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An Interview with Sarah Stefana Smith of Stefana Photography
Interview by Clayton Ruley

Editor's Note: I've noticed the photography of Sarah Stefana Smith about five years ago and have been seeing her around town since then seemingly always with a camera in hand taking some of the finest shots you'd want to see. I was able to ask her some questions about her art and more. Enjoy the interview and peep her pics by clicking here.


GeoClan.com (GC): Where are you from and where are you trying to go?

Sarah Stefana Smith (SS): Location. The geography of my life has brought me to many places, building relationships with those spaces. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, but grew up in the sprawling suburbs of Columbia, Maryland. My summers were spent visiting family in Long Island and Brooklyn. Atlanta became my home for the four formative years of my College life. Philadelphia is my current home.

 

"Temple By The Sea" - Waterloo, Trinidad

GC: How did you get into photography and at what age?

SS: My father has always been the photo griot of the family, snapping shots of family, buildings, and places of interest to him. One of my first memories of photographs and picture taking was of daddy, photographing his father. Pop sat perched on the steps of his Brooklyn brownstone; hands clasped, applejack hat tilted to the side. I’m not sure whether I was just fixated on this image of my grandfather, or if I was actually a presence at the time of its inception. Regardless, this story has become a huge part of my identity as a photographer.

I really got into photography during the first years of college; I was about 19 or 20. I had the opportunity to participate in an intergenerational project, with local photographers in a group called Sistagraphy (collective of black women photographers based in Atlanta). A photographer was paired with college, high, and grammar school students and we created a body of work on the neighborhoods we were learning in. Our work was later shown at the High Museum of Art for a short period of time.

GC: What other work/hobbies/crafts do you partake in?

SS: I’m a creative person; trying to find art in all aspects of my life. Most recently, I’ve been working on window collage/ assemblages. I find images and (re) imagine them in conversation with each other. Also, I have taken to cooking beautiful raw food dishes.
And more privately, I have always used journaling as a way to gather my thoughts; I literally have stacks of joournals that have accumulated over the years.

"Sarah"

"We be the space you find: "We be..." is an ethnographic project that asks LGBT people of African descent to explore their ideas around embodiment, displacement, and home in a series of discussions and photo shoots. Collages are then made as a way to facilitate visual

interpretation of participant stories." - Sarah Stefana Smith

GC: How did you college experience shape you as a person professionally and personally?

SS: My college experience brought together many of the elements of theory, experience, and injustice that I was only just beginning to conceptualize as a young person. I had the opportunity to attend an all women’s HBCU and be a part of a legacy of women scholar-activists, learning about such folk as bell hooks, Patricia Hill-Collins, Marx, Paulo Freire, among many many others.

For me, college was a place I was fortunate to experience; a place of learning and sharing where I got my first inclination of the possibilities as an activist, scholar, thinker and artist. One of my fondest memories and taste of organizing was right after September 11th happened. Folks of Arab descent, Muslims, (whether perceived or otherwise) were being rounded up, targeted, labeled, racially profiled, mistreated. A collective I was a part of, S.A.S.S.A.F.R.A.S among many others marched through the campuses of the Atlanta University Center and the surrounding neighborhood of West End Atlanta, questioning these intentions. I had my camera with me, thrilled to be a part of this; energized.

GC: What brought you to Philadelphia and what's its strengths and weaknesses that you can see?

SS: More school brought me to Philly. I was accepted into a PHD program at Temple for Visual Anthropology. I quickly realized it wasn’t for me and left after a semester, however I stuck around Philly. Philadelphia has been instrumental in creating more of an activist gaze for me and also grounding me as an artist. Specifically I have had the opportunity to engage with like-minded artists, and media makers that offer wonderful perspective on the work that I am exploring.

Philadelphia is so amazing. I’ve gotten to be involved in a lot of wonderful organizing work around media justice, housing justice etc that has greatly influenced my life. In many ways, it has been like having a veil lifted, you know. All of a sudden, I get it (some of it). We are supposed to feel isolated and fragmented from one another based on difference, based on class. I mean, that’s why, Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Movement was so important, something to study and look at. Not only bring together people on racial lines but class, supporting each others struggles.

I think like any place, for me, it’s important to move around. I think for now, I’ve taken much of what I can get living here. I have plans to move in the fall, but certainly can see myself making Philadelphia a home again in the future.

GC: What kind of things, places, events, people do you capture in your photography?

SS: I’m really interested is space and place and how human beings interact with space, what kinds of imprint we leave on tangible ground. I like to photograph the simple and taken for granted. Those small moments where we are doing the things that makes us human, walking to school, cooking, cleaning the bathroom, playing cards with friends, opening the front door to say hello to a neighbor. My photographs are about a glimpse into personal stories.

With my involvement with the Media Mobilizing Project and the Anti Displacement Support Committee, I’ve gotten to photograph actions, personal stories, and lives that are key to documenting lived human experiences, not just what mainstream media wants you to think happens. It’s a powerful feeling being a part of that.

I also like travel photography, places I’ve not been to and places I see everyday.

"Hanumam" - Waterloo, Trinidad

GC: What's you favorite picture (or series) that's not yours? Yours?

SS: I’m really interested in the kind of work that Carrie Mae Weems does. Not simply a photographer, she has been know to create installations that incorporate text and images silk screened onto panels of fabric and hung from the ceiling. I’ve never experienced her work first hand, but only through books and websites. I really like The Jefferson Suite and The Louisiana Project to parts of a trilogy. Her interest in the unfolding of history, it’s intention, and the art of questioning that she evokes throughout her work. is inspiring.

I am really interested the works I am creating with my project We Be The Space You Find. It’s an ethnography project that both interviews and photographs queer people of African descent around the ideas of embodiment and displacement. I enjoy the stories and experiences participants are sharing with me and particularly like the fact that the collages are a representation of the process involved, artist interpretation, exchange between artist and participant.

GC: Do you think photography can be a part of a progressive social movement? Give an example for the people.

SS: I think image making is critical to social movements. We experience our lives visually in part by sight and we get to share experiences visually, through video, through photographs, through descriptive story. One way to break the fragmentation between struggles are through the sharing of stories and experiences. Still stories of working class and poor folk, people of color, sexual minorities, young people etc are submerged from view or just wrong. Photography, image making, shared meaning (whatever you want to call it) offers a visibility to the most marginalized that mainstream media isn’t going to provide for us.

"Root"

"The concept for this piece was the relationship between past, present, and future. I wanted to explore ancestry within African Diasporic communities. The images were gathered from newspapers, google searches, and my own personal collection. The branches, bark, and twigs are the roots in this piece; pulling and reaching towards one another from the top window box to the window frame on the ground. This movement represents the continuity and the relationship between pulling from the past to create the future." - Sarah Stefana Smith

GC: Do you work with a team or collective you want to shout out?

SS: I have had the honor of working with a number of brilliant minds in the Media Mobilizing Project, the Anti-Displacement Support Committee as well as have become a recent participant of a collective of folk planning the LGBTQI Women of Color conference in April of 2009.

GC: Any mentors/artists you have been moved by?

SS: There are so so many that have influenced me at different times.

Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Deborah Willis, Octavia Butler, Lola Flash, Wangechi Mutu.

Sistagraphy→ Black Women Photographers based out of Atlanta, Georgia. Philadelphia artists such as Theodore Harris, Naima Lowe, Harvey Finkle,

There is so much inspiring and beautiful work out there.

Be sure to drop GeoClan a line at arts@geoclan.com

 

Sarah Stefana Smith

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