Interview with Featured Photographer Kayla Massey

Kayla Massey - PICC Line Route

Kayla Massey – PICC Line Route

F-Stop: How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?

KM: Photography has been something that I have been interested in ever since I was a kid. My step father had this old Pentax film camera that he would carry around with him all the time and some of my best days were the ones where he would actually let me go out with it and take pictures of whatever it was that I wanted to. I would go out and explore my world pretending that I was on some grand adventure like the photographers in National Geographic. It was not until high school however that it started to seem like a real possibility. I took my first photo class my senior year and that became all that I could focus on. I would arrive early to the school and stay until the building closed working in the dark room trying to be the best that I could be. I still remember seeing my first photograph sitting in the fixer and the moment that image started to appear it felt incredible and I knew this would be something that I would be doing for a very long time.


F-Stop: In your statement for “Your Nurse Today Is…” you indicate that using your camera to photograph this experience empowered you. Is this what motivated you to begin this project? Can you talk about how making photographs affected the experience?

KM: That is exactly right. Before I started to photograph for this project I felt utterly helpless. It had become hard for me to do even something as simple as sit up and get out of my bed. Often I would not leave the upstairs where my room was because of the fact that I would have to walk down stairs, or even to just sit up for a long period of time had become something that was too challenging for me. I no longer ate but was being fed by a PICC line in my arm that was providing me with TPN or Total Parental Nutrients 24/7. I just needed something, anything at all that I could grasp onto to help keep me here, keep me focused and that could give me a task, some kind of feeling of accomplishment. It was only natural for me to turn to photography, although I had never considered working like this before.

Because I was photographing everything that started to happen to me I felt like I was in more control of what was going on. On top of that I could no longer avoid what was going on, I could not sit back and just go along for the ride. I had to fully understand and accept what was happening which I think was a very good thing. So often people were telling me that although I might feel okay right now that later on I might need to talk with someone so that they might help me get through everything, but photographing as I did was a therapy in and of itself. I felt like I had stepped back from everything and started to view it and understand it in a different light.

Kayla Massey - IVs Removed

Kayla Massey – IVs Removed

F-Stop: Can you discuss your process for making these images and choosing what to photograph and what not to?

KM: Once I started to photograph everything that was going on I knew that I just wanted to photograph as much as I could and in as many different ways as I could. So many things that would not be happening again had already passed and I knew there would only be one chance to get the image that I wanted to show to everyone. The decisions more so came after the fact, when everything was said and done with. There were many images that I was almost afraid of showing, especially with this being work that was being reviewed and critiqued by not only my peers but also my friends. Generally I am a very private person. No one even knew there was anything wrong with me until after my first surgery, but I had to learn to let go of all of those fears and reservations and let my life become an open book. When it came down to editing the images that I had, it became about what could best tell my story for this purpose without loosing that intensity by including too many images. I still have more to share and to tell but I must first find the right purpose for those images.


F-Stop: I noticed that in your statement for this work you don’t identify the “word”, you don’t tell us what illness is behind the photographs. Why is that? Do you think perhaps this makes the experience more universal in some way? What do you hope people see or feel or perhaps learn when they look at these photographs?

KM: I did intentional leave out what it is that I have. When people look at my work I do not want that to be all that they would see. My work I do not see as being about a specific illness but rather about the experience of being sick, of going through something like this as a whole, whether it is personally or through someone that the viewer might know. So often in our society we shy away from the idea that we could ever be sick; that nothing could ever happen to us. Because of this we never think about it until it happens and when it does we have no idea what we should expect. With my images I tried to convey an idea of what was going on and how I felt though this all. I wanted to explain in a way that words would not overpower the work. I wanted people to be able to feel the work. But I do not want people to feel sad or sorry for me, quite the opposite. Even when I was going through this I was not sad or sorry for myself, I understood what was happening and I accepted this. And as strange as it might sound I became incredibly fascinated by this world that I was thrust into. All the time I was surrounded by this kind of chaos but simultaneously there was always so much quiet and a kind of calm that encompassed me. It was like this odd dance that was going on with me in the middle of everything, people coming and going but I was always the constant left to this new world by myself. The things that I would focus on and all that I had learned, I wanted to show the viewer as well as this unusual beauty that I found in it.


F-Stop: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most?

KM: That for me is a very easy question to answer, I have always gravitated to this image more than any other. There is a picture when I am on the roof in a wheel chair in the healing gardens at the hospital after my second surgery looking out rather that at the camera. There is something about this image that conveys to me the complete relief and freedom I was starting to feel then. It didn’t matter that it was the middle of December and I was outside with nothing more that a few blankets. I was outside breathing in fresh air with an actual end in sight. This image is the only image where I am outside, where the entire image is not taken up with stuff or with me. There is space in the image to breathe and to leave the frame. I am looking away, at something else rather than looking in. For me this image is the beginning of the much-desired end and to something that I could really start to look forward to.

Kayla Massey - Healing Gardens

Kayla Massey – Healing Gardens

F-Stop: What photographers or other artists inspire you?

KM: This question is always so hard for me because there are so many incredible photographers out there and I am always trying to find more to look at. When it came to this work I did specifically look at both Sarah Sudhoff and Kerry Mansfield for the genre or work that I was doing, but I also looked at work by Stephen Chalmers, John Cry, Alec Soth, Kelli Connel, David Hilliard, Mark Brautigam, Taryn Simon, Patricia Lay-Dorsey, Lalage Snow, Zhe Chen, Bryan Schutmaat, Alex Masi and so many more. I also met an incredible photographer, Sylvia Sukop who photographed her brother who had the same illness as me, which was an amazing insight to be able to talk with her and see how she worked and photographed from her perspective.


F-Stop: What is the best career advice you have ever received?

KM: Simply put, to just keep working. Especially with being out of school you cannot loose that drive that you had while in school. Over this past year I have really learned what it is like to work as an artist rather than just as a student. It takes a lot of work and a lot of asking and so much looking. I looked at this work until I was fed up with it and then some. To be a photographer you have to be dedicated to the practice of being a photographer.


F-Stop: What are you working on now?

KM: As of this moment I am going out and shooting whatever I can. I have missed so much time and so much of the joy that comes along with the medium. I am learning how it is that I see again. In terms of a project that I want to start however, I am hoping to be gaining access into the hospital that I was treated at. I have spoken with some of my doctors and nurses and they have given me some of the information that I need to hopefully get the permission that I am seeking so that I might be able to start photographing not only other patients but the staff of the micro-city as well. As I have stated, I have become incredibly fascinated with this world and I would like to explore it more from as many perspectives as I can.


F-Stop: You are currently going to school for journalism and documentary, does this mean you will be doing more documentary photography projects? What do you plan to be doing once you finish school?

KM: I have always been interested in telling a story with my photographs, of uncovering or discovering something and sharing it with others. I am hoping to be able to find the right combination between words and images to share the stories that I want to tell without one overpowering the other. I do hope to continue on with work such as ‘Your Nurse Today Is…’ and branching out even more with other ideas. I am not exactly sure where what I want to do lies between  photography and documentary because for me the two go so closely hand in hand, but I am very excited to see where it all takes me.

To see “Your Nurse Today Is…” on F-Stop:
For more of Kayla Massey’s work:


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