Something VERY exciting happened yesterday. VERY exciting. Okay, maybe not exciting for everyone, but exciting for us. Yesterday was day one of our first ever e-course: Exploring Grief Through Photography. Woot woot! One incredible bonus of the course, that we are officially announcing at this moment, is that (drumroll please!) one of the photo assignments was developed by an incredibly talented guest collaborator: artist and photographer Mindy Stricke. If you don’t know Mindy, fear not, you’re about to! When we met Mindy we wanted her to help us develop a course assignment not just because she is a great photographer (though that’s true) but because she is currently executing a photo project we think many grievers will find intriguing whether you are a photography enthusiast or not. Grief Landscapes, Mindy’s project, is a collaborative initiative open to any griever who wishes to get involved, as long as you submit in the next few weeks.
When I first heard about “Grief Landscapes” it piqued my interest but I TOTALLY underestimated the cool-factor of her project. I like a good landscape image as much as the next gal, so I was intrigued to see how she was weaving together grief and landscape photography. When I got to her website I was surprised and completely engrossed. The images were not landscape photographs, at least not in the traditional sense, but they were landscapes none the less- really incredible grief landscapes! Confused? Let me share a little info from her website to clarify:
For the initial phase of Grief Landscapes, I’m documenting the unique terrain of people’s grief through photography and a collaborative process with the public. First, I’m inviting people to participate by answering a series of questions online about how they grieved after someone’s death. I’m then photographing an object in extreme close-up that evokes the memory of the person who died, transforming it into an abstract landscape inspired by the participant’s grief story.
Fascinating, right? That’s why we are thrilled to have an interview with Mindy today, to get a little more insight into the creative mind that hatched such a unique idea. And, don’t you worry, we will be sharing some of her images throughout the interview. Her work is something you really have to see to appreciate. Without further ado, welcome Mindy [applause! applause!].
1. A basic question, to get us started: tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a photographer and an interdisciplinary artist, and I’m also an extrovert, so I like to say that a lot of my work emerges from the fact that I love to talk to people. I tend to make art about aspects of the human experience that people don’t always talk about openly, such as the difficult parts of becoming a mother, or grief. I started my career as more of a straight photographer, making images of subjects that caught my eye, but as the years went on my practice evolved to include more collaborations with everyday people and a wider array of mediums, such as writing, collage, sculpture and sound. At heart though, I’m a story gatherer.
I grew up in a suburb outside of New York City, and through some twists and turns ended up in Toronto, where I live with my husband and two kids. I love living here.
2. Before your Grief Landscapes project you executed some other amazing projects. Can you share some of the highlights with us?
Prior to working on Grief Landscapes, I spent almost five years working on a series of community engaged art projects called Greetings From Motherland. I worked with dozens of women in a variety of workshops, and together we produced a number of installations about the culture shock of becoming a mother. For example, in the Motherland Postcard Rack, audience members were invited to answer questions anonymously about their transition to motherhood, and make fake postage stamps from Motherland that captured aspects of their experiences. In Average Baby, we ripped apart parenting manuals and turned them into found poetry and paper baby clothes.
3. Working with grief and those grieving is a very specific niche. How did your vision for Grief Landscapes emerge?
The inspiration for Grief Landscapes was my very close friend’s young son Miles, who died suddenly in September 2014. It was such a shock, and I wanted to be there for her in any way I could, but felt quite helpless. I noticed that on top of the grief, she was also questioning herself about the “right” way to grieve, and felt very isolated in what she was going through. So I decided to embark on this project, in which I would explore all of the different ways people experience grief, to show her that she was not alone.
I stumbled onto a quote by C.S. Lewis early in my research: “Grief is like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” I seem drawn to transforming life cycle passages into metaphors of place, so I went with it, and developed the project’s central idea of creating the macro landscapes from objects to represent each person’s unique experience with grief.
4. We have often had the experience of a project starting in one place, taking some twists and turns as we get immersed in it, and ending up somewhere a bit different than we imagined. Has Grief Landscapes developed just as you anticipated, or have there been any changes or evolution you didn’t anticipate?
No project ever develops just as I anticipate, but that’s part of what makes it all so rewarding for me. Each one is almost like a mystery I’m uncovering as I go along. I start out with an idea, or even just the seed of an idea, but then let it unfold. The main thing that changed with Grief Landscapes as I was developing it was its form: I originally conceived of it as an audio project, in which I would interview people, and then photograph an object that had actually belonged to the person who had died. I did two amazing interviews, but realized quickly that it made more sense to solicit submissions through writing. First, transcribing was very time-consuming, and second, I was starting to picture the stories as text. I also realized that I wanted to include people outside of Toronto, and by asking people to write in response to the questions, people anywhere could now participate. That also necessitated expanding the idea of what the object could be, since now it wouldn’t be limited to a single specific object. I ended up liking how that evolved—suddenly the object just had to represent the person who died, rather than belong to them, and it meant people could suggest other things to photograph, like food.
I can’t say too much about it yet, but the other evolution that I hadn’t anticipated is that Grief Landscapes in its current form is likely the first stage of a longer project. I hope to present it publicly in different forms, and get more people involved in various stages of the process.
Although I started the project to help my friend, I was also doing it for myself—I was curious about how it feels to grieve, and how people learn to live after a devastating loss. The grieving I’ve experienced has not been of that magnitude—I still have my sibling and both of my parents, and have been lucky that so far I have not lost any close friends. But I know that can change at any moment, and working on this project has helped remind me not to take anything or anyone for granted. I think before I started working on the project, and before Miles died, I was like a lot of other people who haven’t been bereaved—I was a little scared of the topic, didn’t quite understand the complexities of grief, and wasn’t always there for people as much as I should have been. Working on Grief Landscapes has changed that.
6. Macro photography – crazy stuff! Can you tell us a little bit more about how you got into macro photography and help our readers understand what macro photography is all about it they are not familiar with it?
A lot of my work is about transformations—taking something familiar and making it unfamiliar. I think the act of turning something we think we know into something unexpected helps us see the world differently, ask new questions, and approach topics that are often taboo. Macro photography does this beautifully—it’s simply taking a photo of something extremely close-up, but in the process, you see that thing completely differently. It’s a huge challenge to change all manner of objects into landscapes.. But it’s also very rewarding when it all clicks into place, and I find the image within the object that is inspired by someone’s grief story.
To submit a story to Grief Landscapes, all you have to do is answer a series of questions on my website about your experience grieving a specific person, and suggest an object that can represent that person. Any story can be a good fit for the project, because I never know what people will write about that I haven’t heard yet. That said, there are some stories that I don’t have in the project that I would love to hear: the loss of a boyfriend or girlfriend (as opposed to a spouse), the loss of a same sex partner, the loss of a mentor, or the loss of someone to gun violence. It would also be interesting to hear from a teenager, and from more men. I’d also appreciate more stories from people of different cultural or religious backgrounds—I don’t have anyone in the project who is Muslim or Buddhist, for example.
8. One of the unique aspects of your project is that you create something for someone else, using their grief experience. I imagine this brings up a lot of amazing opportunities, but also a lot of challenges. What would you say are some of the best and some of the hardest things about creating for others.
I started this project to document people’s grief, but in the process of making these images I’ve realized that Grief Landscapes is as much about the relationships I’ve developed with the people whose stories I’m working with. It’s been an incredible, almost magical experience to make something for someone else in this context, and I think that’s because both of us are taking a chance. The people who answer my questions are making themselves vulnerable to me, and I’m making something for them based on a deeply personal experience. It’s always a risk for both of us, but in taking that risk and making that exchange, a connection is formed. And those connections are a big part of what Grief Landscapes has ended up being about—that people need to be less scared to talk about grief, and to connect and support each other more in the process.
9. Creating is a unique process, because we create for ourselves but we also create for others. In the case of the Grief Landscapes project, what do you hope the grievers whose stories you work with will take from the images? What do you hope others who come across your project will take from it?
I hope that the participants who share their stories with me feel heard and validated, and that the image I make resonates with them, and perhaps even illuminates something new for them. I’ve had incredible feedback so far, which is part of the reason that working on this project has been so rewarding.
I see people coming across the project as two groups—people who have been bereaved, and those who haven’t. For those who have, I hope Grief Landscapes helps them feel less alone, and that they see themselves and aspects of their experience reflected in the project somehow. For those who haven’t been bereaved, I hope it inspires them to be there for people who are grieving, and to not run away from the topic. I’ve received emails from both kinds of viewers of the project that tell me I’m helping to start new and important conversations. Grief is painful, but it’s also a normal, natural part of life. So my big hope is that Grief Landscapes will continue to find an audience, and help make grief more visible, less isolating, and a little easier to bear.
If you didn’t already click above, you can click here to learn more about Mindy’s project and submit your story to her. As always, you can sign up at the top of the sidebar to get our new posts straight to your inbox. And if you are bummed that you missed out on registering for our Exploring Grief Through Photography e-course (beginners welcome, you don’t have to be nearly as talented as Mindy!) don’t you worry, we will be offering it again. If you leave a comment saying you are interested in the next session we will send you an email when registration opens.