Interview with photographer Samantha Geballe
Sarah Hadley: How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?
Samantha Geballe: I’ve always loved art. I doodled, painted, and crafted constantly as a child. Art and my imagination helped me escape sadness and pain I felt heavily at an early age.
I initially came to Los Angeles in 2006 to seek treatment for that pain and sadness. I left for 30 days and didn’t see home again for almost 2 years. Something that I learned in treatment was to gain self-esteem through doing esteem able acts. That stuck with me and so did art.
After treatment I stayed in Los Angeles. I began to notice street art all around, and I wanted to document it. I thought a film camera would be the best way to learn, and that’s what I did. Not knowing a thing about photography, I went all around LA to find art. It was not after long that I noticed how much better I felt when I was taking pictures. Finding street art, making art, processing art, and putting my mind more at ease in the process.
Sarah Hadley: The current issue of F-Stop Magazine includes images from your project “Self-Untitled”. Can you tell us about this project? What led to this work?
Samantha Geballe: Self-Untitled began out of sadness, pain, and anger. Emotions I felt constantly (and still do) about the way I was being treated by others and the way that I treated myself. My eating disorder was destroying my life and I had just been suspended from Art Center. I still wanted to pursue photography and eventually found seminars and smaller classes to take elsewhere.
One teacher in particular (we had originally met at Art Center) pushed me incredibly hard. I took his portraiture seminar where we had to choose projects in order to complete assignments. I chose self-portraiture because it makes me uncomfortable to ask others if I can photograph them. I feel bad asking for their time, which is really asking to be a part of their life.
When I started taking pictures of myself, I didn’t know how incredibly difficult it would be. To look at myself, truly look at myself. I sat in class sobbing as he pushed me to make deeper work. I made my first nude photograph the next day. It’s no longer in the series, maybe someday. It’s a breakthrough image for me, and I believe where it really started.
Sarah Hadley: Can you discuss your process for making these images?
Samantha Geballe: When making images, I try to base them off of different concepts and symbolism. Feelings matter so much to me. My struggle is, how do I convey my feelings and let the viewer in? I try to make the intangible tangible. It’s hard to be seen, and I’ve always wanted to be seen.
Something my mentor has taught me, is that some of the best creation comes from limitations. Make a portrait that includes water. Make a portrait that includes motion. Make a portrait that is two in the space of one. Now, how do I play with these rules? How do I break the rules? (I always want to break the rules) How do I push myself to make imagery that matters? How do I make someone care? I have to put myself inside of the box in order to get out of it.
Sarah Hadley: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why does it speak to you the most?
Samantha Geballe: I’m not sure that I have a favorite image in the series. There are many that give me joy because I know what I went through to get them. I remember the difficulty and the triumphs. I remember the first time I was able to shoot as long as I wanted because I wasn’t tired. I was always tired at my heaviest. I think about the picture, “Window,” and how I felt. What is was like to enjoy the light. To be in the moment. To reflect and try my best to show my feelings. To let someone else in even if I was alone.
Sarah Hadley: How do you feel this work relates to the theme of the Human Body?
Samantha Geballe: I think that our body is our voice. It talks to others and communicates. In my work, I am almost always nude. I think it’s important to use my voice and show myself. When I was big, I assumed everyone was looking through me anyways. Why not show them what they expect of me? I continue presently, because I feel it’s important to show the real work. What is life when distractions are set aside?
Now, I have the memories of what was, and hold the fears of what could be. They lie and hide deep within my skin. I have so much excess skin now. It’s a reminder of my voice and what it went through. Also what I had to do in order to keep it alive
Sarah Hadley: Is this project ongoing or do you have other projects that you are working on currently?
Samantha Geballe: My hope is that “Self-Untitled” will always be on-going. I think there is great value in looking at me for the long haul. It helps me get along with myself and others. It helps me take responsibility. It also helps me see all the nooks and crannies of the frame that I could’ve never seen before. It’s revealing.
That being said, I am working on another project. It’s about my partner and what she’s gone through. How is she processing life and our partnership? She has been with me before I even considered weight loss surgery. She has seen it all and I want to show what that’s been like for her.
She also suffered a terrible injury earlier this year which severely impacted her arm function. I would ask her before each shoot, “How does it feel today? How does it feel to be in pain? How does it feel to scream and have no one listen? How does it feel to be ignored? Dismissed. How does it feel to be helpless and surrender to the current circumstance? How does it feel to deal with life? How does change feel?
Sarah Hadley: How do you feel “Self Untitled” relates to other work or projects you have done in the past or are currently working on?
Samantha Geballe: “Self-Untitled” revealed to me how much I impact others in the decisions I make on a daily basis. Whether I know it or not, my actions impact others and myself. I think that the purpose and meaning of life is connection on some level. It can look a lot of different ways, and photography has allowed me the opportunity to form connection with concepts. I think that the thread in my work is the attempt at connection.
Sarah Hadley: Why do you photograph? What compels you to make the images you create?
Samantha Geballe: I photograph now for the same reasons I picked up a camera initially. Taking photos has always made me feel better. Now it’s my mirror and the way I learn myself. I’m curious of my patterns and how I can better my interactions with others and especially myself. I have to make images. I just have to see, I have to.
Sarah Hadley: Where does your inspiration come from and how do you choose how/when/what to photograph?
Samantha Geballe: Light and shadow are huge inspirations to me. Light, design, and shadow are often the determining factor of my location choice. First, it has to have amazing light. Revealing light. Light and shadow reveal. They are default mirrors. My teacher always asks the question, “What do you see every day?” And you better damn well answer, light. Photography taught me how to see. I see design, I see light, I see patterns, I see mood.
Sarah Hadley: Your work is very brave as it is about your own life, struggles and you portray yourself naked and vulnerable. Did this evolve or were you always this honest or able to put yourself out there?
Samantha Geballe: I have a hard time believing my work is brave. I think it’s necessary and I wish more people would reveal themselves. I think most people haven’t a clue who they are. They’ve never seen themselves before. Something I’ve learned in taking nude self-portraits is that people are completely enamored with authenticity as long as it isn’t their own. What’s so difficult about showing your true self? If others don’t like you, what do you make up about you?
Sarah Hadley: How has the positive feedback and accolades you have received for this work affected you or your work?
Samantha Geballe: I feel pressure to make work that matters. Losing this mass amount of weight flipped my world upside down. I saw myself for the first time at 27. I am still seeing myself for the first time. I struggled with, does my work matter if I’m not fat? Will people still like it, which was never my intention to begin with. I create to make myself feel better first, and I think that is where it needs to stay.
Sarah Hadley: Have you experienced any negative backlash from your series and how has it affected you or your work?
Samantha Geballe: I’ve received minor backlash from my series “Self-Untitled”. I consider it minor, because it’s really nothing I haven’t heard my whole life. But honestly, it’s just noise. I’ve been chased in traffic by others screaming at me that I should die because I was fat. So being called names doesn’t usually penetrate anymore. You have to have thick skin to be fat. Especially fat in public.
Sarah Hadley: What do you hope people experience or feel when they look at these or any of your photographs?
Samantha Geballe: When people look at my imagery, my hope is that they feel or at least think. I hope they understand and see the plight of another. That even though our lives might look nothing a like, we are connected through a similar feeling. We all have feelings. We are all human.
Sarah Hadley: What photographers or other artists inspire you?
Samantha Geballe: Sally Mann is a photographer that I greatly admire. Her images are just real and there is so much beauty in that reality. Brooke Shaden also inspires me. Her attitude is something I strive for daily. Her ideas behind creating and why you should create are beautiful to me. There are many more, but lastly, Brittany Cathy-Adams. Brittany is another photographer working with her body and what it means to show your voice. Her work is work that matters and it’s why I photograph no matter how painful it may become. To show what’s real and I know she feels the same way.
Sarah Hadley: How would you describe your work to someone viewing it for the first time?
Samantha Geballe: I describe my work as a punch to the face with contrast. It’s raw and real. No smoke and mirrors although I might incorporate them. I show my life.
Sarah Hadley: What defines a good photograph for you?
Samantha Geballe: I think there are a lot of elements to a good photograph. Mainly I want nice light, mood, design, shadow, thought, concept, and feeling.
Sarah Hadley: What is your process for working on a project? Do you preconceive of your images in your head, or do you have a concept or idea and shoot until you feel it has been realized?
Samantha Geballe: I rarely photograph an image with any sort of solid game plan. Most of the ideas I write down or draw, don’t happen. I usually begin with a concept such as mirrors, reflection, water, etc. and then am attracted to the light and space. I shoot until I feel stumped on a scene. I try to see and photograph it in multiple ways. Most of my images are done in camera and I edit with Lightroom. I think that I get the most excited when editing. It’s where I see the photos come to life…or not.
Sarah Hadley: Has living in LA affected your work at all?
Samantha Geballe: Living in LA has greatly affected my work. LA is where I’ve grown up as an adult. I came here 10 years ago when I didn’t see myself living past 21. I photograph a lot of my images in Northern California and sometimes I can find the landscape here stifling. It’s hard to get nude outside in Los Angeles without being seen. But, I don’t think I’d be a photographer if I hadn’t left home.
Sarah Hadley: Is there anything else you would like to tell us about your work or life that would inform us about your work?
Samantha Geballe: I’ve learned a lot of great lessons in life. I feel lucky to have worked through a lot at an early age. Something that has keep me going is the mantra, “put one foot in front of the other. No matter what. No matter what.” I tell myself all the time, it’s all going to be ok. No matter what it looks like, it’s going to be ok. And that is how I feel about Self-Untitled. I have to make this work, no matter what. One foot in front of the other.
For more of Samantha Geballe’s work: www.samanthageballe.com