Artist, educator, and author of a series of technical articles previously published in NZPhotographer Magazine, Charlotte E. Johnson talks about her photographic journey, the ups and downs along the way, and how living with mental illness has affected her practice.
Image series exploring properties of water; Refraction, Condensation, Solidification, Surface Tension, and Precipitation. We were strongly encouraged to try editing our photos in the beginner’s evening course, and I stretched to black and white conversions. I seemed overly fond of inverting tones at the time.
I have been an artist at heart all my life. I come from a family of artists – my mother is an artist undefined by any single medium, and my grandfather is a sculptor and welder who also loves to draw. I was always encouraged in my arts practice by these incredible people. Despite this, after a couple of years bouncing around the small town in Cornwall, England, where I grew up, I chose to study science at higher education.
Not knowing what else to do with myself, I took this as far as it could go, achieving my Ph.D in 2015. Throughout my student life, I had my art. Before photography, I used pen and pencil. I purchased my first DSLR whilst studying for my masters, and this sparked a passion for image creation I had never before experienced. I wanted to learn more, so, alongside my Ph.D, I took a succession of photography evening classes which gained me a foundation certificate in digital media. My images back then were very matter of fact – my first project was photographing the different states of water (ice, steam, etc.). If you’ve read my other articles published in this magazine, you’ll know that I did not believe in editing images back then, and I couldn’t imagine a genre scarier than portraiture!
Ever since first attending University as a student so many years ago, I have always been a sufferer of ‘imposter syndrome’. A feeling that I am not good enough and that I am not supposed to be doing what I am doing. The fear that one day soon, someone will find me out as the imposter that I am.
“Imposter syndrome would have me believe that all I have achieved is a fluke, luck, or some administrative mix-up.”
Does this sound familiar? It’s incredibly common and often rears its ugly head when stepping out of our comfort zone. I used to get panic attacks in the middle of a lecture, sometimes seemingly for no reason. I would sit there whilst my ears buzzed, my heart raced, my palms became sweaty, and try to control my breathing. Doctors diagnosed me with anxiety and told me that I was ‘subconsciously stressed’. When I asked what I could do about that, they just sort of shrugged and told me to relax more.
Anxiety and imposter syndrome are best buddies. When I serendipitously (so impostor syndrome would have me believe) secured my job as a photographer and microscopist at the University of Auckland in 2017, it was a steep learning curve. I had to battle imposter syndrome every day and overcome my fear of portraiture. I can tell you that moving to the opposite end of the world to start a new job in a completely different field turns imposter syndrome into IMPOSTER SYNDROME. The best way I found to cope was to be proactive and challenge myself to get better at the things I wasn’t confident in.
I put up flyers around the university buildings asking for volunteers to photograph – just students wanting to be in front of a camera. I asked for their time and gave them digital photos in return. We kept shoots short – about 45 minutes over a lunch break. Everything was an experiment. I would say to a model, “wear whatever makes you feel happy and bring some accessories so we can mix it up”. My volunteers’ appearance ranged from full cosplay to casual jeans and tee shirts. Some of them were shy and told me they wanted to do the shoot to challenge themselves. Others were extremely outgoing, telling me how they had done nude shoots in the past. “Back then, I was completely disconnected from myself in terms of my photography. It was all about technique, mainly post-processing.”
I knew I wasn’t a very good photographer, so I focussed on ‘saving’ the images in Photoshop. There was no feeling involved whatsoever, and I had little preference over what I photographed. I would turn up to shoots with an idea in mind – usually a technique to try – with no thought as to whether it would work for that particular shoot. I was simultaneously underprepared (for the look and what would work best) and overprepared (I always had a full bag of gear and wacky accessories). I would throw everything at an image and see what stuck, and that goes double for the post-processing. In those days, I’d see a stylised image online or in a photography magazine and try to recreate the technique. It was a great way to learn Photoshop and play around with gear, even if I didn’t understand what I was doing, and it also gave me a reason to keep taking photographs. I’d spend hours in Photoshop, often completely cutting models out of backgrounds, integrating images that weren’t my own work, layering on heavy filters from plugins, and adding far too many effects (I was obsessed with bokeh overlays). Looking at these images now makes me cringe. I just didn’t know when to stop. I didn’t have a recognisable look or style; I simply played and played until I thought I’d done enough.
GROWTH AND COMMUNITY
In 2018, I attended my first Photographic Society of New Zealand (PSNZ) convention in Dunedin. I can’t stress how important this was for my photography. I learnt new techniques, I went on practical workshops, but most importantly, I met fellow photographers (some of whom have become close friends). This led to me joining a local club – Auckland Photographic Society (APS) – where I am still a member. “I had found my community.”
Being a member of a photography club and submitting your work to competitions means that it gets judged by a member of the photography community deemed qualified to give feedback. For any photographer, it’s a nerve-wracking experience. Entering the competitions encouraged me to try different genres and ideas, and it helped me realise which topics weren’t for me (nature and photojournalism – yuck!). Good feedback can be hard to come by, and every judge has their own bias; no matter how hard we try, we’re only human. I did get some useful feedback, though – sometimes it was something obvious that I had missed, sometimes I’d get angry but eventually realise the judge had a point, and sometimes I just couldn’t understand what the judge meant. Like when they would talk about feeling or story. “I think this is a lovely image but, for me, it’s missing a story”. What? What does that mean? I’ve given you an image I think is beautiful; why do you need a story?
These images are a reminder of where I started. I would frequently spend 3+ hours editing. Purely experimental, I never knew how they were going to turn out. It led to some very (pleasantly) surprised reactions from models when I sent them the edited images.
A selection of images from my PSNZ Associateship Set. Supported by a talented team of fellow creatives, I was hugely proud of what we achieved from this photoshoot.
I joined Facebook groups for models and photographers and was contacted by a makeup artist who thought I’d work well for a shoot she had in mind. This was my first time collaborating with a makeup artist and an experienced model. I did my usual trick of bringing too many things to the shoot – I was using speedlights I didn’t understand, a new camera, and I brought so many accessories.
Thankfully, the makeup artist knew what she wanted and directed the shoot really well, and the model knew just what to do. It was a fun introduction to a themed shoot with a story behind it, even if the story wasn’t mine. It pushed me to create a set of images inspired by the modern movie remake of Mad Max. I worked with the same makeup artist (we became regular collaborators), a model, a stylist, and a venue to create an apocalypse-themed shoot. I repurposed old clothing purchased from an opshop, treating it to coatings of paint, talcum powder and dirt to give it a worn look. The venue, Shabby Manor, let us use their hot rod (or rat rod) and even brought out some braziers from a movie set. During the shoot, I experienced such a high – the nervousness and anxiety bubbled over into a giddy, trembling excitement where all my senses felt like they were dialled up to 11. Adrenaline, I guess.
I later edited the images into a set for an Associate level honours from the Photographic Society of New Zealand, which was successful. I was amazed my work had reached that standard – it was my first big photographic achievement. I still couldn’t get my head around the way of thinking about photography as storytelling - I made up a short story for this shoot after I’d shot it. I just wanted to have fun creating a look inspired by a movie aesthetic that I loved.
SEARCHING FOR THE WHY
I had done a lot of online courses in Photoshop and creative imagery by this point. I could place a model into another world, create beautiful ball gowns from one sheet of fabric (a favourite thing to do for a time), and add in magical streaks of light, but I couldn’t tell you the why of the image.
I tried entering creative competitions, but this only made me realise that my idea of ‘creative’ was not the same as that of others. I went to themed portraiture workshops, photographed the vintage pinup scene, and did photo walks with friends and models. I was enjoying all of it so much, but something was missing from my work, though I didn’t realise it at the time.
My technical skills were improving, and I started getting into studio lighting. I’d had to learn lighting for tricky locations and subjects at work, so I had some understanding. This gave me the confidence to start doing studio portraiture in my own home. With it came a whole new world – the planning for a shoot, outfit, makeup, accessories to fit a look, playing with lighting, and retouching.
The way I thought about my photography changed; I finally had complete control over everything.
“I continued to move away from really complex edits and focused more on what was really in front of the camera.”
I’m so grateful to the patient models that let me play around with studio lighting when I didn’t know what I was doing. I was working in the second bedroom of a small apartment. Low ceilings and a small room meant my subjects were most often seated, and I just did upper body shots. The resulting photos were typical of flash photography – often unflattering with hot spots on the face, highly saturated, and contrasty with hard shadows. I would sometimes get so flustered that I would open the curtains to let in some natural light, confusing myself even more by trying to combine this with the flash. I looked at the works of photography greats – masters of light – with envy and wondered why I couldn’t replicate what they were doing. Falling back onto what I knew, I ‘fixed’ these images in post-processing, applying skin smoothing and digital makeup with all the grace and subtlety of a paint roller.
One of my idols, fine-art photographer Brooke Shaden, was the keynote speaker at the 2019 New Zealand Institute of Professional Photographers (NZIPP) convention, so I made it my mission to attend. Even though I had already done all her workshops online, I learned a lot from her talks. She shared her secrets for making her work look painterly, and I grabbed onto this technique with both hands. At this time, I also had possibly the most important lesson in lighting that I’ve ever had. I believe it was with wedding photographer, Eric Ronald, who gave up his time after a session was finished to teach a few of us about qualities of light.
Suddenly, so much of what I’d been doing wrong with my studio lighting became obvious. After the conference, I built on this newfound knowledge, hungry to learn more, and passed the basics of it on to you readers in some of my technical articles.
“My studio work became my obsession.”
I was trying new lighting techniques or refining a look with every shoot, and I realised that I loved painterly aesthetics. I bought so much lighting gear, and I used it on all my shoots, studio or not - Natural light was completely shunned. I went on this way for a long time. I expanded my network, and I also started to share my knowledge during talks and workshops at my local club, APS. I shot a campaign for a small theatre production, some images for a book of short stories by a local author, and I took on a few portraiture requests. I won some local and national competitions.
A selection of my images captured in studio settings, from cramped bedrooms to specially-equipped performance spaces. If I wasn’t doing a photoshoot, I was busy arranging the next one.
My confidence in myself and my work grew exponentially, but my portraiture still struggled to do well. I was getting awards for works in other genres, and I know this sounds childish, but I found that incredibly frustrating. I was still getting the same feedback, no matter where I submitted my portraiture: “technically great photo but no connection or deeper meaning.” I’d wonder, “What more do you want from me? Why can’t it just be a beautiful image?”
I’m a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). I feel things at what can be an intense level. I get overwhelmed easily by external stimuli such as busy or noisy places, and I can’t switch off my brain – I’ll go over and over something endlessly, such as feedback on my photography.
In my experience, I have noticed that portrait photography is often held to a different standard than other genres. It is incredibly difficult to produce an image that broadly appeals and holds meaning.
In an attempt to please the judges, many of us might change the way we photograph, compose, or edit our images to conform to the standards of competitions. I think this is awful, yet photographic associations promote this over creativity, whether intentional or not.
When I was given a mark of 0/5 for most of my entries to one popular portfolio distinction program, with the feedback that my images lacked sharpness, were of weak composition and showed poor use of light, I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked and, frankly, insulted. I was told that my images might be improved by cropping – that was it. I felt confused and let down by a system meant to be there to encourage photographers, amateur or otherwise. I was lucky that I had a support system of fellow photographers around me who were just as confused as I was, and a string of awards from other competitions for those same images reassured me when I started to believe the feedback.
In late 2020, I decided to work towards achieving a Fellowship level Honours with PSNZ. This is the highest level awarded and requires a suitable degree of complexity from the photographer, including a compelling theme or overall story, which, as you will know by now, was not something I was great at.
I thought of images I liked the look of and how I could get a set of 18 of them, then worked backwards to find a theme that might connect them. I ended up with concepts that appealed to me visually but not emotionally. Inevitably, my first ideas never materialised despite plans because my enthusiasm for them faded. Time ticked on, and the deadline photoshoot. The first I’d done had been lots of fun, and I agreed, provided I could find some way to fit a theme into it. We brainstormed, and I realised how much the visuals of a milk bath could be used as a metaphor for emotional wellbeing – ‘keeping your head above water’, meaning to stay on top of difficulties and demands.
I knew I needed the set to show progression, so I thought about metaphors that seemed obvious to me and would work with the theme: flowers wilting and dying, the comfort of clothing being stripped away, and the sinking of the model under the water.
Bouncing these ideas off my friend, I was struck by how they resonated personally with me. At this point, I had not yet been diagnosed with depression, but I knew it was there. I’d been living with it all my life; I just didn’t know what to call it. It was my darkness, my melancholy, and something I was very comfortable with. But this shoot wasn’t about me, or so I thought, so I remained somewhat detached from it.
Storyboarding and planning the photo shoot came very easily. Together, a model and two assistants helped me plan and realise the shoot as well as being my hand models.
“For the first time, I had put planned meaning into a photoshoot, with underlying story and depth.”
It started as something I had to do to meet the criteria, and it ended up being the best thing I could have done for my artistic direction. I poured hours into editing the images. I wrote an accompanying poem of sorts, a line for each image to ensure the message hit home. I got really emotional and a little worried at how easily the words flowed out of me. Then I submitted the whole thing and forgot about it for a while.
A BEAUTIFUL SADNESS
Going through your photo archives is an amazing way to realise what you love to capture and what kind of imagery really appeals to you. In this world of visual bombardment, an image that can make the viewer pause and feel something is a powerful thing. It might be empathy for the character in the photograph, or it might cause the viewer to reflect on something they, too, have experienced. It may simply be that it gives the viewer a quiet moment to pause in their busy life. For me, all the images which have stood the test of time and become my favourites are the ones that show what I’d call a beautiful sadness. I believe these images show a raw honesty that creates empathy in the viewer. With the series I submitted for my Fellowship with PSNZ, I really felt that ‘beautiful sadness’ had come through. I’m not going to lie; I was pretty crushed when I was told I’d been unsuccessful. I got lengthy feedback, but, ultimately, I felt incredibly misunderstood.
Collection of images from the failed bronze-level portfolio entry. The initial idea behind this shoot was to contrast grace (embodied by the model and dress) with grunge (the environment). Although it wasn’t really planned, it seems clear from how the images turned out that I was inspired by feelings of being trapped during lockdown.
A sample of images from my failed PSNZ Fellowship Set. These have become some of my favourite images produced to date and have a strong sense of meaning for me on both a personal level and in terms of developing my photography motivation.
“With the highs of creating the images came the lows of rejection.”
It took me some time, but I slowly realised that the set had been intensely personal, and that’s probably why it hurt so much to have it fail. I had the set exhibited in the digital screens section of the Auckland Festival of Photography. Unfortunately, the projector gave the images a huge colour cast over the top half, the setup was over a day late, and they attributed my name to the wrong image in the printed booklet. It was painful to see this happen to works I had unknowingly poured so much of myself into. I felt incredibly dejected about it all, and that I had let down everyone involved.
“For a long while, I fell out of love with portraiture.”
Having social anxiety makes everything about capturing portraits incredibly hard for me, even more so when working with people I don’t know.
Being a HSP, the feelings of social inadequacy and tension bubble and boil within me, creating physical discomfort and even migraines. At the end of 2021, the lack of inspiration, the rejections, moving house, the lockdowns, and my 4th Christmas in a row without being able to see family all pulled me down to a low I’d not experienced before. I finally got my official depression diagnosis – I added it to the list. Unsurprisingly, anxiety and depression, imposter syndrome and being a HSP all go hand in hand. I sold a lot of camera and lighting gear, and I spent a few months mostly in pyjamas, on the sofa, eating pizza and binge-watching TV. My councillor told me to be kind to myself, so I ate chocolate when I wanted to eat chocolate. It turns out that’s often.
One day, seemingly from nowhere, a friend asked me if I wanted to go photograph high tide at Muriwai with him, and he’d pick me up. He made it so easy that I couldn’t say no. As soon as the blustery coastal wind hit me, I felt invigorated for the first time in months. The sea was churning, and the gannets were having trouble in the air, so they mostly stayed hunkered down on the clifftop. I felt that the scene was echoing all my emotions, and I had experienced zero anxiousness or expenditure of energy to capture it.
I am drawn to the ocean in the same way I am drawn to melancholy; it is filled with symbolism for me. My friend and I made several trips to the Auckland west coast beaches over that time, catching the tide, the sunset, blustery weather, etc. Sometimes I would go and just thread my toes through the wet sand without taking a photograph. It was such a breath of fresh air at a time when I desperately needed it.
This image was taken on that fateful day my friend invited me to Muriwai. It is a shot that has opened up my photography and informs my current practice.
Recent work. I believe embracing emotion and meaning in my photography has helped my practice evolve significantly and given even more importance to this creative outlet.
“It was and continues to be a kind of meditation, a decompression for my soul.“
Now, I enjoy capturing seascapes and placing models within them. I mostly use natural light, and I try to capture painterly effects in-camera with the use of creative lenses, settings and filters. My editing is comparatively minimal. It makes my day when someone comments on my work that it looks like a painting. I still don’t do well in portrait competitions, but I’ve stopped caring because I find what I create so fulfilling.
With my passion for creating melancholic and wistful imagery, it’s important for me to balance it with some happy snaps now and then. “Not everything has to be deep and meaningful; that’s exhausting.”
When I’m open to it, I can find everyday moments incredibly beautiful, and I am moved by seemingly simple things.
I’ll end with this quote from the film American Beauty, which sums it all up rather well:
“I guess I could be pretty pissed off at what happened to me, but it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much – my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… but then I relax and stop trying to hold onto it. And then it flows through me, like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid, little life.”
NZPhotographer July 2022