RISING STAR: Sonya Whitefield

Photographer Sonya Whitefield talks about education, inspiration and having her work accepted by the Royal Ulster Academy

When did you become interested in photography?

I started getting interested in photography when I was studying foundation art at Jordanstown in 1983. When I took the three week photography module a new creative route opened up for me. It gave me a medium through which I could express and explore what I saw, felt and wanted to say.

I remember avidly studying the old masters like Alfred Steiglitz, Edward Weston and especially Bill Brandt with his rich prints playing with shadow and light. I’m still a bit traditional in that I love the whole development process of black and white photography. I tend to lose myself in time when I’m printing in the darkroom and still to this day feel it’s like magic when you see that image first starting to reveal itself.

You went on to study at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. Did a formal art education help your career?

Most definitely. I gained a lot of knowledge about historical and contemporary photographers, artists and filmmakers. I think it influenced the storytelling aspect of my work. Even though our course would have been viewed as vocational the tutors were fine art orientated and encouraged me to pursue that potential within my own work.

The photography department at Bournemouth was an artistically vibrant and lively place to work and as students we all learnt from each other. It is deeply fulfilling to be in an environment that feeds the creative spirit and my three years at Bournemouth certainly provided me with both the structure and freedom to do just that.

In my final year I exhibited my work at the Photographer’s Gallery in London which led me to showing more work in galleries across England.

You have just had a piece accepted by the Royal Ulster Academy. How do you feel about getting such recognition?

The piece that was accepted is a photograph from The Wedding series, an on-going body of work that explores feelings around marriage and loss, playing with the world of dark fairytale and imagination.

I was thrilled when I heard it was chosen. I know this year there was a vast number of entries from artists all over Ireland and only a small percent could be chosen. It’s a great privilege to be part of a rich, established arts exhibition and to have the opportunity to show work alongside renowned artists I admire, such as Rita Duffy and Jack Pakenham, amongst many others.

How would you describe your work?

I use photography to creatively interpret and communicate personal life experiences. It’s a way of mirroring back conscious and unconscious thoughts around life situations that challenge us all as humans.

My work explores conflicting dualities inherent in loss, vulnerability, sexuality, identity and domesticity. I attempt to create visual poetry and a lot of my images contain narratives. For example, I recently took a series of photographs around the loss of a sense of place that accompanies someone suffering from senile dementia in the transition from home to long term care. I like to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and challenge people to view and question the inner and outer worlds we live with.
You're back in Northern Ireland, living in County Tyrone. How does that area influence your work?

As my work is quite personal my subject matter is all around me, in the house that I live in, in rooms and spaces I experience. I love walking in the peatlands - it allows me to unfill my head and leave room for creative thinking. It is quite a wild place and in a comforting way gets me in touch with the aloneness of the world, a theme that is recurrent in my work. I think most artists would acknowledge the importance of being in nature and how it nurtures the soul.

You have also exhibited photographs taken in Tuscany - is it sometimes easier to photograph unfamiliar places and things?

I think a place or thing has to inspire my imagination and it’s not hard to do that in Tuscany with its light and architecture. Of course there is a freshness in exploring new places, they can help awaken the senses, you become more aware of your surroundings and you get excited again about photography. But I also enjoy taking photographs of the familiar and making people see it in a new light.

You've exhibited all over the world. What have been the highlights?

I exhibited at the State University of New York as part of the Arts Council’s touring exhibition Through The Lens, which featured work of 12 Northern Irish photographers including Victor Sloan and Paul Seawright.

I exhibited at Berry College in Georgia USA in A Year of Irish Art. I have also exhibited at a wide variety of galleries in England, and Ireland including the Gallery of Photography Dublin, the Arts Council Gallery, Belfast, the Hungarian Museum of Photography and more recently at the Millennium Court Art Centre‘s A Sense of Place show, which highlighted a variety of art work from south Ulster artists.

What artists have influenced you most?

At school I was heavily influenced by Salvador Dali and the surrealist artists, which awakened my interest in the unconscious, dreams and freedom of the imagination. I recently attended the exhibition Angels and Anarchy: Women Artists and Surrealism and was fired up again by the work of Freida Kahlo, Lee Millar, Francesa Woodman and Dora Marr.

I love the work of the past masters in photography and how they promoted photography as an art - Julia Margaret Cameron really combines a sense of otherworldliness, beauty and stillness that’s so poetic. I love the nudes of Andre Kertesz and Edward Weston, the social documentary of Lewis Hines, Eugene Smith and Josef Koudelka. The photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard had a profound effect on me with his haunting images and his uneasy surreal photographs of family. Other photographers I admire include Nan Goldwin, Sally Mann, Tina Modotti, Cindy Sherman, Barbera Ess and Mary Ellen Mark.

Poetry has also been a great influence and at college I discovered the work of the Liverpool poets Adrian Henry, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. I love their use of humour and irony.

What are your plans for the coming months?

At the moment I am working towards an exhibition and a book called The Journey of the Hysterectic Woman which will be launched at the Golden Thread Gallery in March 2010 to coincide with International Women’s Day.

It is an autobiographical body of work and reflects my creative journey through a hysterectomy operation using art as a transformative tool for healing and recovery. I am also collaborating with the gallery to organise accompanying workshops. I intend to promote and tour the work both nationally and internationally.

Peter Geoghegan