“Four Questions on Photography: Ilvy Njiokiktjien in Conversation With…” is a series of events where each month well-known photographers discuss with Ilvy their response to these questions:
- What is your most important photograph, how did you make it, and what impact do you think it had?
- What is your biggest photo failure; an image you wanted or needed but you messed up somehow?
- What is your dream image or story?
- What advice would you give to your younger self?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So thank you PhotoWings Foundation. Well, everyone who just joined we’re here with Sara Terry, an amazing photographer, an amazing VII colleague and a friend, Sara. Thanks again for being here.
Sara Terry: I just want to jump on for one second to say also that if folks don’t know PhotoWings they should know that they fund a lot of really wonderful programs in the photo world. The founder Suzie Katz has been really dedicated to supporting Photoville and VII and just The Everyday Projects. It’s a really wonderful funder. Get to know them if you don’t. They’ve got some great resources on their website too. Sorry.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you, Sara. Yeah, they really do. So I’m hoping and guessing and thinking that everyone already knows Sara. But in case you don’t, let me try to introduce you, but you’ve done so much. But here is Sara’s biography. So you are based in Los Angeles. Are you? Are you there right now? I mean, yeah. You are, right?
Sara Terry: Yes! Correct! True, true. That’s right. I got that one.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: And she’s an award-winning documentary photographer, filmmaker, and she’s known for her work covering post-conflict stories. And she’s the 2012 Guggenheim Fellow for her long-term project Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons From Africa. And that’s actually the work that I kind of started to know you from because I’m heavily invested in African stories. And I always knew your work. And I can’t believe we’re now in the same agency. Her first long-term post-conflict work is Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace, which led her to found the Aftermath project in 2003. And the website is now in the chat for everyone. Please check it out. It’s amazing and beautiful.
So for today, the question or the title of the seminar kind of explains the whole thing, but it’s four questions. So we’re only going to ask Sara, four questions about her work. And I hope she’s going to share all of what she knows with us. And the questions I kind of put together because, yeah, let’s first explain why this kind of started. Because when I started out as a young photographer, I am now 36. But I started when I was around 20 years old. And I was at a lecture of a fellow photographer, who was showing his failed images. And that specific talk inspired me so much because it made me feel that, “Oh, if he is taking images that are failed, or not perfect, maybe I can become a photographer too.” Because I had a huge imposter syndrome. And even throughout my whole early career, I was feeling that I couldn’t, couldn’t really become a real photographer. And because of that, when I now give lectures myself, or when I’m teaching, I always make sure to show people the photo, or yeah, the photographs that I took that didn’t really work out. And I hope it is an inspiration. And yeah, that is one of the questions. That will be one of the four questions, but let’s start with the first one, Sara, which is: What was your most important photograph so far in your career?
Sara Terry: Well, we’ve got images, so I’ll share the screen. Yeah. And yeah, we’ll go right into it. Let’s see.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: There we go.
Sara Terry: Yeah. So um, it’s so hard choosing important or what’s had an impact. I mean, my work has always been outside of the news cycle. So it’s, I came I was a journalist for many years, I had covered every kind of news story you could imagine. And I came to photography in a much more personal way. So and I deliberately stayed outside the news cycle. So to know did it have an impact? Or was it seen or read? What I can say about this image is, and this is not a great copy of it sorry, it’s a bit too contrasty, but I couldn’t find it in my archives. This is from the five-year project I spent exploring the aftermath of war in Bosnia. And this was done at a time when all the concentration and the assignments and news and awards were going to conflict photography. And you know, well deserved there too. But it was Iraq and Afghanistan. And I was exploring this began in 2000, what I thought was an incredibly important story, which is what happens when a war ends because it doesn’t mean it’s over. And so this is a Muslim widow, I’m looking into body bags that have recently exhumed victims of the banal term ethnic cleansing, which actually was genocide perpetrated against Bosnian Muslims, primarily by Bosnian Serbs and Serbs from Serbia. This was a huge part. The project had five parts to it. And this was just like a really important space to be looking at the exhumations.
And I wasn’t trained in photography, I knew more about fine art. This reflects my influences. It’s very Vermeer quality, shout out to the Netherlands. But it also became, it’s the second image in the book, not the first because I didn’t want you to think you would, or it’s not the cover photo, but because I didn’t want you to think you would know what the story was about. But it is the opening into the project. It’s been collected, and it’s in museums. And it was from this work, that I started The Aftermath Project because of a long-term photography workshop, I was talking with Sam Abell, when he said, “What impact do you want your work to have?” And I knew and me completely unknown as a photographer, like won tons of awards of the print person, but, you know, nobody knew who on earth I was. And I knew that I wanted other photographers to tell post-conflict stories. So I guess in a way, you could say this was that impact.
But I’ve added a second picture in here as well to tell you because it’s, it’s the impact on me. And, and it’s also a collected photo. And it’s also an important photo, and it tells other things. So I’m going to show it and I want to tell everybody it’s a, it’s a graphic image from an exhumation pit. And just to stay with me a little bit, because I’m going to tell you how to read it. And if you don’t want to see it, it’s not like gruesome, gruesome, but it’s graphic. And just turn the screen off if you don’t want to see it, and you can listen. But this image ultimately for me, this next image, for me personally, is the one that had the biggest impact. And it is… this.
So I couldn’t, in the two and a half or three years of working in exhumation pits, I couldn’t make a good photograph. I always was at a distance. I hate these places. I wrote about this in my book Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace. But I realized I was too far away that classic photography, you know, “if your pictures are not good enough, you’re not close enough,” which I don’t agree with on every level. I couldn’t stand these places and everything they represented. And this woman, Eva, with the white hair as a forensic anthropologist, who this day asked me to come into the pit, which I’d never done and stand on a part of the grave mound. And because she had found, they had found a teenage boy’s hands. And it was a remarkable thing for forensic anthropology to find that it had been preserved. And she made me stand there with her point-and-shoot camera, and I nearly threw up. And this Bosnia project was all slides with my Leica. And as I saw the picture, though, I knew I’d found the picture that told the story of what had happened in these mass executions.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You said this was the first time that you were really standing in the…
Sara Terry: Right in the pit. I had always been on the edge always. Shot around the edge. Shot complex compositions. This one I had to be in there and it was because of Eva. Because when I looked, what I saw was this incredible humanity in the middle of that kind of horror and destruction. And it’s interesting they’re in white, you know, it’s sort of like that metaphorical representation of good and evil. But these forensic anthropologists believed they were bringing these people back to life by giving them their names, or by bringing them out into a place where their DNA could be identified, and they could be restored to their families. So for them, it’s a story of life. It was another six months before I understood that this was also a reference to my fine art background and a deeply metaphorical one for the image, because of the way the hands are in the grave. It’s, of course, an echo of the Sistine Chapel. And the moment when Jehovah gives life to Adam. And I’m just going to go back to the notes.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Where was this published? Was it published?
Sara Terry: No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Because it was after the, yeah.
Sara Terry: There wasn’t a lot of interest. There wasn’t a lot of interest in aftermath stories. It’s grown, I’m grateful to say, since The Aftermath Project has, you know, helped like build that forum for it. But no, it’s been exhibited, it was exhibited at Open Society, I think. It’s been around. It’s a tough image, you know, and it’s the last one in the chapter. There’s only 12 exhumation pictures in the book, and it’s the last one. And for me, the grounding is, I realized that you know, I always say to people stop and look again, because this is a picture about love. You know this is a picture of life. And for me, as a photographer, I realized that it meant this is where I always want to be. You know, this is where when the worst things happen, I want to be there, when humanity shows up again, and says, “No, you don’t get the last word on who we are as human beings, you don’t get to say that evil and hatred and destruction and genocide are the way of the world. This is who we are. We show up, we bring back life.” So you have two images, one is more external and had a bigger impact in the world. And this one, I still think is one of the most significant pictures I’ve made. Then I’ll just go back to the other one in case that… whoops. Oh, sorry. Sorry, sorry. Oh, well just go back there. So.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Do you ever, did you ever have any like, when they were exhibited, for instance, did you have conversations about them with the audience looking? Do you know how the impact pursued was your most important photograph because it also inspired you to take a certain route? Was this impact— what did people say about the image when you would speak to them? Because, yeah, it’s quite heavy.
Sara Terry: They always. I read, I tend to read. I’ve given a lot of presentations on the Bosnia work. It’s, you know, it was it was one of the first big aftermath stories in modern, you know, conflict times, I think. There were certainly other people who went back and did aftermath in Vietnam and stuff, but it was probably one of them in the 21st century. You know, the project was from 2000 to 2005. So I, I’ve given a lot of talks and a lot of lectures. I talk to a lot, also a lot of photography students. And I read that section of the book to them. And they, I find are incredibly moved by it and understand because I talked about the importance of knowing where we, you know, stand in our work and who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing. Because on one level, also, you know, sadly, the most newsworthy stuff out of Bosnia has been the exhumations. You know, and the end the anniversaries at Srebrenica, you know, which are important, but it’s like, oh, it’s an anniversary, the media is going to do something.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah.
Sara Terry: Yeah, you know, so it was it just is a picture that takes some talking to. And I always say this is a picture about love. Because I think we have to learn. And I’ve had friends say to me, “I can look at that now. I’ve never been able to look at pictures like that. I can see that now. I’m you’ve given me a different way of understanding.” Because I think we’re so desensitized and to images of violence, you know, or massacres or whatever. We’ve seen so much. We either turn the page or we close our eyes, you know. But to give people ground to stand on to consider humanity as opposed to atrocity, I think is a way of building visual compassion and empathy and literacy. And I’ve had people respond to me in that way.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, I really feel it when you look at the hands touching. Maybe we can move back once more or.
Sara Terry: I’m getting there.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It’s interesting because I know the image and of course at least to me the first thing when seeing this image is just heartbreak. But just to know that these two people, and there are a lot more of them of course, are doing this job and there is a lot of love in this image. I really and it really shows that you were able to capture it even though it must have been very scary to stand right there instead of on the edge. I mean the edge already is a lot to handle I can…
Sara Terry: I had enough.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, exactly.
Sara Terry: No, it took me two years of being in exhumation pits to make this photograph, which is another case for long-term projects and what it takes for us to get over you know our own hesitations or uncertainties. You know, it’s and I always acknowledge first like, like I did today. This is a tough image but just stay with me a minute. But there’s a way to think about this. So I learned Piodor and Eva are the people who taught me that this whole chapter, this whole story in Bosnia was the story of life.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Thank you. So it’s difficult this way we’re doing this conversation because there’s only four questions even though I think we could talk for at least another hour about just these two images. Yeah, but I would like to ask you the next question. The second out of four feels like a countdown almost. But what is your biggest photo failure? And I don’t like the world word failure too much, because I don’t believe failures really exist. But I hope you and the people that are watching understand, yeah, failure. Like what, which image went completely wrong? And yeah, how did you solve it?
Sara Terry: I love that you hesitate to use the word failure because I know somebody who said nothing’s a failure it’s just one step in figuring out the solution. Do you know? So I think that is part of failure. I, Robert Redford gave an amazing talk on failure, you know, at Sundance, one year when I was there, and that. And we don’t give ourselves permission to fail, or we read so much into it without understanding that that’s part of the creative process. So I think it’s really important. Now I’m gonna ask everybody to do me a favor because this is a really abrupt change in imagery. And I don’t want to dishonor the space we’ve been in just like, close your eyes, for you know until I tell you to open them again because we’re gonna make a shift. And we’re shifting to Hollywood. I apologize for the abruptness of it, but these are the I don’t know the extremes of where I’ve worked. So close your eyes. Okay, you can open them.
I am a set, I also am in the Union here in the United States to work on TV and film sets. I wanted to be able to do this as backup work. I haven’t been doing all that much of it lately, but I used to think that shooting on a set had to be like so fucking easy. Excuse my language. Because like it’s just you’re photographing what somebody else has framed. And you know, and it’s lit and “uh duh, how hard can it be?” It’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: *laughing* How hard can it be? It’s lit. Yeah, that’s what I would almost think.
Sara Terry: I know, right?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Like what’s so difficult? I would think there’s lights on there. There’s a guy or woman arranging the lights and you are there and you capture what’s already beautiful.
Sara Terry: Snap
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Not true, not true.
Sara Terry: Okay, here’s what goes wrong. There’s probably 20 people around this frame, maybe I don’t know maybe 12. There’s an artist who won’t let you photograph during the roll. You can only shoot during the rehearsal. There is the question of where I can even fit in this. There’s a question of whether or not the crew likes you. There’s the question of like you know that you’ve made good friends enough with the camera crew that they let you kind of like you know squeeze into a space to make a photograph. There’s also how do you make sure that you’re not distracting the artists while you’re working on the, you know, lens? And this is a scene from a TV show that didn’t last long about a boy with Minnie Driver and was one of the first things I did, actually, my first job was shooting behind the scenes for a part of a season of The Voice, which was like, you know, bliss. Because it’s like, “oh my god, here’s all these people and all these things are happening and it’s a fishbowl.” You know, like I can go anywhere and photograph anything apart from getting into the set where I would be on camera and stuff like that.
But so here I am in this space I’m using the wrong lens— I’ve got a Canon 70 to 200 which is one of my favorite lenses, but I needed to have been on a short lens the 24 to 105, which I use on set. And I couldn’t get it then there’s also takes all these things people watching off-camera. I went to get my lunch. This is there’s a and she’s a particularly difficult whoops actor to work with in terms of you know, the limitations on it. Some actors are pros and they just are like, “Yeah, do your job shoot away. I don’t care.” You know, some actors you find a because you also have to establish some kind of rapport there to be doing that work. So she’s imitating giving birth and I should have been on a wide lens and I wasn’t, but there’s also you can see in one picture, because I can’t shoot the taping, in the background of the photograph in the rehearsal is a tack, you know, like, like, that’s what happens. I moved out of this scene to try to get to my camera and they rolled another rehearsal and it turned out I was actually on and I ducked when I saw it and somebody caught me on camera.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh.
Sara Terry: There had been one other little step it was just a rehearsal it shouldn’t be a big deal but in a set this tight and this fraught people were so annoyed. So yeah, so here’s like I needed that wide lens didn’t have it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So she’s giving birth now just to like, you should have her legs on it, basically.
Sara Terry: Completely, I should have, you should see that she’s on the dining room table. I’ve got, I put in three here. That’s the moment of, you know like she’s in that stress. There’s another photo that I took from the back, but has a tech person in it. So I am coping with all these things I realized I’ve been caught on camera, or somebody tells me. One of the camera ops is so nice. He goes, “There’s a reason they call it rehearsal. Don’t sweat it.”
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, lovely. That’s good.
Sara Terry: I know it’s wonderful. But the photo editor from NBC calls me and he’s like, “What’s going on? They’ve told me I’ve never had this happen. The executive producers say you have to leave the set. And you know, you’re not coming in tomorrow, I’m firing you.” And I was like, you know, the only reason I was there that day was because Rob Reiner, the wonderful filmmaker, and son of Carl Reiner, was going to be on set that day. That was the picture they wanted, really, but I was trying to do the job. And, you know, and again, this was my first kind of…
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Like, you’re saying that you were trying to do your job and deliver something extra?
Sara Terry: Yeah, yeah. I’m here. you’ve hired me for the whole day. You know, the photo, the senior photographer had kind of gotten me an in at NBC had to come down and goes, “Oh, Sara, I would have shot this way.” And he apologized to me later. He’s like, “I’m so sorry. I had to do that.” And I said, “That don’t that’s fine.” And there I was with a day. This was in the morning, and I was I had to stay for the full day because Rob Reiner wasn’t coming until the afternoon. And I had been completely shamed. You know, I was fired. I knew it. And I, it took every ounce of my dignity, to just maintain and to like, just keep doing the work. And I went up to the First AD, that’s the First Assistant Director, they run a set, who had really ratted me out, he blamed me for something that had happened that, you know, he had given me permission to do something, it had been a mistake, but I’d gotten, you know, permission. I went up to him and said, “You know, I’m sorry for what happened, you know, it’s gonna, we’re gonna see each other again, probably, it’s a small world.” I just maintained in every way that I could. And then when Rob Reiner hit the set that afternoon, all the producers, writers, everybody was all a titter. Because, you know, they love Rob Reiner. And nobody was gonna ask to get their photograph taken with him. And I in the midst of knowing these are the people who had fired me. You know, I went up or had been a part of it or been in the room. I went up to each one and said, “Would you like me to make sure you get a picture with Rob?”
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh, well done.
Sara Terry: I did. I did. I had so much dignity that day, you know, still never worked for NBC again. You know, sometimes people say it takes seven years. I think I’m coming up on that. But so I made sure everybody got their, you know, here’s my photo with Rob Reiner. And then I did the photos I did that day of Rob was so this is he was like angry bagel guy on this set. This is not the best picture, I don’t think but it wound up on some of the best of lists at the end of that year…
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Well done.
Sara Terry: of TV set photography. And then I threw in this is the photograph that I actually like, as a photographer. I think that’s a much more interesting photograph. You know, it’s kind of like David Bowie’s Hero cover, you know, where he’s doing that kind of sign language thing.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Exactly. Hands moving.
Sara Terry: Yeah, yeah. So we can stay with Rob there, but this is so that’s the one, you know, that I got that was their money shot. And so I delivered that whole day. I worked like an extra-long day. And I have never been, I’ve never had a problem in documentary work, you know, or when I’ve had photojournalism assignments. I mean, sure there’s snafus, or people can be jerks, or you can make a mistake, but I’ve never lived through a day like that, you know?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: It sounds very, I mean, uptight as well. Like, isn’t there a little wiggle room for a little mistake like this?
Sara Terry: Depends on the set, depends on the director, depends on the talent, depends on so many things. And I’ve made mistakes on other sets. Everybody makes a mistake on set, you just roll with it. But that was so highly, you know, tuned. It was, so the whole like, “Oh, yeah, how hard can it be to take a photograph on set?” That’s how hard it can be, you know, and I’m still really proud of the fact that I just didn’t crawl into a hole and walk away that day. You know, like I can, I can look at it and go, I did a good job.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That is a skill as well. And I think for people who are watching now and for the ones that are doing photography assignments, I’m pretty sure we’ve all been in situations where you just don’t even know how to solve how to save the day. I always feel just like Sara says now, “Just keep going.” It’s kind of like Dory in Finding Nemo. Just keep, what does she say? “Keep swimming, keep swimming.” Because that’s really what we should be doing. You really feel that if you continue to, to shoot and just to behave well. It should all get solved in the end.
Sara Terry: You apologize for what’s wrong if you can. If there’s somebody you need to apologize to, if you’re working for an NGO and you’ve done something you know that’s offended somebody you apologize, you fix what you can.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: 100%
Sara Terry: You act with grace. You do not no matter how unfair it was, you know, but don’t fight, don’t argue, don’t call anybody else out, don’t blame another human being, you know, just look for grace in yourself. And, um, I also think I mean, it’s funny because it’s when I mentioned assignments and documentary work, I’ve never not had the image be there. It’s always there, I have never failed in that sense, which is, you know, a weird thing to say. And in doc, long-term work, obviously, I can take more than just a moment, but even in news events, you know, when I’ve just been really quiet if I can’t find it, and I look in a place that I’m not expecting, or I turn around. I mean, I have a whole set of questions that I teach in another workshop that trigger new ways of seeing, you know when you’re failing, but um, yeah. I just trust that the image is waiting to be seen. And you and you’ll see it. And, you know, if you’re gonna have to deal with the human stuff around it, you know. And I just think if you can maintain your grace and your dignity, no matter what anybody else thinks, from that day, you can look back at it and go, “Wow, I screwed up. But I did, I did the very best I could, as a human being.” And I don’t think we can ask for more, you know.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: So true, so true.
Sara Terry: What’s been your worst moment. I know this is a conversation with me, but like.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: My worst moment is probably flying too. So I’ve been photographing stories in South Africa. Also, a lot of them around Nelson Mandela when he was still alive. And I think I flew to South Africa four times when, because everyone thought he was going to pass away and he didn’t. And, and then, one of the times, I was actually in South Africa, photographing something totally unrelated, nothing to do with Nelson Mandela. I was there for three weeks, and I flew home without realizing he was actually in hospital, right in that week. So I landed at Schiphol Airport, and then opened my phone, Nelson Mandela passed away. And I could have known he was in the hospital while I was in South Africa. But I didn’t. And I missed the whole first day because I had to like, book a new flight and fly to South Africa. And it was difficult to explain to me to newspapers, like “Why, why aren’t you there on Facebook? It showed you were in South Africa?” I’m like, “Yeah, I was there. But yeah, I was working on another story. And yeah.” So he basically passed away when I was on the plane, even though I flew back and forth to South Africa and waited at the hospital. And like all the press did. Yeah, so that was mine. But yeah, yeah, it happened, I guess. So for anyone who has a question, please put them into q&a. Sara is here now to answer any of your questions. I still have two questions left. One of them is what is your dream image or story? So not necessarily the next project you want to work on, but one that even if it’s impossible to shoot it, but just the project that would be the perfect story to you that you kind of you know, you have this project in the back of your mind sometimes.
Sara Terry: I have. Oh, there’s three actually, in a weird way. It was funny, I thought of two for you. One of them is that I would really like to shoot BTS is the word what behind the scenes work is. That’s what I did on The Voice. I would love to shoot behind the scenes for the British director, Steve McQueen, the Black director, who’s just done astonishing work. I have so much. Lovers Rock and his recent five-part series, Small Acts, blows me away for the camera work, and it was so beautiful. And BTS is just this really wonderful space where there’s a lot of complexity and layers that you can work in.
Uhm, I’m really longing to do. I spent so much of my life as in all my forms of storytelling, kind of pointing out injustices. And I need to do a project that is almost like the grave picture again, that shows our humanity and for me at the moment, I feel like it would be some kind of long term project in small-town America, which at a time when we’re so polarized, I wanted to find the things that talk about our humanity.
And then the third project is one I’ve had on my mind and I’ve been doing research on it for a while and you will laugh. It’s called Being Sara Terry, which I apologize for what appears to be the intense egotism of that, inspired by Being John Malkovich. And it’s been it’s something that began you know, the content for it began many many years ago but it’s encountering through Facebook the first time the number of Sara Terrys there are in the world and there aren’t that many relatively speaking like to John Smith. But when I began seeing like a blonde Sara Terry with three, magazine picture-perfect children. you know. A transgender Sara Terry, uh, you know, all these Sara Terry that I just became so fascinated about the idea of what’s in a name. And I’ve reached out to a couple of them. I’ve interviewed them. I, you know, want to gather their family photos and my family photos. I don’t know what that’s going to become. Will it be one like, you know, conglomerate Sara Terry? I, but that’s, I can’t even quite figure out how to tell that story yet. So that’s, that’s, yeah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: What a cool idea.
Sara Terry: Thank you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s amazing. I could never do it.
Sara Terry: Being Njiokiktjien, and you’d be the only one.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes exactly, would be the quickest project. Yeah, but this is, so what about Sarahs with an H? Are they included?
Sara Terry: No.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Just the Sara without the H.
Sara Terry: Literally Sara without an H. And in some cases, I really also make the distinction as to whether you were born a Sara Terry, or whether you married into it.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Ah oh, you’re strict.
Sara Terry: Oh yeah, because it’s a different thing to be a name you grew up with. I mean, it’s two first names. It’s two it’s, it’s Sara without an H. There’s a really specific cultural context for H and no H that Saras’ know about.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Really? Oh, I know I’m not allowed to ask, I can only ask four questions. But tell me everything about the Sarah with the H and without the H.
Sara Terry: That was a sneaky way, that’s a sneaky way to not ask a question. No, it’s just like, it’s Sara. When I was named Sara, without an H, it was a more modern name. It was more, I know, Saras’ have attachments to the name. They’ll talk to you about it, and what it means and what strength there is in the name or what it means to have Terry, you know, and it deals with family things. And you know, the fact that there’s a transgender woman who chose the name is Sarah Terry. I’m like, “Wow, how did that happen?” I’m interested in her. People who married into Sara Terry I’m a little interested in. They were Sara’s and became a Terry. I’m a little interested in the impact of the name and in the switch from one name to another. But so it’s like, “How do you do this visually?” So it’s archives. And I mean, and I just got a Google Alert, my Google. That’s how in contemporary times where it began was I had my Google Alert set to Sara Terry. And these Sara Terrys are showing up. I’m like, “Oh, who the heck is that?” That’s not, you know, like, there’s a realtor in Dallas, who’s the top commercial realtor in the city, you know, but there’s people, I have a whole file. There was a Sara Terry on Facebook, who has a picture of herself with her husband in front of the Taj Mahal. I had the exact same picture with my ex from the 1980s.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Two Sara Terrys in the same spots, different times.
Sara Terry: It’s crazy stuff. Yeah. And then there’s the I got a Google Alert yesterday. And there’s a Sara Terry, who I’m pretty sure I’ve tracked her on Facebook, she’s getting married on October 29. And I’m seriously thinking about writing to her and asking if I can go photograph her wedding.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Please let us know how this goes. I want to buy the book. If there’s a book, I really want this. What is it gonna be a book?
Sara Terry: It’s like it would be I think it can be a book but it’s you know, things like that partly inspired by like your birthday series, shooting a birthday of every, you know, Hollander through the ages. But like, Photoville loves the idea. They’re like, “Oh my God, we could do a panel, you know, like, “Will the real Sara Terry, please stand up?” We need to cut out pictures, you know, be Sara Terrys next to them. I mean, it’s a really funny idea. And if any of you all take that idea and do it you know I’m gonna find you and hunt you down.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Now they’re really afraid to ask anything in the q&a. Now you’re scared them. Please people if you have any questions, ask them because we are now down to the last question. The fourth question, which is, what advice would you give your younger self? Which might be helpful to some of the people listening here.
Sara Terry: I will say it works out. Don’t be afraid. This crazy path you’re on because my life has been completely, you know, into virtually every type of storytelling from print, you know, public radio, television, documentary photography, documentary filmmaking, and it just has been kind of like “God, if I just stayed in one, I’d be you know.” And I’ve done well, I mean, I appreciate what I’ve done. But they’ve often been accompanied by an incredibly, these changes, have often been accompanied by a really huge personal space in my life that felt like walking into an abyss. And I did learn early on to trust those instincts, but I think that I would tell my younger self, it’s going to happen more than once. You know, don’t be afraid. Put your foot into the darkness, and you’re going to find that, that something comes up to meet you. Yeah, that and, and…
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: How would that advice have changed your career path, you feel?
Sara Terry: Nothing would have changed my career path. I don’t, I don’t, honestly, unless I made a bad decision. My whole work has always been intuitive, you know. I, I, things change because of something that happens in my life. I tried having a, you know, career strategy, business plan, whatever, early on. It fell flat on its face. I learned that the way I work is in response to what’s around me. And I think I would say that, that it’s always, I mean, I didn’t become a photographer until I was 40. You know, I mean, there’s a, it’s just a, it’s hard to know what to have told, what career advice to have given to somebody who’s moved through so many things, but I think it would be, “It’s okay when you’re afraid, you know, it’s part of the process. And you’re going to get there, you know.”
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s beautiful.
Sara Terry: I’m happy with where I am. I’m not, you know, I’m not the go-to person for assignments. I’m not, I don’t know, I’m not famous, but you know, but I’ve done things that I think I’m proud of. I’ve done things. I’m satisfied with getting, with working, the way I work. I’m satisfied with the opportunities, and I’m satisfied. And I think I would re-emphasize this to my younger self. But I think I also was always there that you hold the door open for the people who are behind you, you never, shut that.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: You’re really a big inspiration in that sense. You really know, you’re really you’re amazing. And I also feel what you should be proud of, and I hope you are is that your projects really always show a lot of lessons to humanity, I would say, and a lot of love. It really, I mean, the hand picture showed that, but so much of your other work and just the thoughtfulness around it. Yeah, yeah, you should be really proud of what you’ve built in those years. Really, truly.
Sara Terry: Thank you Ilvy. I paid her to say that, but thank you. I appreciate that. I really do. You know, we don’t always, we don’t always tell each other, you know, right? That we value and what we appreciate and teaching gives me that space to work with younger photographers that way, but I think sometimes we have to tell our colleagues. And the women, I would love that about the women in VII we do that with each other. You know, I think it’s maybe the way some people have been raised is that it’s a more, women are more likely to do it, but I know lots of men who do as well. And I would say that to you know, be kind to others. Tell them what you love.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I really like our, our little women Whatsapp group within VII. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say but we have a Whatsapp group with just the women. And I really like that, because there’s a lot of compassion shown in there. That’s what I like. So there’s a question coming into the q&a from Siam Hazara from India. We both know them quite well. And the question is, “Have you ever worked on a story thinking about a specific publisher in mind?”
Sara Terry: You know, no, I mean, it’s an interesting question, but no, because it’s just, seriously do not make a business plan the way I work in the world. I don’t honestly, I’m living proof that if you’re just doing what you’re supposed to be doing things work out, you know, I don’t, but I do not recommend that to most people. Because, like, no, I have tons, I have tons of some really great work that hasn’t been published yet. But I figured, you know, eventually will, you know, like, I made the first photographs in Afghanistan from inside of a burqa, you know. And I made them because the only way you can make those photographs is with a tiny cell phone camera and I did it with the Sony Ericsson P910. Those never, actually they were published in Italy, but you know, they’re not. And I didn’t want to put them out again right now because I didn’t want to. There’s so much going on, you know, but there’s lots of things that have their space. But me thinking in terms of having a publisher, that was why I started my own publishing, you know, books, my small, hand-made books, 10x additions, you know, put it in the chat.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Check that out guys, it’s amazing.
Sara Terry: I put the website there. It’s a part of a way to go. I want to see this work in another format, you know, and so they’re small handmade books, you know, that I then started doing with my friends, you know. It’s just, it’s just like no, but good question Siam because I think some people do. I mean there are plenty of people who want to shoot for National Geographic, it’s like never all kudos to Nat Geo and everybody who works there, but I never wanted to do that I never wanted to look like a Nat Geo photographer, looks, you know. I know Nat Geo photographers who talked about and I don’t know if it’s changed now because I don’t, I can’t say these are contemporary conversations. They’re maybe, you know, 10 years older when I first began photography. There was a way you had to shoot to be a National Geographic photographer, a type of light, a type of shot, and a lot of them feel that they sacrifice their own personal, you know, vision to do that. And I didn’t, I didn’t come into photography, because I wanted to become a photographer. I came into it, because…
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: That’s an interesting thing to say. So why did you? So you just said, “I didn’t go into photography to become a photographer.” So you, you went into photography, too?
Sara Terry: Because words failed me, at a time in my life when I really needed them to reach somebody. And I’m somebody who grew up on words, you know. I’m somebody, like, in sixth grade, you know, my teacher thought I was going to be a criminal defense attorney, and the vice principal thought I’d be a union labor leader, you know, words were righteous to me. And they failed me when I really needed them. And it was so hard that I just stopped talking and I stopped writing. And I picked up a camera because I thought that’s how I could reach the person I couldn’t reach. And then it became about me, you know, so it’s like, it’s just not the way I think. And like, again, that’s not a business plan. You know, if you want to be an assignment photographer, I’m not the person you should be talking to.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, but I do think it’s solid advice to anyone who works in this industry, or who aspires to be in this industry is that— if you are shooting with a publisher in the back of your mind, yeah, definitely your work is going to change in a way that might not be as close to your heart as you initially hoped that it would be. I mean, it’s always good when you’re on assignment to at least keep in mind the publishing obligation before, but don’t start personal work with a publisher in mind, just shoot and put your heart into it. I guess.
Sara Terry: When you’re working for a photo editor, that photo editor is part of your head, you know. They’ve hired you for you, but they need a photo. And you have to, you know, deliver that to them. I remember I mean, Jeff, Alex Webb actually said to me, “You have no idea how lucky you are,” when I first started photography because you don’t have any other voices inside your head. Just go shoot. Don’t even show your work to anybody for a long time. And it was a really interesting, you know, way to, it was great advice, actually, for me at that time.
And I also for you all I wanted to circle around to what Ilvy said at the beginning about the lecture that she heard about a photographer who showed, you know, failed images. There, my kind of, there are two moments but there’s a Renoir museum. If I said Rembrandt earlier Ilvy I meant we were talking before. It’s a Renoir museum. It’s in Philadelphia. And can I tell you, that museum is filled with really bad Renoirs. I mean, I remember being so astonished to go in this master painter did a lot of mediocre work. And it just shows his thought process and the idea that you can reach creative genius, without doing it every time. I mean, you know, like, you fail, you sketch you. And again, that’s part of the process. It’s not a failure. It’s a step towards figuring out what works, you know, and I just took so much heart from that, that Renoir, you know.
And from the Nat Geo photographer, Mike Yamashita, who showed us a roll of 36 images, back in the days when we were shooting at the chrome film, and he showed his thought process and you could see how many times he didn’t get the picture. You know, it’s just so encouraging. We don’t do that. And we don’t do that in our self-curated selfie lives, right? We show exactly what we want you to see. We don’t show what life looks like it doesn’t look like perfection all the time.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: No, I think I think it’s the best way to at least have it part of a lecture. When I go to any photography lesson or lecture, it’s always lovely to see the real person and not just the picture-perfect keynote presentation of all the beautiful images. I love to see the failed images because it’s encouraging to know that the other person is also just a person that also takes crappy pictures sometimes. I think that’s amazing.
Sara Terry: I take a lot of crappy pictures. I take a lot of crappy ones.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Oh there’s a question coming in again from Siam, “how do you visually unblock yourself when you see a story that cannot be translated into visuals literally?” Oh, that’s a difficult question. I’m so happy the question is to Sarah and not to me.
Sara Terry: I think Siam knows a little bit of how I work and this is the workshop. I used to teach. It used to be called “Finding Your Visual Voice.” But those are the four questions I referred to that help unblock it. But so for me, and again, you know, sometimes if you’re shooting an assignment and you’re covering an event, you just get what you get right? And it’s crappy or not, it’s just like that’s what it is. But if you’re doing a project that you can work on for a long period of time, you can revisit things but use poetry. You know, Wis?awa Szymborska’s poetry, she has two very specific post-conflict poems, taught me how to see what Aftermath looks like. Because like, you can’t like, that was like the first big project I did Aftermath. Oh, what does that look like? I mean, the visuals are the Serbian widows or the exhumation pits, but how do you show what that feels like? How do you show that loss? How do you show what’s no longer present? Like, how do you make a photograph about that?
So I just feed myself, you know, with literature and poetry, and I work in metaphor a lot, I’m really comfortable in that space. Um, I think visual literacy is a really important tool in thinking and understanding like how, how meaning is communicated through imagery. And I think that’s something you learn through paintings and, and reading about what’s behind it, you know, or reading, like critique for it.
I mean, the series that I’ve been working on, still working on, covid has made it, I’ve had to put it on hold for a while, but it’s the paintings, the photographs, restaging famous paintings of nude women made by men. I don’t know how to make that photograph. I mean, the obvious thing is there, you’re flipping this, you know, the painting, those are on my own websites saraterry.com. But you’re flipping the painting gender-wise, but for the meaning and the metaphor of what’s involved, I spend two or three months researching the painting and thinking about it. So it’s a, it’s a, it’s a really deep thought process. I mean, it’s a good question, Siam, but you’ve got to really commit, I think to a, you have to detach outcome from your thinking, and you have to be interested in the process. So you have to stop thinking about the image you want to make. And you have to become absorbed in process and content.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, that’s a great way to get unstuck, not to be focused on the result too much. Because if you keep thinking, “Oh, I need to make this. I need to make this. Okay, I need to really finish this now. Oh, I need to at least start.” Don’t, don’t, don’t tell yourself these kinds of things. Because it will block you further. I can tell you now I’ve done it and you are stuck. And the way to get unstuck is to kind of let go of that voice in your head that keeps telling you to go, go, go No, just breathe, you know, and then don’t push too hard as well.
Sara Terry: And quite often, it means staying a little bit longer in the place where you think the photo isn’t. Because quite often something’s about to happen, that, that you’re supposed to be there to watch and that I’ve learned a lot. And in news events in particular, because everybody’s rushing one way, you know, or you think the photos where that is, but I’ve found that sometimes you’re just supposed to stay and wait, you know. The photo is there. The image is there to be seen.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thank you, Sara. Thanks for everything you’ve answered. And you’ve answered a lot more than just four questions. I think I asked five and then Siam asked two. And then I think we talked about 10 other things.
Sara Terry: I talk a lot. Obviously, I’m not a, you know, shrinking violet. I love that you asked me to do this Ilvy. I love being in conversation with you.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Lovely having you really and I hope to see you in real life soon as well. That would be lovely. The world is opening up again a little bit, so let’s hope we’re seeing each other soon. And for everybody that is now watching, make sure to check out all the other events on VII Insider. And also this is part of a series. This was our first one. So thanks so much Sara for being on the first episode. But please everyone, check out the next episodes to come and I’m really happy I can host this. And I’m so happy you all joined us and see you next time. Thank you, Sara.
Sara Terry: Thanks, everybody. Oops, where’s my finger? Woah.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Okay, bye guys. Bye, everyone.
Sara Terry: Bye. Take care everyone.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Thanks, bye.