mikaela Martin: I think the moment that pulls me in is intuitive, but often once I get going I sit in habits / muscle memory, expectation etc. Sometimes I try to stop myself, find stillness and really feel my feet on the ground. Excitement and impatience can race ahead of intuition, especially when I’m worried I will miss the moment. Ya gotta breathe!

©Mikaela Martin

What makes you pick up your camera, and what inspires you to take pictures? 

Just last night when I took the garbage out I saw the neighbor’s sprinkler spitting and spinning under the street light. Stuff like that. Kids, old people, anything at twilight. Like everyone, there’s often a visual prompt, but sometimes it’s a feeling.

It’s a direct, intimate, enduring conversation with humanity. Whatever childhood wonder I’ve kept in my pocket inspires me. Funnily enough, as a kid I was teased a bit for that, but now it’s the thing I like the most about myself.

©Mikaela Martin

What do you do when you’re feeling uninspired?

I try to get outside. Find a tree. I hate that feeling. I’m learning to make friends with it, and understand it’s a trickster anyway; it can convince you that you’ve run dry (and are generally shit at life), which is never true. I find that once I’m through those dips my work shifts and grows. I just needed to fill up again. 

Do you ever pick up your camera as a method of rediscovering your inspiration?

Sometimes, but mostly I leave it alone while I’m stewing. Then, in the moment I feel I am in some sort of private despair, that’s when I pick it up again. Like, instead of wading into the sea with the bottle or the gun (so-to-speak) I go in with the camera and hope that the mess I make with it gently starts the conversation again. I love turning to others’ work that inspires me, but there are times that can make me feel worse. I remember I was excited to buy one of Vivian Maier’s books and when it arrived it sat on the shelf for months. I was so afraid that opening it, and seeing how masterful she was might make me give up. Good thing I opened it. 

©Mikaela Martin

What does it feel like when you are standing in front of a scene that you’d like to photograph? What are you looking for?  

I think time slows a bit, or rather my perception of it. I’m not really good at finding layers in a scene, so it’s often one shiny thing I’m fixed on, then I’ll see how things exist around it. It’s the same feeling I get when the cake with candles comes out.

How would you describe the way you approach photography? How much of your shooting is thinking and how much of it is just feeling?

I think it’s a tightrope. You want to be in and out of control, in a way, and even though I want to say I am more led by feeling I think I get really stuck in my head.

I think it’s hard for many photographers to let go of the “thinking” part when they’re photographing clients. Is your approach the same when photographing a client as it is when you’re photographing something just for you? Any advice you can give?     

I feel pretty anxious leading up to, and during a client shoot. I definitely don’t breathe enough! It’s an entirely different set of pressures and I think I need to ask everyone else’s advice on that one! The only thing that slows me down to really be in the moment is landing on a detail in the scene and staying with it for a while. It really helps me get out of my head. 

©Mikaela Martin

What themes are you drawn to in your photography and why are you drawn to these themes? How many of these themes are reflective of who you are as a person? 

Girlhood, motherhood, grief, longing, otherness, order vs chaos, dreams… I think a lot of these are connected; I have always been a bit prone to melancholy and nostalgia, which kinda makes me live and work in a state of longing a lot of the time. I really love the tension that exists between longing and the everyday state of things -a version of order vs chaos- where it’s possible to reveal something so vulnerable and true that it disrupts what society has deemed appropriate. My images are far from rebellious but I still think I’m sticking my finger up at normal / appropriate / nice. Fuck normal. We are all so much deeper than what normal and nice allow. I guess I am still exploring themes that are personal to me, that hopefully resonate with others. I would like to start more long form documentary projects about other people, groups, and societal issues, but no doubt these present themes will come with me. 

I’ve heard you say that photography has saved you many times during your experience as a mother. This is something I can relate to and that I’m guessing a lot of people reading this might relate to as well. Can you talk about your relationship with photography and motherhood? 

I’ll steal some words from the statement from my project, “Good Lord, leave your Mother alone” 😉  “I never expected to lose myself to motherhood, to lose my patience entirely. I never expected maternal to, at times, taste so sour… ” Photography allows me to confront these feelings head-on, and turn them into art. What’s that saying, “turn your shit into gold”?! It’s a way to reclaim the pieces of myself I feel I lost. It feels defiant and essential (for me), and hopefully allows other women to see themselves. I feel compelled to share this work because motherhood is still often romanticized and idealized in art. I want to disrupt that.

When you talk about photography being a kind of therapy, I can understand the value of the photos you’re making as a part of the process and what it does for you. Is making good photos a natural outcome of being able to lose yourself in the therapeutic process of shooting?  

The therapeutic aspect is a really good consequence of the making, but I also don’t want to do it for that reason, does that make sense? I don’t think making good photos is a natural outcome of working from a therapeutic place. Sometimes sure, I think the images come alive in a different way, but it also depends what the work is. What is it about for you and the subject / scene? What is your intention? The therapy piece helps me but it’s not why I’m making the photo. That said, listening to your intuition will always make you a better photographer. I think. 

You used to be involved with film. Why did you make the transition to photography?

Yeah, I started acting in theatre as a kid. I went to university for it, then spent a large part of my twenties in professional touring productions, did some tv and indie film here and there, then moved to New York to further my studies, and met my husband in an acting class. We ended up co-directing a few short films, and I worked as a production designer on some shorts and a feature. I miss it, especially the collaborative nature of it. After having my first child and moving from the city, the challenges of such an unstable, unpredictable, at-the-mercy-of-others career became too much. I started making pictures for fun, then headshots for actor friends, then realized I had some other things I wanted to say with a camera.

©Mikaela Martin

Your website says you’re a documentary and fine art photographer. I want to understand better how these two worlds of photography exist together.  How does one influence the other in your work?  

Labels, words, I don’t really like them because it’s a slippery slope, but they can be helpful right? I use both because some of my work isn’t purely documentary, it’s more conceptual, performed I guess. How else to describe it, it’s in an imagined state? Yeah something like that! Mostly I would say I’m a documentary photographer. I think the documentary side really serves any fine art work because you are committed to looking for what’s true and alive in a moment, no matter how constructed it is. 

I guess what interests me so much, is that it seems like your photography is pulled in two directions. It seems like there’s the need/ability to document a real moment that holds meaning and truth, and there’s a fascination with what feels like a dream-state or fantasy. There are photos of yours which feel like they hold both an element of truth and fiction at the same time. Are you able to talk about this?

Again, this feels like a difficult, philosophical thing to muddle through, but basically I think it’s inherently how I experience the world so it’s often just there in the image. I am not religious but I have faith in something that I have no interest in naming… is that silly? If I name it it might not come back! That just happens to be my point of view, dancing with truth and dreams. Thank you for seeing that. That means a lot that you see that.

©Mikaela Martin

Some of the photos you make don’t feel like pure documentary photographs but they still reflect an actual moment that feels just as real. Can a conceptualized photograph depict truth just as well as a photo that’s been “found”? 

My husband and I made a film called “Ramona” about an elderly woman who comes to terms with the loss of a close friend. We cast my husband’s grandparents, non actors, in the main roles. This was a fictional story, and we never showed them a script. We talked to them about grief, loss, friendship, family and filmed just that. They were incredible. What they shared was their truth, with a story constructed around it. That’s essentially what actors do too… In one way or another all art does this.

©Mikaela Martin

I think a lot of people view documentary photography as a straightforward visual record of a person, place or experience. How would you personally define documentary photography in regards to your own work?

I don’t know that my documentary work is a straightforward visual record. This is very difficult to answer, but in any setting I try to let the room, space or person give me clues and information that might not be straightforward. Perhaps this is where my experience in production design comes in… in film, every texture and object and colour is deliberate and has meaning, so in the real world when I’m shooting I look for the textures and objects and feelings and gestures that speak to each other in this way. Maybe this means I am telling my own story of a place or person. I think most of us do. How can you not?

“Good Lord, leave your Mother alone” reflects directly your personal experience. Do you have other projects that do this? 

“I found a window in the wall” is a long distance collaboration with Rowena Meadows, in Australia. Honestly the themes in this one are exactly the same as “Good Lord…” but this was definitely more of a conceptual project. I found two identical pink 70’s bridesmaid dresses in a thrift store and sent one to Row -who I barely knew- and Frances and Sylvia were born. It was a completely unexpected serendipitous gift for us both and made me giddy just to get to create it. 

I think that artists with a strong voice have been able to connect with the core of their beliefs and perspective in a way that they’re able to express through their art. Has knowing who you are as a person helped or influenced your ability to express yourself as an artist?  

I think for me it might be the other way around. I think making art has helped me understand who I am and how I see the world. I don’t think you have to know who you are to make meaningful work. Actually, come to think of it, I think sometimes too much knowing can get in the way. I’d like to think curiosity and ‘not knowing’ make for good photos. I’m not advocating ignorance, just promoting an open mind. And now let me contradict myself and say my own personal work has definitely been motivated by strong opinions and feelings I have formed around an issue eg being a mother!! I think it’s important as a starting point, but the actual doing and making should involve some letting go of what you think you know. Basically it all goes hand in hand, it’s a very chicken /egg conundrum!

There’s a quote by Canadian poet Mark Strand that describes this so well, “We live with mystery, but we don’t like the feeling. I think we should get used to it. We feel we have to know what things mean, to be on top of this and that. I don’t think it’s human, you know, to be that competent at life. That attitude is far from poetry.”

You can find more of Mikaela’s work on her website and on instagram @mikaelamartin_photog

©Mikaela Martin

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