Spotlight on Kristen Tomkowid

 
TID:
 
Thanks for taking time to speak with us, Kristen. You were in a class of mine recently, and it’s incredible to see how far you’ve come since - it’s very impressive. Can you tell us what this work is about? 
 
KRISTEN:
 
I got into photography in 2010, I’ve been interested in self portraiture. I didn’t really know it at the time, I was just really interested in having an awesome profile picture for Facebook. Then it started to evolve into more constructed scenes when I got to college and took more advanced photography classes. 
 
I continued photographing myself, because I didn’t have to work to anyone else’s schedule, and I didn't have to worry about coming off as weird because a lot of the concepts and images I do aren’t usual portraits. 
 
This body of work is from a couple different series, so it’s a little hard to give a general idea about what it’s about. Mainly, I’ve been trying to photograph relevant topics like feminism and mental health in my own way. I try not to make it obvious that I am the subject, as it makes it easier for the viewer to put themselves in my shoes, and I don't want the series to get too repetitive looking at me all the time.
 
 
TID:
 
Was there a moment when it clicked that this would be the path for you? 
 
KRISTEN:
 
I don’t think it has clicked. I’m not sure that I want to pursue self-portraiture as a full time career. I’d more than likely just continue it as my personal work and find work in fashion and portraiture that continues along the same lines of fictional story telling.
 
TID:
 
Do you usually work alone? 
 
KRISTEN:
 
I usually do work alone. The Final Admission was the first self-portrait project I did that relied on the help of someone else. Since the piece was done mostly in a dilapidated abandoned building in the middle of winter, I recruited my boyfriend at the time, Ryan Williams, to accompany me for safety. He also helped with focus and releasing the shutter.
 
There have been a few other photos taken with help, but they were usually one where it wouldn’t have been the smartest idea to do it alone, like the photo done in the frozen food section of Target, where someone could’ve stolen my camera, or complained about me photographing without permission.
 
 
 
It’s a little strange for me to have an audience while I photograph. A lot of the scenes I do or try to do seem even to me to be at least a little weird. I don’t want to have to worry about people seeing the behind the scenes or judging my weirdness. I’d rather they just see what I want them to see.
 
TID:
 
How do you generate and execute your ideas?
 
KRISTEN:
 
I realized I find inspiration everywhere, in beams of light, objects, buildings, feelings. Then if it’s a location, I find what wardrobe would work in it. If I think it will be for a story, I research. Even though my work is fictional, I want it to have an air of documentary. I have two strobes and speedlights and if I think light is needed, I’ll start adding them in to get the effect and feeling I want.
 
 
TID:
 
Can you talk about the different series? on your website, and what they represent?
 
KRISTEN:
 
There a few stories on my website. The most current project is The Five Stages of Grief, or the blue series, as it's seen as. It will be a story on me and my family's different reasons for grieving, from cancer to heartbreak and depression. This was a story inspired by light beams. Over the summer, I took a handful of self portraits that were in good light and blue in color. It wasn't until I put them all next to each other that I saw the feeling and theme that was coming across.
 
Opening up to my other family members will also be a good starting place for photographing other people. The second story is The Final Admission, and the final story is Sara Bellum, a series done in my last year at Ithaca College, looking at the stereotypical woman. She has no personality and does chores. She has a nice body, but it's completely vacant.
 
I also have some series of images with similar themes like single or diptych self portraits, fashion, still life's, and a variety of other singles.
 
 
 
TID:
 
Now, onto the lead image. Can you talk about the idea and how you executed it?
 
KRISTEN: 
 
The following image is from the series I did this past spring called The Final Admission. It was created for a picture editing class that Mike Davis taught, where we produced a semester-long project. The idea for the project was originally generated by the building. 
 
 
 
Ryan and I found the building first and it was very creepy. It reminded me of the psych ward in my hometown and a friend who found a book of procedures for dealing with the patients inside. I found that very interested and wanted to incorporate that into the series. I also wanted to use other people, but due to liability issues and this being shot in the dead of winter, it wasn’t the safest option, so it led to me being the subject again.
 
 
 
This picture specifically is of a nurse. I knew from all the many outfits I had already bought thrift shopping that I had a dress that matched the color of this room. I tried shooting the idea on two separate occasions. After the first try, I came back and showed them to my class and Mike Davis and he sent me back to make a frame like the one above. It has an air of mystery and suspense.
 
TID:
 
What problems did you face, and how did you overcome them?
 
KRISTEN:
 
As I stated earlier, the problems I faced with The Final Admission were that it was the middle of winter and the building was falling apart, had no heat, and was pretty in the middle of nowhere. I overcame these issues by not using other models to avoid liability issues, brought Will, and shot very fast to avoid freezing. We bought a kerosene tank and heater but it didn't help much because the building was so large and drafty. I also did not trespass. I found the current owners of the property and after they had a good laugh, I got their permission to shoot there.
 
For Sara Bellum, I did not get permission to shoot in some of my locations, so I again did the shoots fast. Most shoots last about 30 minutes tops, not really because I am rushing, but because I know what I want so it's not hard to create when I have the location. The not getting yelled at or freezing is an added bonus.
 
TID:
 
What have you learned about yourself?
 
KRISTEN:
 
I have definitely learned a lot about my body and how it photographs. I learned that I'm not the biggest fan of photographing other people due to a fear of making a fool of myself, but if I wasn't afraid, I wouldn't have the image I have today. 
 
TID:
 
In conclusion, what advice do you have for photographers who may want to do this type of work?
 
KRISTEN:
 
I recently heard at The Eddie Adams Workshop as feedback, keep shooting. Since I'm photographing myself, there's no real reason to not be shooting when I have free time. Experiment. Be weird. A lot of my work now and when I was starting out was shot in my house or dorm or apartment. Every room is another set location. I cleared off a wall in my bedroom and use it as a white backdrop. There no reason not to shoot.
 
 
 
 
:::BIO:::
 
 
 
Kristen Tomkowid is an emerging photographer based in Poughkeepsie, New York where she was born and raised. She recently finished her graduate coursework at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in photography. She received her B.S. in Journalism from Ithaca College in 2014. However, she realized journalism, even in some ways photojournalism wasn’t for her, so she switched career paths. Kristen is currently at home working on her master’s project “The Five Stages of Grief,” which explores her and her family in their time of grief in way that merges documentary and illustration.
 
You can view more of her work here:
 
 
 
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