How to Support a Stranger

I’m almost five months into posting stories and images for Grief Landscapes, and every week there is a new outpouring of response; through comments on Facebook, from emails I receive, or from people telling me face to face the effect the project has had on them. Some people tell me that reading the stories has helped them feel less alone in their grief, and others mention that the project has taught them how to be there for others. One example that really moved me: 

I lost a friend this week–she was pregnant and collapsed on Monday. Both died instantly. I heard the horrible news when I received an email that I had to read about five times before the news actually set in. It was an invitation to celebrate the "life and love of Julia.” Once I realized what the email was saying, I said I'd be there, without question. I wasn't afraid I'd have nothing to say to her mother or sister. I wasn't afraid I wouldn't know what to bring or what to wear. Thanks to Grief Landscapes, I knew exactly what to do: be there. It was a beautiful event. I brought a loaf of bread and a growler of beer for her husband. I walked up to Julia's mother and told her I just wanted to offer a hug. She breathed a sigh of relief and thanked me for being there as she hugged me, a stranger. While I know I could have done this for a friend or relative before Grief Landscapes, I am certain I wouldn't have felt comfortable offering support to a stranger. Thank you.

I’m starting to realize that while there are many facets to Grief Landscapes, one of the major hopes I have had for the project is to start conversations about how we can be there for people who are grieving. How we can connect with each other, listen, and not turn away. 

People are uncomfortable with grief. I’ve noticed how many people change the subject when I tell them what I’m working on. But if I’ve learned anything so far, it’s that people who have lost someone they love are thinking of that person every day. Mentioning to them that you are thinking of them, or saying the name of the person who died, helps them know that you remember too. 

So if there’s anyone you know who has had a loss, why not introduce them to the project and tell them you’re thinking of them? I know not everyone necessarily wants to hear or read about other people’s grief (after all, the project is about how everyone grieves differently), but even the gesture can help let someone know that they’re not alone.

Some other things of note:

- Many people ask me what inspired me to start working on Grief Landscapes, and recently I was able to go more in depth about the origins of the project in an essay for the beautiful and groundbreaking online magazine Modern Loss. You can read that essay here.

- I went to a Death Cafe in Toronto last month, and ended up on CBC radio! A Death Cafe is an informal gathering where people can come together to talk about death and dying. You can hear the snippet of conversation I had with some of the other attendees in the first 5 minutes of the piece, but I recommend listening to the whole thing

- I’m partnering with the amazing website What’s Your Grief for their new photography ecourse: Exploring Grief Through Photography, which is part of their PhotoGrief initiative. I love the site, and I’ve used it a lot during my research. I’ll be developing an assignment for the course based on Grief Landscapes. The course will run from May 23rd until July 3rd, and I encourage anyone who would like to explore their grief visually to sign up.

My other big announcement is that I’m setting a deadline for gathering the remaining stories I’ll need for Grief Landscapes: June 15th. I’ve received incredible submissions, so it’s time to put a cap on it so I can sort out which stories I’ll make images for to complete the first stage of the project. In a few months, I’ll be able to tell you more about what’s to come with the next stage. In the meanwhile, please consider submitting your story to the project! 

News from the (Basement) Studio

First, some amazing news: I was awarded an Ontario Arts Council Visual Arts grant for Grief Landscapes! I’ve been working extremely hard, so it feels incredible to get the recognition and support for this project. I feel grateful to have landed in a country that supports individual artists in this way, even if it’s not always easy to string those grants together. 

To be honest though, I would find a way to do this project no matter what—it’s been a deeply meaningful artistic and personal experience making this work so far. Since launching Grief Landscapes at the beginning of January, I’ve published the first four stories, and have started to receive more from all over the world. Every single submission moves me. I’ve also heard from many others about how reading the stories so far have already helped them learn a lot about how other people grieve. 

The main thing I’m focused on now in addition to photographing is continuing to generate submissions so I can select a wide range of stories for the project. I’ve been spending time writing grief counselors, bereavement organizations, online grief support websites, and anyone and anywhere I else I can think of to help get the word out.

Photographing a new story in my basement studio. 

Photographing a new story in my basement studio. 

I want to hear about as many experiences with grief as possible of course, but I also want to uncover stories that aren’t often told. For example, I would be very curious to hear a story from someone whose boyfriend or girlfriend died, either from a young or older person. How did his or her family treat you in the aftermath of a loss like that? I’m also very interested in how it feels to grieve someone with whom you may have had an unresolved complicated relationship. Or what about losing a close mentor or teacher? An ex you were still close with? A twin?

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is that a theme that I keep coming back to in my art practice is “questions and connections”. I touched on the topic of questions before in a previous post, but as this project expands and more people are taking part, I’m realizing that even though I’m not working with people in person this time, the same dynamic of honest questions prompting honest answers that lead to new connections is still here in the online space. I hope it keeps growing. I’m not the kind of artist who likes to squirrel herself away in her garret to make a body of work and then present it to the world fully complete. I can’t help myself—I’m a total extrovert, and my process involves needing and wanting a feedback loop that invites anyone who is interested in the topic I’m working on to chime in. I like having a room of my own, à la Virginia Woolf, but I like that room to have the door open a lot of the time with a big welcome sign on it. 

If you have ideas or thoughts about the kinds of stories you would like to hear in Grief Landscapes, or if you have any questions you have about grief that you’re curious about that you would like to see addressed through the work, please comment here or on Facebook, or contact me. Also, if you have ideas about places or people that I can get in touch with that will help me expand the reach of the project, that’s really helpful too. 

Launching Grief Landscapes in 2016

After actively collecting stories and making images for Grief Landscapes for the last few months,  I’m ready to move to the next phase. It’s time to go live, to start sharing what I’ve made so far, and to collect more stories to complete the project. 

When I started, I wasn’t sure how many images I would ultimately make; I was just feeling my way as I went along. It’s finally starting to take shape. I’ve decided to post one Grief Landscape each week, starting the first week of January. It’s been a very intense and moving experience to make images in response to other people’s losses. It feels like a heightened and risky exchange sometime, but I’m happy that participants have reported it as a positive and cathartic one.


I'm currently recruiting more people to participate, and will continue to choose the stories I will shoot for the remainder of the project. I’m especially looking for men (many more women than men have responded so far), and for people sharing stories about bereavement experiences that tend to be rendered invisible by our culture (but of course I want to hear from everyone, as each grief experience is unique). I anticipate that I’ll receive more contributions than I can photograph, but all of the responses and testimonies I receive are extremely helpful, and I hope to use them all in some capacity during the course of the project.

So check back here soon. I'm taking a short break, and I’ll start posting Grief Landscapes on the first Thursday in January and then every week thereafter.

Please help me get the project out into the world by sharing the project on social media, and forwarding it to friends and family. And if you have any suggestions or connections to organizations that deal with bereavement that can help spread the word, that would be great too. Thanks for your help!

How It Feels

When I was a kid, I was semi-obsessed with the photographer and author Jill Krementz. She was most famous for a series of book length photo essays in which she profiled kids who excelled at various sports and creative endeavors, told through their own words and with candid photos of them living their lives. There was “A Very Young Dancer”, “A Very Young Gymnast”, “A Very Young Skater”, “A Very Young Circus Flyer”, and a few more, but not enough for me. I used to go back to the shelves where they were kept in the children’s room in the library when I was 6 or 7, and will for another one to appear, I loved them so much. I liked projecting myself into what I perceived as their very exciting daily existences (okay, a bit of wish-fulfillment) but I also just liked the combination of words and images about real kids’ lives. Most picture books I read as a child were fiction, and the non-fiction kids’ books available were mostly full of straight facts, not good storytelling. These books stood apart.

A few years later, I stumbled upon another series she wrote, called “How It Feels…” “How It Feels To Fight for Your Life,” “How it Feels to be Adopted,” “How it Feels When Parents Divorce.” Once again, but in a different way, I was fascinated by the first person accounts by regular kids of what it was like to go through challenging experiences I had never been through. The interviews were paired with straightforward black and white images of the kids, and again I kept scouring the shelves for more volumes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that series lately in relation to my current work. Another title for Grief Landscapes could be “How It Feels to Grieve” (which Jill Krementz essentially did a version of, with “How It Feels When a Parent Dies”). What I find myself drawn to again and again is people telling their own stories, in their own words, about things that we often don’t give ourselves permission to talk about. 

In the preface to her book about the terrible loss of a parent, Jill Krementz writes, “I hope the book will help such children to realize that they are not alone—-either in suffering so great a loss, or in the feelings that have about it…Most of all, I hope the book will show children that there aren’t any right feelings or wrong feelings; that acknowledging how you feel and not being afraid to express it is what matters—-and helps—-the most.”

We often talk to children about how all of their feelings are valid, and yet I’ve noticed how when we become adults that quickly goes out the window. There becomes a dominant narrative for how we’re supposed to feel, whether that means putting pressure on new moms not to acknowledge difficult feelings of pain and ambivalence, or on urging people grieving someone who died to “get over it” after a certain prescribed period of time. And it seems that sometimes we can’t win either way. I’ve also heard from people who were given a hard time because they didn’t feel particularly devastated when someone close to them died, but somehow felt they were supposed to act that way.

And maybe I’m even being overly romantic about how we let children have all of their feelings. That pressure of having to be and act a certain way depending on what’s expected of you can start early. In 2011, The New York Times published an article about Stephanie, the little girl in Krementz’s book “A Very Young Dancer”—one of my favorites in the series. The book described how Stephanie had danced the lead in The Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet, and it ends with her happily continuing to study dance. But the article, looking back over thirty years later, tells a different story. A few years after her starring role, she was asked to withdraw from the ballet school due to faltering attendance. The book had put her in the spotlight, and she didn’t feel that she could tell people what had actually happened. So she covered up the pain of the rejection by saying she had quit, and kept up that fiction for three decades. The shame that followed led to many struggles and episodes of depression through the early part of her adult life. Although she acknowledges in the article that she might have had a hard time regardless, and it’s often hard to find oneself after leaving an all-encompassing pursuit, I still have to wonder if she might have had an easier time of it if she had been able to be honest with herself and the world about how she really felt.

How to Turn a Poppy Danish Into a Mountain

I’ve had a nice response so far since starting to get the word out about Grief Landscapes, and people’s stories are starting to come in. I’m finding my rhythm, and it’s interesting to see what comes up as I navigate the tricky terrain of interpreting someone else’s grief visually. Primarily I feel very grateful and honored that people are trusting me with their accounts. That can’t be an easy thing to do. And as I’m finding, neither is making an image in response, but I have to say that I’m really enjoying the challenge.

Poppy Seed Danish, 2015

As I’m shooting a new image, I have to keep in mind three or four goals that I need to reach in order for the photo to be a successful reflection of a person’s grief experience. First, it needs to resemble a landscape, and some objects are easier than others to transform in this way (clothing, fabric, anything with an undulating surface, for example). It feels relatively easy to take a beautiful but non-specific close-up image of a familiar object, because there’s so much there one can’t always see with the naked eye. But to make it even slightly resemble a landscape turns out to be a lot harder.

The second thing I’m aiming for is to have the tone of the image reflect the person’s grief in some way. Sometimes it’s clear, and something jumps out from the text that’s vivid and an obvious path to represent the terrain they’ve described. Other times, their grief unfolds over a longer period and I have to either choose which aspect of the person’s story to portray, or try to get it all in there. I’m also trying to avoid being too literal or obvious, because then I risk veering into the sentimental (something that feels particularly easy to do with a project like this).

The third dimension is whether the photo feels like it truly represents the person it’s about, which emerges from the objects suggested for me to shoot. And sometimes I get that wrong. My friend Jordana submitted a beautifully written account of her father’s death, which followed years of dementia. In her text, she writes about how different she and her father were—he was a Holocaust survivor; a working class, salt-of-the-earth mensch who didn’t always understand her, but loved her deeply and unconditionally. There was a simplicity to her grief, which she recounted. 

For the objects, she suggested a greasy poppy seed danish, which her dad loved to eat, or a ladder, since he had been a roofer. I jumped at the danish, since I thought it would make a really interesting landscape, and it did. The poppy seeds looked like black boulders, and the white icing like glaciers on the side of a mountain. I was using the black and white nature of their relationship as the jumping off point and I was excited to share them with her. But after I did, she gently told me that while the images were beautiful, they didn’t feel like her dad. They were too beautiful, and he was a man with dirt under his fingernails. It just didn’t fit.

So I took another crack with the ladder. I had one in my garage, so I hauled it out and shot it outside from all different angles. This time, it all came together—the straightforward nature of her grief reflected in the straight lines of the ladder and the image, the choice to have a narrow depth of field to reflect the dementia at the end of his life. She thought I had nailed it, and so did I. I still love the danish photos, and it's hard to let them go, but I love the ladder images too, and each image is ultimately a collaboration.

   Ladder, 2015

I’m excited to keep going, and I look forward to hearing more of your responses as well as starting to share them in the coming months. I also wanted to clarify the object aspect of the project, which some people have been confused about. The object does not have to be something currently in your possession; it can be something in your memory, or an object that represents an aspect of the person. In most cases I am recreating the object anyway (some people don’t actually have anything from the person who died, or what they have wouldn’t work with the text or as a landscape image). Keep the stories coming.

Getting Over the Fear of Putting Myself Out There

One of the things that is both exciting and challenging about being an artist is the reality of starting over with each new project. Of course, I love it because I get to follow my curiosity about a new subject and see where it takes me. I enjoy the sense that when I’m exploring a new idea and trying out different things artistically, it’s as if I’m solving a mystery (albeit a mystery without any hard and fast answers, usually just more questions, but that’s fine). On the other hand, for each new project, there’s a shift, and sometimes I feel as if I’m starting over again with my art practice, figuring it all out again each time. 

It definitely feels that way with Grief Landscapes, because although the project is building on a lot of ideas and work I’ve done before, the form of it feels really new for me. For the first time, I’ve decided to put the work out there in the world at an early stage in its development. In order to do that, and because of the necessity of recruiting people for the project, I’ve realized that it’s time for me to get over my fear of exposing myself online and in social media, and of reaching out and letting people know what’s going on with the work and my process.

The New One, 2005 

It’s funny, because I’ve been working on the Internet in some form literally since the web began, in 1996. My first job after college was as a copywriter at Prodigy, an internet service provider that actually predated AOL (anyone remember that connecting modem sound?). I spent my days surfing the early web and writing pithy headlines and puns for home pages of links. Then I worked at NBC, in a tiny division called Interactive Television, in which we were developing content that attempted to combine the internet and television (to pretty boring effect, I must say). After I became a photographer, I launched SingleShots in 2003, shooting online dating portraits for hundreds of people. 

Since I’ve been working online practically since the beginning, you might imagine that I would be totally comfortable sharing what I’m doing here. And it’s not that I haven’t made any attempts—I kept a blog about Greetings From Motherland for a while, and made occasional updates to the Facebook page I kept about the project. But I had trouble getting past the icky self-promotional feeling, or how vulnerable it made me feel to write things and put them out there.

So what’s changed? I’ve started to realize that when I share my work, or the process behind my work, I’m letting people in and bringing people closer to it. It goes beyond the work itself — the work becomes the catalyst for the relationships that are developed and the conversations that are sparked. I’ve known this intrinsically when I’m face to face with people; it happened quite naturally with all of the Greetings From Motherland workshops I ran. 

It feels time to expand that circle with this new project, and start treating the online space as I would a workshop I’m leading. I have to trust that those who are interested in what I’m doing will want to hear more, even when I’m not sure who is reading and listening. But my real wish is that with time I will be able to develop a community here and elsewhere online, and we will start to be able to have those conversations that I’m hoping to have. Grief is not an easy thing to talk about, for example— I’ve already noticed that when I tell some people what I’m working on, they look away, and clearly want to change the subject. I’m hoping that here that will be different. 

I plan on updating this blog once a week (I’m hoping that by saying that out loud I will stick to it), I’m regularly updating my Facebook page now, and I’m posting images on Instagram and Pinterest. I'm starting to build my email list from scratch so people can get direct updates (it had been so long since I used it, MailChimp wouldn't let me send anything out. Speaking of which, feel free to subscribe). 

It’s like I’m putting my toes in the water, and finding out that it’s really not that cold. Anyone who knows me knows I actually hate getting in the water—I’m like an old lady who splashes herself and takes a half an hour to get in. And then does the doggy paddle once she’s in. But here I am, proudly doing the doggy paddle. It feels like I’m finally in the pool.