This week’s Questions with an Educator features Sonya Naumann.
Sonya is a California based conceptual art photographer as well as an educator. She is very comfortable in the classroom and loves assisting students in the process of finding their vision. Here, Sonya outlines her thesis, “Thousand Dollar Dress,” her main sources of inspiration, and her favorite piece of advice to share with her students.
We asked: Please describe your thesis “Thousand Dollar Dress.” How did this idea come about, and what are you hoping it will accomplish?
Sonya said: “Thousand Dollar Dress” is plainly pertinent to the exploration of my identity and curiosity regarding the arcane concept of marriage and long term commitment. The process of arriving at this idea was largely fertilized by my desire to externalize my thoughts and questions, and to generate answers. What I’ve observed from the people I’ve found and those who’ve found me is that all are earnestly eager to engage in a discussion about the socio-political implications of marriage and commitment in the framework of their own experiences. It immediately constructs the reality of a reciprocal relationship between the participants and myself. I’m interested in their story, they’re interested in mine and together we collaborate to make the image and discuss the notions of the dress, the loaded symbolism it embodies, and the meaning it represents. Therefore, we are attracted to one another by a shared point of commonality.
While the project is certainly about the people I meet, the stories they have to tell, and my presentation of the politics surrounding them, it is undeniably about me. Through the use of photography and videography, I am exploring the changes in my own self-perception and socio-cultural identity in regard to my preexisting community. By utilizing qualitative research methods as a guide for artistic inquiry, I am given license to move beyond “what, where and when” and into the investigation of the “how and why” inherent in diverse experiences regarding marriage and commitment. By exercising these faculties, I am employing artistic auto ethnography. This qualitative social research method is a particular genre of investigation that connects the personal to culture, placing the self within a social context.
The desire to discover others and their viewpoints sort of suits a postmodern sensitivity that acknowledges multiple viewpoints and values them by abandoning the idea that only one ethical form of knowledge exists. The underlying goal of “Thousand Dollar Dress” is to investigate the socio-political function of marriage and its connotations through the status of identity constructs in the context of collective individual experiences. Through this shared point of commonality, the process of the project is defined by an equitable exchange and mutual education, with myself learning from the participants while allowing my own presuppositions to be challenged and expanded.
The project largely originated out of an honest and organic desire to understand the ways in which people navigate commitment in relationships. My parents divorced one another twice. Remarrying because they had conceived me – a condom baby whose spirit clearly wanted to bust into human form. The nature of their relationship and its fall out left a huge imprint on my view of partnership and interdependence. One day, I was staring at the dress living in a bag and thinking about how ineffectually temporal its life was. It occurred to me that I could have other people wear it and interview them about their experiences in an effort to clarify my own sensibilities, to understand my parents, their past. I was also adamantly upset about the culture war surrounding the politic of marriage – who had the right to and who didn’t. It’s absurd to me that straight people can legally marry and divorce with ease while gay people have to fight for the right. It’s absolutely ludicrous and unethical.
Thus, it’s my goal to photograph 1,000 individuals wearing my $1,000 wedding dress within the context of their own or chosen environment. I interview each participant about their thoughts on marriage and commitment. Whether they are married, single, divorced, want to get married, or have no interest in commitment. I want to have a full and whole portrait from people all over the world. At the project’s end, I aspire to have 1,000 portraits and a documentary including interviews from individuals of all ages, stages, backgrounds and diverse marital situations speaking to the concept of marriage, commitment and its politic. I sort of use myself as an instrument to exchange and the dress as simply a vehicle for dialogue. An object that allows a conversation and understanding about how we all choose to connect with others in the intimate corners of our lives.
Thus far, some of the photographs deliberately satisfy the tropes that accompany the dress while others refute it. Ultimately, the outcome is dependent upon the singularities of the participants. Some of the photographs are fantasy based while others a clear document. It is my hope that the ensemble will illustrate the multiplicity of responses attached to the approach of wearing the dress while both confirming and challenging the stereotypes that accompany its loadedness. In an idealized version of the project’s reception, I guess it’s pretty simple for me – I want to set people, and myself, free. Free to be. Free to forgive who and what didn’t work out. Free to live however we all best see fit.
I’ve been working on the project for over ten years and I’m at roughly 400 participants. I work at my own pace intentionally as the nature of the participants and their interviews inform active curiosities I gather as I grow throughout different phases of my life. After my mother tragically died, I didn’t think I’d ever photograph anyone in the dress ever again. It was once her gift – then it sort of became her. It was absolutely heartbreaking to me for some time. I carried the frock and my camera in the trunk of my car everywhere I went. I couldn’t pull it out for several years. I wondered if I’d ever photograph it again until I took a solo trek to South Africa. It was there that my spirit came back to life and I made my first portrait of a man with the dress. While my mother may be gone, she and her complex nature will always be my muse. Our story a vehicle to connection. The photographs are proof. Her gift. I intend to be the first, and the last, to wear it. I may be 80, but I really look forward to that moment of reflection.
We asked: Where do you find inspiration for your projects? What is your process of deciding on a topic for a new project?
Sonya said: I’m driven by empathy. I’m an intuitive empath. I can’t not act. It goes against who I am on a fundamental level. I use art and the camera to connect to people to understand my own self. In some ways, I’m seeking to untangle my egoically conditioned perception of the world. Since I was fifteen, photography has been my voice. I found it much easier to speak and relate with the world and others through the camera and photographs. I feel so fortunate to have found it so young. I truly don’t know who I would be without it.
The inspiration for all of my projects comes from listening to the deep parts of myself. I tune in, keenly, to my curiosities, concerns, and thought process. Social justice and areas where it lacks hit my nervous system in a way that compels me to move and make a scratch on the surface of a conversation. Sometimes directly and objectively while others more artistically and abstractly. Either way, it’s an effort to externalize a personal constitution of sorts – to explore and illustrate the process of finding and giving a voice to a concept. In some ways, I make work for my own need to have a voice. In others, I make the work to give a voice to those who don’t have a microphone. My camera is the vehicle and the photographs we make are the message. It’s all about connecting in one way or another.
Whatever themes keep skipping on my internal record are the subjects I begin to explore. I typically take a considerable amount of time to incubate ideas. I’ll perseverate on a project for years before I even start exploring it physically. I have my own version of OCD that mingles nicely in time. I examine an idea’s range internally so I can conceptualize, visualize, daydream, and hypothesize what it will look like, how it will feel, and how I’ll produce it. I set up a conceptual camp for them to live and breathe. I wait for a moment. I’m quite sentimental about timing. It has to feel right. If it doesn’t? I’ll wait. When it does? It’s transcendental. It’s magic. Otherworldly. Your entire being is fully alive in a different dimension. The synchronicities, both visually and tangibly, are undeniable. Containing the right energy within your person while you photograph is essential for me. If it’s not there, I don’t do it. That’s what I chase in my work. What I can’t see. The shared space in between that seems to make time stop or at the very least slow. When I follow that feeling, I can never go wrong. It’s vital to have massive affection for the process. Patience is just as essential as an incessant hunger.
We asked: What is your favorite piece of advice to share with your students? Why?
Sonya said: The best piece of advice I share with my students is the same I give to myself – it’s your job to be curious. It’s your job to truly know yourself. I remind them that as humans, we have 40,000 – 70,000 thoughts per day. How many do you actually remember? Seems wildly implausible until you consciously slow down, sit with yourself, and listen to the voice that is uniquely yours. They incessantly race, the thoughts, but you can organically get a sense of which ones keep running around in your mind’s track when you slow yourself down long enough to pay attention. I love to plant that seed for students as they then become their own subject to find and decipher what concepts they themselves would like to explore. I’m a huge believer in cultivating an atmosphere where students go inward and realize they are their own instrument. Their work becomes so much more engaging and rewarding when it comes from that space because they’re engaged with themselves. It becomes its own unique endless exploration. It’s entirely based upon their idiosyncratic interests. You grow and learn, project to project. If you’re not intrinsically interested in your subject, the viewer can sense it. If you’re not fully invested, the image isn’t as powerful as it could be because your energy isn’t there. You’ve got to connect with the kinetics of yourself. I see a lot of photographic karaoke these days. It’s easy to get lost in the sea of images online and recreate them, consciously or subconsciously, with a slight discrepancy and call them new. It’s my job to knock on my students’ chest and ask the questions that allow them to know themselves, to work from their own unique imprint, to meet and sculpt their own voice visually, regardless of what genre they find themselves working in. It’s critical to fully meet yourself.
We asked: Do you find that the photography classroom is changing with all of the technological development? Please explain.
Sonya said: The classroom has become more of a laboratory with all of the technological development. Film based work is easy to teach simply because the methodologies and their instruction have already fully evolved and don’t necessarily change. Considering we’re actively living in the digital revolution, the technology shifts and evolves fairly rapidly. Software transitions, more sophisticated camera options emerge, computer systems advance, techniques ripen – all nearly annually. Teaching becomes far more laborious in your efforts to stay ahead of the curve. You have no choice but to evolve as expeditiously as the system. The trick is not to get caught up in the capitalistic nature of it all. After all, if you don’t have a vision or a particular point of view, fancy equipment and software laced with bells and whistles are irrelevant. First, you have to learn how to see. How you see. Without that, technology has no authentic vehicle to drive.
We asked: What is the biggest obstacle you have faced during your career? Do you think students will face something similar?
Sonya said: The biggest obstacle I’ve faced in my career is begrudgingly accepting the reality of teaching in higher education. When I’m working with graduate students who are interested in pursuing academia, I am very direct and forthright with them about the market. They, too, will inevitably face this rather bleak reality. You have the idealized vision of what your life as an educator will look like. When you get there, you realize how broken the system is. Most students aren’t aware that there’s just over one million professors in the United States and roughly 80% of them are adjunct or contingent faculty. The Walmartization of higher education is real. Most campuses keep adjunct professors one class away from full time employment status so that they don’t qualify for health insurance or retirement options – benefits of any kind. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I have. The pay? Most adjunct professors make roughly $20,000 – $30,000 per year. I can lose my contract at any time. I can lose a class one day before it is supposed to run because the enrollment was one student shy of full. I can spend 60 hours designing a course I’m so excited about that I wish I could take it and not get paid for that time if it doesn’t fill.
I was once working at a for profit institution where I was teaching 5 classes per trimester. My colleagues and I were attempting to secure better pay when we learned that the director in charge of our salaries made $33,000 per month while we made that in a year. Our department brought in over a million dollars in tuition fees – per semester. The administration had no interest in negotiating with us for there was a line out the door of people willing to take our place to secure a line on their CV. You can bet they planned on paying them less.
If you’re not willing to move anywhere for a tenure-track position, you have to learn to compromise your occupational dream and piecemeal a living together to rely on a varied plethora of income. I teach because I absolutely love to. It’s one of my deepest passions in this life. Interacting with students, facilitating their vision, and being saturated in the subject of photography is pure bliss to me. A massive part of my identity. By choosing to stay in the field, I may satisfy a large corner of my person, but it doesn’t come without a lot of fundamental sacrifice. You have to build a very specific muscle and it has to be very flexible in order to keep working in education. It’s a teeter totter between your own work and the services you provide to keep a roof over your head. When it comes to a teaching career, it’s important to be realistic as the current system of higher education shows no signs of changing. Unions are necessary.
Find more of Sonya’s work on her website.