Photographer Allison Sexton earned her MFA in Photography from Yale University and was the 2010 recipient of the Tracey Baran Award. She currently lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts and is an adjunct professor at the Greenfield Community College. She recently talked to us about Striders, a series of intimate portraits connecting photographer and subject.
What is your relationship to the people you photograph in your series Striders?
“Prior to photographing them, there has almost always been no relationship at all. When I approach them one might form, even if it does not extend beyond a short meeting or conversation.”
How do you meet them?
“Oftentimes I see them walking a repetitive route through town; they are almost always alone. At times they have acquired nicknames as a result of their intrigue, movements or appearance. I enjoy watching them but also want to meet and photograph them. That is how it started anyway. Dana was the first person that I photographed with this intention. I approached him and we drove in my car to a partially wooded recreational park. I was nervous and excited at the same time. I wasn’t just excited in terms of the photographic opportunity. I feel grateful to know him on a level that I otherwise may not have.”
How much do you direct them when you are photographing them? Or are they just reacting to the conversation the two of you are having?
“I do not direct them too much. Together we might decide to shift the location after some initial photographing. For the most part, my directing is as simple as asking them to “Hold on” or “Can I touch you?” There is little conversation while I am photographing them. At times a long conversation follows.”
What does it mean for you to be in the photograph and to touch your subjects?
“The first time that I included myself in this series of photographs I was nervous, but it also came naturally. Afterwards it seemed more interesting for me to touch what I had been a voyeur of. Including myself also served as evidence in a way. Perhaps it is similar to the way people might collect postcards to show where they have been.”
On a scale of traditional documentary photography and tableau, where do you see your work fitting in?
“I would see this work fitting in somewhere between the two. If I had to call them something I would say that they are portraits.”
How does your interaction with your subjects change when you photograph them several times? How does the resulting photograph change?
“When I first approach them I always feel nervous, and I assume that they might feel curious or confused. It would seem odd to me if I were on the other end of someone with a camera asking to touch me. Usually the interaction gradually loosens up.
“When I think about photographing the ‘Strider’ that is exactly how it has happened, and the contact sheet shows this process. I have photographed Dana several times over the years and our interactions have stayed about the same. He is extremely quiet and requires no direction at all. On the other hand, when I photographed Jeannie I ended up going home with her; she told me her life story verbally as well as through her personal belongings. It really changes from person to person.”
Does your curiosity for these men stem from a personal place, e.g. can you relate to them, empathize with them? Or is your attraction to them mostly visual?
“Yes, I often feel that I can relate to them. I had experienced a lot of loss at the time that I started this work, and their apparent loneliness was something I related to in some way. That may be somewhat of a blanket statement or projection. Of course, they were and are very interesting to me visually. Just to clarify, I have photographed women as well. Aside from Jeannie I do not like most of those photographs all that much.
“There is one woman that I have longed to photograph for years. She has been called ‘Plastic Woman’ since I was a kid. When I asked to photograph her she very politely asked me not to. The gentle way that she responded was surprising in comparison to how I had imagined her to be. To be honest, I am not sure why the photographs are mostly of men. As I write this I am thinking of a young woman that I plan to approach. But it is true. I am usually drawn to photographing men.”