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A fine art photographer discusses how art helped her cope with the sudden death of her fiancé
This article was originally published on SevenPonds on November 7, 2015
Today, SevenPonds spoke with Sarah Treanor, a fine art photographer and writer, based in Ohio. Her recent body of work, Still, Life, consists of self-portraits that explore her grieving process following the sudden death of her fiancé in 2012.
Juniper: How does photography help you cope with loss?
Sarah: Photography was initially a positive escape from my grief, but eventually I wanted something more from it. I’d read countless books on grief, and memoirs by widows, but I hadn’t seen what grief looked like. Not the way I wanted to. I wanted to be able to see images that looked like how my heart felt inside, so I decided to start making them. By creating these images, I found a way to explore and express my own emotions more deeply.
Juniper: Does the self-reflexivity of your photographs help you stand at a distance from your story, and see it more clearly?
Sarah: Absolutely. Like with any creative expression of our emotions, it gives the creator a more objective viewpoint of themselves. Through these photographs, I found I was able to see myself going through my grief in a way that I hadn’t before, which helped me to learn more from the pain.
Juniper: Of the image “Balance,” you write, “to receive love, to create connections, we must be willing to put our hearts out into the open and risk them being ripped apart.” That requires a lot of vulnerability and inner strength. Is this part of your creative process – showing images of your grief, which for better or worse is largely a private and personal thing in North America?
Sarah: It wasn’t always part of my process to be so open. Before my fiancé’s death, I was not a particularly open person. It was his loss that changed that. I have said often that the thing about being broken by a traumatic loss is that it also breaks down all your walls. You have no choice for a while but to be vulnerable, and over time, you get to choose whether you’ll rebuild those walls or not. I decided not to. I decided I liked being openhearted and sharing my world, because it meant others shared theirs with me too. It’s allowed me to heal so much to let other people into my grief.
Juniper: In your interview with Lucy Lambriex for Innerspacecraft, you explain how your blog posts that accompany your images helped you understand how your aesthetic choices corresponded to your grieving process. How important is it to you that the words you wrote in response to your images are always presented with them? Is the writing more of a personal process or an integral aesthetic element of the photographs?
Sarah: Originally, the writing was more of a personal process for me. I’d heard of the idea of layering writing with other art forms to dig deeper into the meaning of the work, and decided to give this a try. Over time, though, the writing has seemed to hold just as much value for my audience as the images themselves, so I’d venture to say that they now hold equal importance in different ways. I suppose it depends on the format, really. In a gallery, I would have mostly images with excerpts from the writing. There are plans for all the writing to be included in a book of the full series, too.
Juniper: Your recent blog post discussing your photograph entitled “The Promise” reveals that you are moving into a new phase of your life – literally moving from one city to another to be with a new partner and reassessing what “home” means to you. Is the “promise” in this image one of remembrance? Can you speak to the guilt that many people feel in the process of re-engaging with life and love after loss?
Sarah: Yes, “The Promise” is about my own need to say a proper goodbye to the life I’ve known these years since [my fiancé] died, and to the life that he and I will never get to have. It is about honoring not only him, but also those who have supported me in these most difficult years – a promise to always remember it all, and the person it has made me. This was especially important to me in order to move forward. I believe that we have to spend a proper amount of time saying goodbye to one life before we can truly move into the next. Goodbye doesn’t mean we don’t take them with us on the new journeys ahead. It doesn’t mean we stop missing them or honoring them. It just means we are deciding to live fully again, and allow our relationship with them to shift a bit so we can let the new in.
In reference to guilt, I think having proper time to honor our emotions and say goodbye to our old life does help. I spent three years doing so daily. For some, that may only be six months; for others, it may be 10 years. It’s important to spend that time as you need in order to be able to move forward fully and without guilt.
Juniper: Do you have any recommendations for people who are currently journeying with grief?
Sarah: Tell your story in as many ways as possible…writing, talking, art, whatever works for you. Reach out for support, even when you don’t feel like it. Reach out to support someone else going through a similar loss, especially when you don’t feel like it. Try something new; surprising yourself is good during times of grief. Make positive anticipation your ally. I tried to have something exciting planned out about every three months, so that there was always something to look forward to even on the worst days. It doesn’t fix anything, but it helps to remind you that you’re still alive.
Keep only the most loving, supportive and kind people in your world. The ones who know how to crawl down inside your pain and sit with you in it. You are fragile when going through grief, so while it’s important to keep your heart open, also remember to protect it from anyone who doesn’t support your healing. And make sure at least a few of those [people] keep you laughing through the darkness.
Look for the second part of this interview with Sarah next week!
Persephone Passages and Sacred Embodiment Founder Juniper Quin riffs on birth, death, and everything in between. She lives in North Vancouver, BC in the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations with her husband, father-in-law, and an ever-expanding family of mostly edible houseplants.