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From the series After War

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From the series Internet Dating

For Minneapolis-based photographer Teri Fullerton, the lens is a means of breaking down barriers and connecting with people, be they soldiers coming home after time at war or men who approach her on dating websites. Throughout her work, Fullerton approaches those who are often made to feel different or alien with an empathetic eye, seeking out common threads and moments of understanding between a subject and his audience.

In returning soldiers, she finds frissons of belonging and acknowledgement in lives that are so often fraught with a sense of displacement, and with online daters, she uses photo collage and text to create complex portraits of the faceless and remote men who enter her life, if only for an instant. In her powerful portraits of military families, she further explores this notion of home and absence by setting incomplete family portraits against expansive landscapes, a theme that recurs in her series Ghille, in which she captures her subjects in the wilderness, camouflaged in by ghille suits.

We spoke with Fullerton about her varied projects and the thread of compassion that unites them.

You’ve used your photography to examine everything from online dating to the struggles of families who have a loved ones deployed overseas with the military. What would you say is a common thread that unifies all of your work, if there is one?
“The common threads are vulnerability, connection, the act of camouflage and my personal experiences. Online dating was about vulnerability and the desire for connections I experienced while exploring that world, while the work with soldiers returning from war is about the uniquely vulnerable experiences of my brother (a veteran helicopter pilot) and other veterans as they returned from war and inhabit the ‘other’ of being back and perhaps wishing they were not. I made a book entitled Before Eros/After War; the first half (depending how you open it) is the work I did with soldiers, then it flips, and the second half is the Internet dating work. Although seemingly quite disparate endeavors, these idiosyncratic cultures have some common currency- such as language and etiquette. I resonate with the W.S. Merwin quote: ‘If we didn’t believe in homecoming, we wouldn’t bear the day.'”

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From the series After War

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From the series After War

Your portraits require a lot of trust between your subjects and yourself, especially when working with returned soldiers. How do you allow these people to open up and to feel at ease?
“All of the soldiers I’ve worked with have been surprisingly open with me. I believe my desire to understand and capture their personal experience in returning from war – to really listen and to learn – has led to them opening themselves both personally and visually. Unfortunately, I think it’s perhaps too rare for someone to inquire, to ask, to care – yet, they often want to talk about their experiences. Of course it helps that they know my brother was an Apache helicopter who served two tours in Iraq.”

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From the series After War

For your Internet Dating project, you use a lot of found imagery. How do you decide what to re-appropriate as your own? What kinds of social networking pictures speak to you?
“I’ve used found imagery for my ghillie suit series, as well. A ghillie suit is a type of camouflage clothing designed to resemble heavy foliage. Snipers, hunters and nature photographers may wear a ghillie suit to blend into their surroundings and conceal themselves from enemies or targets. I started collected images from Google searches and eventually made a book of them. I loved how many of the images reminded me of a contemporary fine art photography practice. Bringing together existing material, whether via social networking sites or the broader Internet, helps me frame and contextualize my original work. It is a fairly common practice, re-appropriation. There are many conversations happening in the photographic communities considering its merits. The idea of course is the photographer acts as a curator of sorts. The Internet dating series images that I chose to use were men that had made contact with me through Match.com or OkCupid. I find the idealized profile photographs so interesting. They are the stylized and curated versions of oneself and a glimpse into our ideas about identity.”

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From the series Internet Dating

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From the series Internet Dating

In the Internet Dating photos, you also incorporate text. In what ways do you use language to inform your images?
“The Internet Dating text is mostly email exchanges between myself and the men with whom I was corresponding. I made a book of 100 first emails entitled Modern Day Love Letters of these first emails. I’m not a photojournalist or a documentary photographer, but in this case I wanted to frame my work through a narrative. I’m interested in lending the viewer an observation rather than a stance. Also, I’m as inspired by the written word as I am by the visual arts.”

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From the series After War

What do you think is the key to making a meaningful portrait?
“For me, it’s a balance of aesthetic and content. I don’t believe in the idea of portraiture’s ability to get at a person’s essence, but I do believe they can act as an offering, opening or point of recognition. There’s a great piece regarding this question on the photo blog Conscientious.”

You often shoot people against landscapes or include landscape images with your portraits. What inspires you about the natural world?
“I grew up in South Lake Tahoe, California. Our house was backed up to the forest. As a teenager, I had a horse corralled in my backyard, and my friends and I would spend our days exploring in the Tahoe National forest. The landscape is where I go for a sense of humility and centeredness. I exhibited the Fantasy Boyfriend photographs – which were profile images taken from dating websites and darkened to the point of taken on a holographic appearance – with landscapes from Northern Minnesota. The landscapes represent the organic/real as opposed to the inorganic/make-believe of the experience of online dating. In the ghillie series, the landscapes work as an indicator of camouflage, which inherently is about concealing or hiding in plain sight, as soldiers and nature photographers often want to do. The landscape itself can often signify another contextual thought or concept in the work.”

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From the series Ghille Suit: Hiding in Plain Sight

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From the series Ghille Suit: Hiding in Plain Sight

You work in video as well as photography. How do you determine which stories should be told through which medium?
“Some of the first videos I made were of soldiers swimming in natural bodies of water. The idea came to me when trying to figure out a visual method that could express the displacement that many soldiers feel after returning from war. Water is used as a physical metaphor for the displacement that soldiers experience upon their stateside return, a signifier for being neither here nor there – of being in this ‘other’ world that no one else understands. Video seemed the obvious medium to represent this. I’m interested in the intersection of the still photograph positioned with video’s moving image and how they can activate each other. I’ve also been working on the surface of the photograph as well, drawing and cutting out graphic lines. The form follows the content.”

A lot of your work is inspired by your personal life—your brother, your dates— and yet it feels universal. How do you achieve this effect?
“I’m glad you think that. I find it far more interesting to consider the universal by using the specific. My personal life is often the starting point, but not my primary interest. The idea of the shared experience and bringing a visual representation to that is a way to open up a dialogue. We are social creatures, and as such, stories/narratives are crucial to our contentment. I’m also very aware of my role as both a participant and an observer. Ideally, the photograph acts as an evocative passage from a larger narrative. In the thoughts of Delueze & Guattari, a needing to undo in order to see anew, displace in order to revise meaning, obscure in order to seduce. Another mantra I aspire to regarding the personal and the universal is a Bertrand Russell quote: ‘Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.’”

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From the series Ghille Suit: Hiding in Plain Sight

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From the series Ghille Suit: Hiding in Plain Sight

Why did you choose Squarespace to build your site?
“I looked at several options for building my new website, and I ended up choosing Squarespace because it’s a powerful hybrid of functionality, cost-effectiveness and ease-of-use. I’ve been very pleased with the site. I was able to create quite quickly and easily on my own without the help of programmers or web experts. I’d build my previous site on Dreamweaver, and found I was only able to access about 10% of its functionality due to not being a programmer.”

What template did you use, and did you find it easy to navigate? Do you feel that the look of your site complements your personal aesthetic?
“The template is called ‘Ishimoto.’ I chose it for its horizontal scroll and clean, minimal appearance that I feel complements my aesthetic. It lets the work be showcased in a way that is design-savvy but doesn’t distract from the photographs and videos.”

What do you love about your site?
“It’s very simple to update, add images, videos and reorder your work. The navigation is also very intuitive. You can customize your site and even use some code to help it not feel like a generic template. It is really great for both the person that has little experience building website and for more advanced users.”

Squarespace is a Feature Shoot sponsor.

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