Today I share a conversation I conducted by email with writer, photographer and creative teacher Susannah Conway, who lives in the United Kingdom. She has gone through what many of us would consider the worst experience of our lives – the sudden death of our beloved – and emerged from it with new strength, wisdom and things to share with others.
Conway’s use of her “unraveling” concept to cope with her grief and thrive as she recovered from her loss, and the projects that have grown from it, are an example of what I call a worthy project. Please enjoy the interview and some of her images!
Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, where you are from, and how you got started with photography and writing.
I am a photographer and writer living in Bath, England. I lead self-awareness e-courses online and have just written two books, both of which will be coming out in 2012. I think my creative journey started the day I learned how to write—I’ve had a pencil and notebook in my hands ever since! I studied photography for three years at college and later completed a degree in journalism, working for a national newspaper before going freelance in 2003. In 2005 the man I loved died very suddenly and my life went off on a very different tangent through bereavement and eventually healing. I found my way back to myself through my cameras and journals.
How did you utilize art during your healing process after the death of your partner? How did photography and blogging become a part of this?
Writing has always been the way I figure stuff out and connect with how I’m feeling. I’ve kept a journal for the last 27 years, so it was very natural for me to write my way through my grief. In the second year of my bereavement I discovered blogging and it opened up this whole new creative world to me. Being able to share my thoughts and feelings online was incredibly empowering — it was my way of ‘getting back out there’ from the safety of my living room. 🙂
Photography has always been a part of my life, but the blog gave me a new reason to take pictures and share them. I’d take myself out on Artist’s Dates (inspired by Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way) going to new places to take photographs and then coming home to post them on my blog. I started exploring self portraiture, which was incredibly healing as it helped me to see myself again — literally, but also as the woman I was becoming, a woman who was working her way through loss and finding herself again.
What is the “unraveling” concept and how did it come about? When did you realize you wanted to share this concept with others in the form of a personal development class?
Unraveling is the word I used to describe my healing process — I was peeling away the layers of myself to find out what was underneath and get back to the real me. In this context unraveling is not a negative thing but rather a letting go and a simplifying. In 2008 I moved to a new city and was given the opportunity to teach a photography class at a local adult education center. As they already had a technical photography class, I decided to create something more meaningful … and that was when my unraveling class first occurred to me. It was the first time I had taught in person and I was blown away by how the participants embraced the ideas of the class.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to use photography as a healing tool?
Use the camera as an excuse to pay attention to your life. Keep your camera with you at all times to document your days — smart phones are great for this as you always have them with you. Dip into self portraiture and remember that you control the camera and can delete the photos you don’t like! Go to new places and investigate what you find, and then bring that curiosity back home and investigate the familiar places too.
You’ve used old media (including your forthcoming books) and new media (blogging, e-courses) etc., to spread the word about your work. What are some differences between sharing in traditional media and emerging forms of media?
New media is faster and much more interactive. In my previous life I wrote for newspapers and magazines, and though I occasionally received letters from readers, there’s very little engagement with your audience. It’s the same with books. Now, new media is changing all of that — you can publish a new blog post and get feedback in minutes. Authors can engage with their readers through their blogs, videos and newsletters. I love the community aspect of social media and am very active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
What do you hope to provide readers in your forthcoming books?
Instant Love: How to Make Magic and Memories with Polaroids is the book I wrote with Jen Altman and Amanda Gilligan and is for anyone who wishes to explore the world of instant photography.
My book, This I Know: Notes on Unraveling the Heart, is an inspiring guidebook of sorts, a collection of thoughts and theories about loss, healing and self-discovery. The words are accompanied by my Polaroid images, and it’s the sort of book you read on the sofa with a huge mug of coffee and blanket. I hope it will feel like an old friend.
A number of creative people believe the ultimate point of artistic endeavor is to make meaning of our life experiences. Would you agree? Why?
Yes I would, though sometimes our creative endeavors are less about finding meaning and more about the need to express ourselves, create something new or simply to entertain ourselves. Making something out of nothing is a wonderful thing — knitting, cooking, putting up new shelves. In my writing and photography I strive to make sense of my life, absolutely, but sometimes I just want to make a pretty picture — that is enough.
Do you have any long-term visions or hopes for your body of work?
I hope to keep writing and taking photographs. I know I have many more books in me.
Learn more about Susannah Conway’s work