Q&A: Brittney cathey-adams

By Roula Seikaly | Published on ....

Brittney Cathey-Adams is a photographer and educator who lives in Santa Cruz, California. The images featured here are part of a six-year project in which she explores the connection between the body and nature, utilizing her own form and its presence in unfamiliar and possibly threatening settings. Cathey-Adams strives for a seamless union of flesh and flora, seeking a connection that is estranged by daily life and the burden of normative “standards” for the female form.

Cathey-Adams has presented her work at the Society for Photographic Education Conference South and Southwest in Joshua Tree, CA. Recent exhibitions of her work include (Dis)Comfort: A National Exhibition Presented by the Young Women’s Caucus of Women’s Caucus for Art, Piante, Eureka, CA • Making a Scene: 50 Years of Alternative Bay Area Spaces, SOMArts, San Francisco, CA • Through a Curious Lens, A National Art Exhibit, Santa Cruz Art League, Santa Cruz, CA • Photo Alchemy: Alternative Processes in Photographic Media, Pajaro Valley Arts Council, Watsonville, CA • The Photographic Nude 2015, LightBox Photographic Gallery, Astoria, OR • 2015 Juried Exhibition Web Gallery, Center for Photographic Art, Carmel, CA.

Roula Seikaly: How did you get started on this project? What gave you the confidence to put this work, which unapologetically features a larger nude body as subject, out into the world?

Brittney Cathey-Adams: I think what happened for me was one of those moments like, when you get pushed away or something gets taken away from you, and all of a sudden wondering what do I do next? For a long time I photographed my sister, and she was the person I looked to when photographing. She was there, she was accessible, she was a good at it, and I thought she was beautiful. And then she moved. I thought 'how dare you go away to college?' So then I was faced with who do or what do I photograph? It was one of those things where I realized I hadn't realized what I was hiding from was self-portraiture. Looking back on it now, I realize that all through my school life, I had been handed assignments that challenged how I looked at myself. I had a mentor, and he saw it. He presented me with work, and he'd present different things and I think his goal was to help me unlock something. He saw the soft spot and pushed it a bit. 

RS: What did he show you?

BCA: He showed me Laura Aguilar. It wasn't certain that he was showing it for me, but it felt like it was for me. It was one of those moments, and I love to share this story because it goes back to how I view my work and how I think people view my work. When I first saw her work, I hated it. It's a funny transformation through it all, but I saw it and I got really self-conscious. I thought I knew what everyone knew what I looked like naked, and I thought that Laura Aguilar had broken the code of fat girldom everywhere. I thought 'how dare you show everyone what we're trying to hide. How dare you do that to our bodies?' We're not supposed to show this. We're not supposed to look like that. I hated it, and I carried that around, and reveled in hating her work. And then, all of a sudden, I was thinking about why I hate it. 'Why' is still one of my favorite questions, and 'why' turned into my taking a picture of myself. And I hated it when I started. Over time, I noticed a shift in my thinking, like I didn't hate it as much. I started producing abstract compositions. There was no way I wanted to just get in front of the camera nude. That was the scariest thing to me. So, I'll start with my elbow or foot, or little pockets of my body and that progressed into this work. But it took six years of me struggling against doubt and fear. Eventually, I realized it was time because I started back up, getting more of my body into the frame, but leaving my head out of the frame. At that point, I knew it was time to wrestle with how I identify in terms of my body and that once I did, there was no going back.

BCA: You asked which I find more challenging, being the photographer or the subject. I love that question! You're the first to ask it.

RS: You're kidding?

BCA: Right? You'd think that someone would have by now, but you're the first. The closest people get is to ask who photographs for you when you are the subject. I'm glad you asked because I love this topic. In a lot of ways, it's a performance in front of my lens. 

RS: Definitely. Your work has a performative aspect to it, even in a still format. It reads as the performance of a body in space where everything else is stripped away. Your body demands a reckoning with the audience. 

BCA: That's why I love it. I allow myself to take up space. It's such a huge thing. When thinking about your question - is it harder to be subject or photographer - I have moments when I stand in front of the lens and I have to breath through the fear and anxiety that come up at the thought of taking my clothes off. I think about scaring other people who might come around the corner, scaring them with my nudity I mean. There's something about consent, other people consenting to seeing me and me consenting to be seen by strangers. The hardest part is being the subject. Not because it's difficult, but because I'm so in love with photographing. I love the control of shifting things by millimeters and reframing and throwing something out of focus just slightly and coming back in, all of the visual footwork that happens behind the lens. When I'm the subject, I miss out on that. 

RS: What does it feel like to step from behind the camera where you make all kinds of aesthetic and technical choices and into the subject's space? Does it require a specific shift in mindset? Does that take time, and does it get easier over time?

BCA: I can let go of being in control of the lens. I would say it's a weird transition. The shift has to happen in a strange way where I set the parameters of my lens. I look at it, and I think about issues of framing. In a lot of ways, when I'm stepping out from the lens, I look at it like a stage. I get to know the space and how much I have and what I can do with it. Sometimes I have a pose in mind, the recurring pose is a sort of extended reach, so often times what I do is start there. From there, whatever movement happens, whatever feels right. I don't generally have a script. It's really about letting myself be in the space and thinking about what I can do, what I can shift, how I can I get higher or lower or fill the frame. It's definitely a shift of mind. 

RS: It sounds like you make space for the technical aspects, but then shift into thinking about other concerns such as how it smells or how cold the air is or how much space you can or will occupy when you're in front of the camera. I imagine there's a bit of tricking the mind, cajoling it into another state. How hard is that?

BCA: It can be really hard. Fear is one of those things that I thought would dissolve, but it goes back and forth. I've been tiptoeing toward this work, dreaming about and sketching it.

RS: This is a new project?

BCA: It is, but in the same vein of self-portraiture. For some reason, right now, I'm scared to take off my clothes. It's so weird, because I've made hundreds of photos of myself and it feels like it should be easy, or easier every time, but it's not. I think it starts from the same critical spot, where you can be locked up in your head, and that's what stops me more than the act of taking off my clothes. 

RS: You write that you look for different textures. Is that something you look for as you are scouting locations, beaches and forests and places where texture is abundant? Is there anything in particular that you look for? What does the mapping of terrain look like for you? 

BCA: I think what I'm looking for is light, and the textures that are affected by light, such as water. I notice that I tend toward places or locations don't reveal themselves in the work. It's not about the space or the texture that I encounter there. I find myself drawn to places where some form of destruction has taken place. Like landslides or spots where a cliff has crumbled off. Those textures and what's exposed underneath always catch my attention. It's not from an environmental concern perspective, but rather 'look at what the earth is doing.' The textures I'm drawn to call back to the textures of my body. I'm interested in how light shows my form and what it reveals about me.

RS: So, it's been six years that you've worked on this project. Have there been any experiences that set you back or made you question what you're doing and why you’re doing it? Has that factored into the process for this project? What came out of that for you?

BCA: What sets me back the most is constantly questioning myself and sorting out questions about self-objectification. What gets to me the most is printing my work to truly large dimensions. It was powerful, but really scary too. It was one of those things that when I watch people interact with the prints, where they stand so as to take it all in, to take all of me in. That felt really distancing and it made me feel like an object. The bigger the prints got, the more I felt as if I was displaying myself for others. Even though my work is obviously displayed to and for others, it reaches an uncomfortable point when the prints are too large and too much of me exposed that I feel really vulnerable. 

RS: What do you think about self-objectification as a form of reclaiming space, or your body, in a world where no body type is "correct"? This work challenges deeply ingrained, socially programmed notions of what bodies or what types of bodies should be looked at or should be appreciated. 

BCA: For me, it comes down to a question of who is allowed to be photographed and how. What I was finding was that people of size where being photographed for the purpose of showing how big they are, as kind of a alien or different these people are. To answer that question - who gets to be photographed - the answer is me. I get to be photographed. I'm going to allow myself to be photographed, and then I'm going to allow myself to think about to portray myself and take that ownership of it. I think there is a pervasive fascination or obsession with what a large body looks like, but not a lot of consideration of what that same body feels like. Answering that question from a very personal perspective is where my work comes to life, I think. 

RS: How does the gaze factor into this?

BCA: Of course, I'm dissatisfied with the male gaze. It's certainly present in my work as a female photographer photographing myself. It's one of those things I feel a lot of power in, so far as I define my body my way. I want that to happen more.

RS: Do you want to photograph men of size, or people with disabilities, or other under represented body types? Is that something you want to broaden out to, perhaps to continue exploring who or which bodies get to be photographed?

BCA: I went the other way, actually. I think a lot of people start with themselves and then broaden out. I photographed myself and struggled with telling myself that it's too hard to be both photographer and subject. I worked with other people when I first started my work. I worked with family and friends, people of color, men and women. It was one of those things where I was asking so much of these people that I wasn't willing to give of myself. I realized I was hiding behind them, that I was imposing an autobiographical aspect to their images, which is false. I realized that I couldn't ask for so much vulnerability from others that I wasn't prepared to offer. I recognized it as something I need to do.

RS: What kind of responses to your work have you encountered? 

BCA: This gets to our discussion of the word "brave." I was discussing this topic with someone who photographed his own depression. I understand how it's activated for people, particularly if they say to me "I could never do that. You're so brave." Part of me gets that they mean well, but what it feels like is somebody reminding me that I'm supposed to be brave to do this work. I want to live in a world where I don't have to be brave to do this. Bravery reminds me that there are fences. I want to knock down those fences, not just politely climb over them and not offend anyone. I shouldn't have to feel brave to just be myself. I like to say to people, particularly the ones who say 'I could never do that,' that you're allowed to. That's sort of my rebuttal when they come at me with bravery.

RS: Have you gotten other responses to the work?

BCA: The first time I put up my work, up in Arcata (CA) in a solo exhibition, one woman came in and after taking less than a minute to look around said 'yuck.' And then she walked out. And it hurt, and it reminded me of being vulnerable all over again. I think that the empathy that I have and share with people comes from the fact that it wasn't given to me for a long time. It reminded me, when she said that, of what I thought about Laura Aguilar and how I responded to her work. It fascinates me now more than it hurts me, because I know that feeling. I don't think for one second that I don't know that response. It makes me want to talk to that person, as odd or uncomfortable as that sounds. I want to know how those viewers who discount my work feel about their bodies. I'm so much more interested in those responses and where they spring from than I am in the perfunctory remarks about bravery.

RS: Would you or have you photographed yourself in color, for this or other projects? Or is black and white the physical and aesthetic space that you feel conveys what you're working on?

BCA: Color, for me, is something I have to use when I photograph digitally. This project lives in both the digital and analog worlds, and so I get to see what happens in color and note what's really interesting. I think it comes back to light and the idea of archetypes within black and white photography. I've seen what the work does in color and, as interesting as it is sometimes, it places me. All of a sudden it becomes about where I am, and less about creating space in my mind or the viewer's mind. 

RS: How long do you see yourself working on this project? Is there a timeframe? What would you like to see come of this work?

BCA: I can see the new work. I can see it happening. I actually created a title, which lives on my website now. "Ablaze" is my next series, and it feels like I move backwards and forwards with it, and there are a lot of questions that come up. It takes up a lot of mental space. From that perspective, I know that my body will be a lifelong subject in my work. My body will change. I won't be the same as I am now at age 28 as I will with time passing. No one stays the same. The camera is a mirror, and I want to keep looking. 

I've started something new, where I'm photographing my husband as a classical female nude. I don't know what that will lead to, but he allowed himself to be photographed by me. I've told him that I won't print the work without his permission, which is important to me. I want him to feel good about what I'm making. 

RS: Are you two able to talk about what it feels like for him to be so exposed? What are his thoughts on feeling vulnerable in nature, before the camera, or in front of your potentially critical gaze?

BCA: I think he has moments of realization, understanding that my job is that challenging. He'll note how hard it is when his butt is in the gravel or he's sliding along in the rocks and mud. Now, he understands more fully the difficulty in being photographed, why some people are so averse to it. We talked about how what he was comfortable showing, and he asked me to spare him his modesty. I said that I would photograph everything, because otherwise it would look in the end like I was hiding something. When he's ready and comfortable to expose himself more fully, the work may become public. The conversation I continue trying to provoke with him is how he feels about this subject. He's uncomfortable seeing himself, which is understandable. He doesn't feel good or bad about the images, just unsure, which is more fraught than either a positive or negative response I think. 

RS: Is there anything, for yourself as subject, which you won't photograph? Anything protected by comfort or safety limits? I'm thinking about potential self-exploitation, or safety concerns when you are outside. 

BCA: I think for the most part I tend to embrace sensuality, but I reject sexuality in this work. Not so much in that my body is a sexual being, but more because that's not the tone I want to set. Also, the question brings to mind the work of Haley Morris-Cafiero. She photographed herself being looked at throughout New York City. What I have issues with is that she would purposefully hold her body or her face in ways that call attention to her. She curates out photos where strangers are laughing and mocking her. That subject, though important, is more about being looked at than being seen. I'm working on being seen. For me, it's about agency. The audience in "looking" mode happens after I allow them to look. 

RS: In other words, you take control of "looking" vs. "seeing" and the terms under which audiences experience that. Once the images enter the public domain, people are going to have whatever response they are going to have. I like that you've thought through that process from a proactive position.

BCA: Yes, exactly. 

RS: What is important to draw reader's attention to when considering your work, or the work of other photographers who’s subject is the larger body?

BCA: I like to talk about where my work finishes the conversation started by good ole' Edward Weston, specifically pertaining to the female nude in photography and how that archetype was set. Also it's the visibility of photographers around me, and that even when I find their work problematic, such as Jen Davis, visibility is important. Her story is valid, as are all of our stories. Getting the work out there and discussed is what's most important.

RS: What do you find problematic about her work?

BCA: I feel is that visibility is key, and her experiences are valid. What I think is problematic is the way we talk about work in the before and after sense, or qualify her work with the amount of weight lost. This to me signals that art dealing with larger bodies is more widely accepted after the weight has been lost, to give an insider perspective to what fat WAS like and not what it IS like. Also, in some of the work I feel as if the issues cover again this surface quality, what it looks like instead of what it feels like. To me, these issues are more complex.

RS: I have one last question, and it's about language. For some people, there's an effort to reclaim certain words that are offensive. In this case, the word is "fat." How does the word sound to you, and is there something to be said for trying to reclaim it as a positive term. Where do you come down on that subject?

BCA: It's a funny thing, because I noticed myself using particular phrases such as "larger bodies" or "bodies of size" in conversation. "Fat" is a word that I love. I'm almost the wrong generation to use fat in a positive way, like so many fat activists do. They do so much good work, and it's so public and so unapologetic. "Fat" is one of those words that I will still use in terms of my identity. I don't tend to use that word in relation to my work. I think what happens is that it's not only about being big. When I say "fat" in reference to my work, a lot of extraneous stuff gets pulled into it that doesn't hold place there. I remember a time when that word crushed me, and now I can say, "Yeah, I'm fat. Deal with it."

© Brittney Cathey-Adams

© Brittney Cathey-Adams