Challenging the Metaphor of Surface and Beauty

I grew up in this pretty intense college football town called Happy Valley, and it was like a hyper-masculine, football-obsessed, violent town of sex where no one ever gets old. As is the case with many college towns, the dominant economic forces were alcohol, sex, and football. There was a lot of pressure there, and in society at large, on women and young girls to look a certain way, to model themselves into these perfect beings.

Growing up in the U.S. with a mom who was Irish and a dad who was American played a big part in constructing my identity. My parents were teachers, so whenever they had breaks we would go to Ireland to visit my mom’s family. At that time, being American was sort of a super embarrassing thing for me. When I’d go over there I would change my accent and become hyper-aware of all these cultural cues and ways to assimilate completely into the culture. Then, when I returned home, the same thing would happen: I would get made fun of for my Irish accent, and become aware of all the things I needed to do to fit in.

When I was 14, I turned into this complete clone. Like, looking back on photographs, I look like a generic, Abercrombie-wearing teenager and it’s actually kind of terrifying to see the influence of all those things and how visible it was on me. I guess it was me rebelling against feeling like a foreigner for so long. I think that influences the work a lot, too — that kind of control, how everything is kind of like unnatural, and there’s this kind of power structure. I guess the easiest way of describing it is when you’re in a culture and you have an accent or something, you don’t realize you have that accent until you go somewhere else.

The constant back and forth between Ireland and the U.S. made me painfully aware of cultural constructions of identity. Mostly because I tried to adopt them. I was really sensitive to the speech and body language of each country. And also painfully aware of the ways I didn’t fit in. I think media has a lot to do with it, like commercial magazines and advertising. The impact of the media and generally the impact of this culture on women is so pervasive and just, like, everywhere. Having experienced it myself, I think a lot of my work has to do with a certain gloss and seduction, but also with things that are considered women's issues. Many of my references come from girl culture online and experiences growing up in a place like Happy Valley.

I’m still obsessed with deconstructing body language, speech, eye contact — it’s an old habit. My way of working draws from my childhood of being a shapeshifter. It comes from a certain obsession with normalcy and the rituals we submit ourselves to in order to pass as normal. I’m especially drawn to the ones I find myself seduced by on some level. And maybe that’s why I make pictures. It lets you isolate and examine human behavior in this really powerful way.

I've mainly been photographing in Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and then more recently I drove across the U.S. and made work in the Midwest. I think it really has a lot to do with the ideas I mentioned earlier, subjects who are from a hyper-masculine culture, and where I can find them in the highest concentration. I also aim to investigate a certain type girl culture. I'm obsessed with identity construction.

I get to know my subjects as I photograph them. Sometimes, they’re someone I already know, but it’s not a requirement. I’m upfront about why I’m making the picture, and all the personal baggage that goes along with it. With a lot of the people I work with, I am drawn to an insecurity I relate to. It’s a process of identifying with someone or something, be it a person in the world or a found image.

In my work I aim to show the surface, the mess. I see this work as an alternative propaganda.

I think there’s something powerful in identifying with another person — it creates a certain intimacy — even if the picture making only lasts 30 minutes. I've been photographing a lot of women over the age of 40 recently. Observing their reactions, their visible insecurities, the way they hide their bodies, their faces. Many women I spoke with were terrified of the camera. These kinds of experiences reinforce this need to keep making work, to answer my own questions about aging as a woman in this culture. The picture becomes some sort of answer for me — not understanding or recognizing something until you see it, making something invisible visible.

Each picture has its own process and comes with a unique set of problems to solve. I’ve always been attracted to a certain type of image, and I think this attraction impacts the way my pictures look. My generation was raised on commercial images — no matter how much I object to their message politically or artistically — I’m totally seduced by the way these pictures create a kind of fantasy. They are everywhere, they get into your head. They shape you, how you relate to yourself and others. As a woman especially, they have a crazy amount of power. They are designed to project perfection and hide the mess that’s underneath. In my work I aim to show the surface, the mess. I see this work as an alternative propaganda, stealing some of seductive parts of commercial photography to get at something darker.