Photographer Interview: Keisha Scarville

Join photographer Keisha Scarville for an artist talk titled Visually Speaking: A Worldview from Guyana this Thursday April 24, 2014 from 6:30 - 8pm ET at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Scarville and fellow photographer Nikki Kahn will share their contemporary work about Guyana, a former British colony that is part of Anglophone Caribbean but geographically situated in South America.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville
D&B: Where are you from and where do you live/work now?
KS: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Currently, I live and work in New York City.

What was your first experience with photography and when did you decide it was a medium that you wanted to engage with artistically?
The camera was always present when I was growing up. My dad loved to take pictures and was the family photographer. I grew up understanding that capturing our family’s journey was a vital part of documenting our existence and history. However, I was not personally interested in the medium of photography as mode of artistic expression until I entered high school. I took a photography class because I needed an art credit to graduate and it was the only art class available.

One day, my teacher gave each of us cameras and asked us to photograph whatever we found interesting. I wandered up and down the New York City streets pointing my camera at everything that caught my eye. The next day we developed the film and I stepped into a film darkroom for the first time. The process was like magic - standing there in the quiet, amber lit room and watching the image come alive in the developer. The ability to capture a scene, a face, a moment, and hold it forever instantly captivated me. I wanted to have moments like that forever.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville

You work mostly with the medium (square) format. Why do you prefer this composition?

I tend to gravitate to this format a lot. I enjoy the equilateral space of the square. Recently, I have started to shoot more with my digital SLR, so I am starting to embrace the rectangle again.

In your statement for the series Many Waters you say the work functions partly as a way to reconnect to your family in Guyana. How has your role as photographer helped bring you closer to your distant relatives?
As a photographer, I was able to engage in the experiences of family. The process of visually describing each member of my family and conveying a sense of interiority helped me to connect to who they were.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville

The photographs in Many Waters are very quiet, often capturing solitary moments. Were there any events and/or family members that you felt you couldn't turn the camera on?
The images were captured after the passing of my grandparents. My grandmother was the matriarch of my family and the person around whom my family was centered. Following her passing, a lot changed. There was an emotional scattering that occurred. We are each part of a larger family unit, but also individually dealing with a loss.

This became a significantly poignant element of the trip and inspired my approach. It was an act of distilling, contemplating and memorializing. My family was very open to being photographed. I did not encounter any moments when I felt I couldn’t photograph.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville

How often do you go back to Guyana? Will this be an ongoing series?
Unfortunately, I do not get to go back often. These images represent the last time I was in Guyana. I would like to return and keep photographing. So much has changed since my last visit that I would love to go back and document.

In the Passports series, you create new images based on your father's first passport photo. What is it about the passport photo format that inspires you?
I have always been intrigued by the significance of the passport and passport photo as a device for identification. My father’s earliest passport photo was of particular interest to me. The image was taken when he was barely out of his teens, a time before we are known to each other and exist as father and daughter. I would stare at it for long periods of time and look for clues about this young man frozen in the distant past.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville

You teach photography at ICP (and other institutions). What's the one thing you didn't know about teaching photo that you've since learned and would share with others who may want to teach?
When I began teaching photography, I desperately felt that I needed to prove that I was knowledgeable and had all the answers. The truth is that finding your voice within photography is a constant and mutable process. It is often driven by questions that you don’t have the answer to. I have had so many conversations with students who feel lost or lack inspiration. I tell them that it’s ok to feel lost or stuck – you have to allow that to happen.

My job is not about having all the answers, but to create a space of exploration and contemplation as an image maker. I learn a great deal from my students and they often inspire me. I am a learner as much as I am a teacher.

From the series Many Waters
Copyright Keisha Scarville

Are there any photographers whose work you can't live without?
Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Bergman, and Sophie Calle.

What are three things that sustain your art practice?
Traveling, devouring movies and reading Toni Morrison.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color with photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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