Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Conversation with Sarah Wilson

We are thrilled to present this interview with Sarah Wilson. Sarah's work was first introduced to us many years ago, and as a result, she has participated in past Nymphoto projects. Her unique vision and sensitivity are truly special. When looking at her images, the viewer can immediately detect the regard she has for her subjects and the story she intends to convey.

Johnny Watkins from the series Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana © Sarah Wilson

George Conner, from the series Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana © Sarah Wilson

Nymphoto: Tell us a little about yourself.

Sarah Wilson: I live in Austin, Texas and I am an editorial photographer, concentrating mostly on portraiture and documentary work. I grew up in Austin through the end of high school, and then moved to New York City to attend NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for undergrad photography. While working on my own projects after graduation, I interned and assisted for several photographers including Mary Ellen Mark, Ken Schles, Robert Clark, Robert Diadul and Mark Jenkinson. I consider the handful of years working for other photographers as my continuing education. For a young photographer looking to break into the commercial or editorial world, I cannot recommend assisting enough.

During those years after graduation, I completed a couple of personal projects that have had some staying power and influence on my career. One of them, Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana, is an exploration of my Cajun roots in Southwest Louisiana, where much of my extended family still lives. With that project, I had my first solo show, sponsored by the Daniel Rosenberg Traveling Fellowship. The other project, Jasper, Texas: The Road to Redemption documents the aftermath of the brutal dragging death of James Byrd Jr., a shocking hate crime that garnered international attention and threatened to fracture an already divided East Texas town. The Jasper photos became an exhibition that traveled to six cities in Texas, as well as New York City. Curators from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston have included prints from the Jasper project in their permanent collections. I feel fortunate to have been able to show both of these bodies of work to magazine editors, and other important figures in the photography world at an early point in my career.

Since I moved back to Austin in 2005, I have been working as an editorial photographer for magazines such as Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and Men’s Journal. Just recently, I shot my first assignment for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which has been a goal of mine for a long time.

Bill King on Death Row, from the series Jasper, Texas: The Road to Redemption © Sarah Wilson

Marlon Forward, from the series Jasper, Texas: The Road to Redemption © Sarah Wilson

NP: How did you discover photography?

SW: I discovered photography at Horizons art camp in North Hampton, Massachusetts the summer after my sophomore year in high school. We were asked to choose two mediums in which to concentrate. I chose drawing and photography, and quickly found that I was MUCH better at photography than drawing, so I stuck with it. I took photo classes in high school and decided to major in photography in college.

Fermin, from the series Blind Prom © Sarah Wilson

Ashley and Victoria, from the series Blind Prom © Sarah Wilson

Melissa and James, from the series Blind Prom © Sarah Wilson

NP: Where do you find inspiration?

SW: As a portrait and documentary photographer, I am inspired by people. If I weren’t a photographer, I would probably be a psychologist or a counselor because I am curious about the intricacies of people’s lives. I ponder why people live the way they do, make the decisions they make, and how these factors effect their overall state of being. Photography serves as a passport into other people’s lives, giving me the chance to sit in someone else’s skin for a little while. I need to be able to read other people’s feelings and attempt to represent them accurately. I believe that a successful portrait can depict the subject’s life, not only in the still instance that the photograph was made, but it can also tell the story of their past and their future.

Although I loved living in New York City, I find myself drawn to the South and to middle America for my personal work. People seem to live their lives more out in the open here than they do in New York, which makes my job easier.

Slow Dance, from the series Blind Prom © Sarah Wilson

Michael and Victoria, from the series Blind Prom © Sarah Wilson

NP: How do your projects come about?

SW: My projects come about rather organically. I met my writing partner for the Jasper, Texas project at a dinner party. We started talking about the interviews he was conducting down in Jasper during the murder trials. This sounded very interesting to me, so I offered to take some pictures for him. We ended up working together on the Jasper project for over two years after that.

Similarly, I met the point person for my current project, Blind Prom, at my sister’s wedding a few years ago. He was my brother-in-law’s best man and he was sitting at the same table with my boyfriend, Keith, and I. He told us that he works as the recreation director at the school for the blind. We were so intrigued by his stories about the students, that Keith ended up making a documentary about the school, called THE EYES OF ME, which aired in March 2010 on PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS. I served as Keith’s stills photographer for the film, which led to my volunteering at prom.

Ideas for my projects also come from seeing something in the news or an event that’s happening around town. I guess I just try to keep my ears open and follow through on those ideas that keep rattling around in my brain.

The Texas School for the Blind Presentation of The Wizard of Oz © Sarah Wilson

Queen Citriana, Lauren Yvana Guerra © Sarah Wilson

Shot on Assignment for Texas Monthly, 2009

NP: What's next?

SW: I am getting close to the tail end of a long-term project I’ve been working on. For the last four years, I have been volunteering as the prom night photographer for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. At first, I saw the photos as simply a documentation of the night, paired with formal portraits that the students could share with their families and friends. But as I continued photographing, I realized that these images could reach a broader audience. They capture the energy and excitement of a group of marginalized teens participating in the American rite of passage of attending a formal prom. I believe these images can serve as a medium for consideration of what life might be like as a blind teenager. Blind Prom has shown at the Foley Gallery in New York, The New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery, and in China at the Lishui International Photography Festival. In addition to the prom photos, I have also been documenting other events related to the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and I hope that these images from the school will be published in book form someday.

Young Bride of Warren Jeffs at the FLDS Compound © Sarah Wilson

Shot on assignment for Texas Monthly, 2009.

NP: Thank You Sarah!

To see more of Sarah's work, please visit

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