Photography Editor Colleen Barnett lets us see past her photographs and into the mind that creates them.
Catch Business: Please provide a little history as to what prompted you to begin taking photographs.
Colleen Barnett: I started taking photographs when I was around 12 or 13. My father gave me a Sony digital camera with 7 megapixels and I began to carry it around with me everywhere. That thing took sweeter pictures than some of these 22 megapixel point-and-shoot cameras you see at Best Buy. Something about taking pictures of things - stupid things like leaves with water dripping off or my best friend laughing - then looking back at them, was so interesting. I could change the color or change the lighting and all of a sudden it felt different when I looked at it.
How do you feel about the way your photography has progressed over time? And what have you learned about yourself thru taking photos?
It began as a mindless hobby and then transformed into a way for me to interpret the world. Extremely mindful.
The majority of my photos have words attached - poems, stories, or short sentences. I learned that I enjoy taking photographs because it conveyed how I was feeling in that exact moment in time. It was a snapshot into my life. The words were extra support. I never enjoyed taking photographs of babies or professional snapshots - I enjoyed lonely trees, bruised legs, bursting sunsets, and people not posing. My photos have always been for myself, not others.
When I took photographs, I could redo my feelings. I could re-angle something and it looked more sullen than before. I could make the tree appear bigger and thus more protective. I could have someone barely smile as they looked into the camera and suddenly it felt more mysterious. I could have the same person smile obnoxiously, pair the photographs together, and then it was two contrasting emotions.
When do you feel most inspired? When do you feel most comfortable behind or in front of the camera?
A lot of my life has been documentation. Writing and photography has been my way of making sense of it all. Especially when I was younger, I never felt this huge wave of “inspiration”, I just felt like I had to “take note”, if that makes sense. My photographs are just my day to day life. I was and am a very emotional person, so my inspiration was to document how I was/am feeling, and then put it somewhere - in a photograph or a writing piece. I suppose it’s true when people say art is expressing. I felt like if I didn’t express everything, I would explode.
I always feel comfortable behind a camera. I actually feel uncomfortable behind my camera phone. I think that’s because everyone uses their camera phone these days and somehow my real camera makes what I’m doing more official? I’m not too shy in front of one because I know what it’s like to want a photograph of someone not squirming around. But I’m like most people. The photo snaps and I say, “Let me see!”
To me, your photos feel very narrative. Do you believe that a picture’s worth 1000 words? If so, what do you think is the most important thing for you to express through your photos?
I definitely believe that. That’s my favorite part of looking at other people’s photography - imagining the story behind it. Everyone has a unique story that was formed from a million different variables. For me, the most important thing is emotion. If someone looks at my photographs and feels something, I’ve accomplished something. You have now connected to me.
Your photographs vary from focused parts of the body to distorted images of nature. What are the similarities and differences between each kind of environment?
I can only think of similarities. I’ve always had a battle with my body and the world around me. Nature versus nurture. Am I in control of my emotions or are my emotions in control of me? Since a young age, I’ve always paid close attention to cause and effect. The sun didn’t shine and I felt a certain way. Someone commented on my body and it was another emotion. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon played to the setting sun, placid. Explosions in the Sky played as it snowed quietly at 3am, emptiness. Everything became connected in my mind, body and nature. Something always played off another event. Now that I’m older, I don’t feel such a strong pull as I once did. So I suppose the differences are my older photographs versus my younger photographs. Now, the two environments are not so closely based off each other.
What do you see as the major difference between shooting in black/white and color?
I always felt like draining the color from the photograph funneled everything into something more placid, emptier, less chaotic, and less vivid. It dulled certain parts and contrasted the parts that needed to be bright. The photo didn’t need color to tell the story.
What are your two ferrets names? And how do animals influence your photography?
Gary and Fiona. Fiona was named after Fiona Apple. Gary always acted like an old man from the beginning, so he was named old man Gary. Unfortunately, both have since passed. I’ve always been a huge animal person. My ferrets were my first pets that I bought myself. I was 16. I was in a dark place when I bought my male ferret and I promised myself I would become healthier to properly care for him. And so I did. I find animals fascinating and comforting. They’re on a completely different platform than us intellectually and yet we live with them, side-by-side. Very interesting in a way I can’t explain.
There’s a superstition that if you take someone’s picture, you take a part of their soul. Do you believe this in some sense?
Absolutely. It’s a fluid exchange. I can observe a part of them for a moment in time. That part of them may not exist years down the road but in that moment I captured it. It was real. They were real.
Is there magic behind a good photo? Or what do you think it takes to capture the perfect photograph?
I think the magic lives within the motive. Why take a photo of this? What am I trying to get across? Am I revealing something about this person, sans words? What does this moment in time mean? Does this photograph make people think and feel? Have I made a physical documentation of an emotion?