Paula Rae Gibson is a self-taught photographer from England. Her work epitomises the true nature of what it means to be an artist: to be open and completely honest, even when you’re at your most vulnerable. Her analog and darkroom techniques are frenetic, largely utilising a flawed and battered look over ‘perfection’. Despite how dark and agonising much of the content can be, what captured me most about Paula’s work is how completely human, empathic and full of emotion it is. For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to relate and connect to a piece of work, and to the person behind it.
A selection of Paula’s work is published in Issue #1 ‘Shot Of Love’. On the run up to the release of the magazine, I interviewed Paula on her journey into photography and the incredible life lived which influences everything she creates.
You’re a self-taught photographer. Who or what got you interested in photography to begin with?
I would say I fell in love with Picasso, Man Ray, Anais Nin, Tokyo as a city, Jan Garberak, Keith Jarrett – very emotional stuff – when I was around 17. Then I had a car accident at the age of twenty-one. I was ripped open entirely. I lost my spleen, gained nine pints of Ecuadorian blood – this caused a bit of an overflow of emotion, a tsunami actually which I poured into work and the darkroom. Everything I had ever felt all my life without even knowing ’til then, came to the surface and it almost killed me all over again.
I’m very impatient so never read rules or anything, I just started to print, guessing my way through, a million mistakes… an implosion and explosion. I wasn’t interested in making prints a printer could make for me. I didn’t want perfection at all. I loved ripping the paper, and how the chemical could look like paint and then I would live with the prints on the floor, treading on them. I realise now I like the battered look, just as much as I like people who really been through out in life. I also destroyed the negatives as I went so they were one-offs, similar to how I want to live my life, as a unique experience.
Your work is deeply personal and autobiographical. What drives you as an artist to create such intimate work?
I had almost died and not expressed anything of who I really was. This really scared me. The idea I could be dead and I hadn’t even understood the pain inside me; the drive, the cultural difference to where I was from, etc. From then on, all I wanted was all truth out there, everything I ever felt, no matter how dark or lonely or tear laden, life had to be honest, every drop of every day. Of course with every tear we shed, every bit of owning up to the pain, we start to unclog and come back to life.
This instinct has driven me to meet those like me, so by being yourself, you carve a world that you want to live in. This feels the only way to exist, to me.
I’m English, my background is pretty emotionless, or lets say a lot of unexpressed emotion, no hugs and kissing and inspiration. No-one telling me – “You’re doing great. Life is worth living. Follow your dreams, follow your spirit. You are special.” Nothing of the sort. This drove me, I guess, to go to Ecuador in the first place, where everyone was more emotional and showing their feelings all the time. Even if I didn’t agree with them, at least they expressed themselves. The car accident was like being catapulted into being able to do this for myself. I feel lucky. I was rattling around the world totally blocked, reading other people’s ideas; identifying but not able to find the words for myself. The accident gave me my voice.
Could you tell us about the objectives and ideas behind some of your work?
These images are all but one taken when my husband was dying of cancer. I fell madly in love with him at twenty-eight, and we worked together and were together 24/7. We couldn’t get enough of each other. We had a baby together, but he was diagnosed with death when she was just twenty weeks old. My entire world collapsed at thirty-five with him gone. I lost my soul mate, best friend, father figure, father to my daughter, muse, everything. Thank goodness I had our daughter to live on for, and that I had my work to be able to show me how to sieve through the hell of emotions I was to go through. Our daughter is the double of him in so many ways, which puts some magic back into life after very bleak days.
I felt so naked, so ripped of everything I was, it was like an invisible string was pulling me to him. Taking photos made me be in the present, just feeling then printing them – there was evidence that I still was here, it was driven by instinct. The image of me lying on the floor without a head and in high heels is not a concept I would have thought about and then shot. Never! It just happened. Now I read it as me needing to go out, but without the energy to do so or desire to leave my daughter.
The only photograph not part of this is the one with the orange tape. I met this lovely girl and we were planning to do a shoot, but she had to cancel the session as her mother had killed herself! When we finally got around to doing the photographs, she came out looking like her mother, which she had never noticed before – another piece of magic.
I so want photographs to mean something, to capture feeling and not be anything to do with vanity. To be timeless, to reflect the lives before us. To make our lives bigger than us. If someone tells me when they see a photo I’ve taken of them ‘I never knew I was so strong, I never knew I was so deep.’ I feel so happy. Like I really have given something. We have to be authentic, and fight for that forever.
Are there any aspects of your work or photography in general, which you struggle with?
I think I struggle with taking breaths in-between working… to forget to dip into the world and get the work out there in any way. I’m happiest just head down, shooting and learning from what I’m doing. Sometimes a day of biking or walking or just being with friends is a lot more productive and nourishing than working on twenty prints.
How do you maintain your passion for photography?
Loving life, doing what makes me feel alive, so hearing music, documentaries, walking, cycling, Having real friends and real conversation. I also do a bit of music and working with jazz musicians has really held me together, as they can be so overwhelmingly talented and of another world. My daughter, who I photograph a lot, teaches me all the time to rethink what I am thinking. When she was five she wrote me a letter that said ‘ I love life and you’ – it meant everything. It was a promise that despite all, life was going to be OK. Her dad loved her so much I couldn’t bear her not having that love in her life.
She’s a teenager now, so I have to wait for special permission to photograph her – unlike when she was little!
Basically keeping the emotions fluid inside me is my drive. When life gets overwhelming it’s very easy to shut down and not feel a thing, then bitterness sets in. Regret, resent. So I think we must do anything to not be bitter or numb!
Do you have any projects on the go at the moment which you’re enjoying working on?
I’m shooting tonnes at the moment: nudes, women, and then writing as I go. So, where and how it will end up, I don’t know at this point. It usually takes about six months for me to realise what I’ve been up to. Life is all improvisation, I’ll meet someone, want to photograph them and just let that feeling lead the way.
Images © Paula Rae Gibson