Roxane Gay’s writing deals with sex, love, death, and the powerful conflicts that arise from those concepts. She’s published in roughly a bazillion print and online journals and her first collection, Ayiti, is coming out next year. Nina Hartmann’s photography tells stories about young people living and loving within an inch of their lives. She is currently pursueing her BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where other photography students no doubt try to copy her style. Nina and Roxane’s forces were combined in Annalemma Issue Seven: Endurance. This interview was conducted via Gmail chat.
A: Everyone here?
Roxane Gay: Yes.
Nina Hartmann: Yup.
A: Roxane meet Nina. Nina, Roxane
RG: Hi, Nina.
A: Thanks to the both of you for taking time to do this. I’ll start off with a few questions and we’ll go from there, if you have to take off just say so.
RG: I’m in my office grading so the only way I will take off is if some freak of nature accident happens and the Hand of God reaches into my office and takes me away.
A: I really hope that doesn’t happen.
RG: Me too.
A: Or if it does at least someone is there to see it. I thought the two of you were a good fit because you have this element to your style that sort of lulls an audience in then blindsides them with a powerful or frightening image. Nina, what sort of images take your attention?
NH: I try to take pictures of things that are beautiful to me but still have something off or strange about them. Redefining what beauty has been thought of throughout art history is something I try to personally address. Capturing strangeness or a relatable feeling is my main inspiration, I guess.
A: That’s interesting, I think the same things about Roxane’s work, a strangeness to your situations, but an ultimately relatable feeling because the characters are very human. What sorts of things take your attention when you begin writing, Roxane?
RG: I love to work from emotion. I like to find a moment of joy or pain or sorry and amplify those moments through exposition by just telling and telling and telling a story until it feels so claustrophobic I can’t bear it.
A: Haha, is that when you know it’s good?
RG: Yes, when I start to think, this might be too much, that’s when I know I’ve just about got it right.
A: Nina, are there ever moments like that for you, where you know something may be a good opportunity for a photo but you’re scared or apprehensive?
NH: Yeah for sure, but being uncomfortable is fleeting and a good picture is something that will be there forever so I usually try to just go for it. Most of my photos are photographer-subject relationship based so the amount the subject lets me in is usually based on how close we are.
A: I can really tell that from the photos on your site, there’s these two that come to mind of two young women at a spring, I think those were the first two images of yours I ever saw at a photo show in Florida. Something about capturing people in nature seems to open up a natural state, can you talk about that a bit?
NH: I’m definitely inclined to take photos outdoors. There’s more information available photographically and it is always a perfect backdrop for the subject. Living in Chicago has been a challenge since I have to stay inside most of the time.
A: Roxane, it feels like this is a theme that runs in the stories of yours that we’ve published, the characters continually escaping to nature, or maybe just escaping.
RG: My characters are often escaping because they find themselves in impossible situations. I spent the past five years living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula which is all about nature and my boyfriend is Mr. Nature while I am decidedly more interested in the pleasures of the indoors. A lot of my writing in the past couple years has been about learning about the solace nature can provide when you’re in mourning or in pain and you don’t want to feel boxed in by a room or the reminders that can be found in rooms.
A: That’s really cool. I just realized you’re both recent IL transplants.
RG: Oh? I moved here in July. It has been… interesting.
NH: Hahaha, yes interesting is a good word for it.
A: Nina, have you experienced a Midwestern winter yet?
NH: Yes, I’ve lived here for a year and a half almost now. It was rough, I really learned what depression was when i moved here, haha.
RG: It’s funny that people in IL think they have winters. The U.P. taught me about winter.
A: that is true, I could imagine U.P. winters are something along the lines of a metaphysical level of cold and isolation.
RG: The first two years made me question, ironically enough, the limits of my endurance.
A: Well, you made it, I think that speaks highly of your limits. How did you like the images we placed with your story, Roxane? I know it’s a bit different than what we’ve paired you with before.
RG: They are really interesting. I love how the colors feel muted and the images gave me the sense of, I’m not sure how to explain it, but I thought they were a really interesting complement to the story. It was like there was a distance there, but also an intimacy.
A: Yeah, I kind of felt the same way, they weirded me out on first glance but then made me feel good, like comforted almost. Nina, can you talk a little bit about how you came up for the idea and what the shooting process was like?
NH: I haven’t read the story in months, but I remember relating to parts of it in remembering feelings of dependency but the comfort that comes from it as well. Kind of wanted to create a “hand that feeds you” type situation. I shot it of my roommate and good friend, Sandra. I use her for a lot of photos, she lets me do whatever and is really interesting looking.
A: Her expression is so placid, but there’s this sort of vulnerability to her, I don’t know, to me the images say a lot about what it means to trust someone.
RG: I really like that vulnerability because I think the woman in my story is hard but not as hard as she thinks and she’s vulnerable in so many ways as the story unfolds.
A: Exactly, I’m always interested in people like that. The one’s who put up the hardest veneer are often the ones who are the softest inside.
RG: I love writing about women like that. I write the same story over and over and I’m so comfortable with that.
A: That’s a good place to be. A lot of artists are worried about repeating themselves. Do you ever worry about that sort of thing, Nina? Or maybe about worry that something may be interesting to you but not to others?
NH: I’ve always told myself sincerity is the only way to make art, so I try to take photos of what is important to me at the time and nothing else. If people like it, thats fine, but I ideally would like to secure myself in a place where I don’t have to depend on what people think of my photos to make a living so I can continue taking photos in the most honest way I can.
A: Yeah, that would be the ideal place to be, it’s very hard to get there though. Society doesn’t really value fine art photography like it should. I’ve noticed that in your photos that a lot of your subjects seem to be living on the outskirts of society, is this something that interests you or is this the default mode of someone pursuing creative work?
NH: I guess its just always been the type of person I’ve been drawn to. I don’t really know how it happened but I love photographing people who are true individuals and don’t buy into trends or scenes. I try not to get overly involved in the contemporary art world because it is more shallow then I could ever have imagined. It’s good to keep a distance and photograph your life uninfluenced by trying to make it in the art world.
A: I agree, that would make for a much more interesting arc of a life as well. Nina, did you go train hopping?
NH: Yeah, I did when I first graduated from high school when i was 18.
A: What was it like?
NH: It was a great time in my life, everything was easy and beautiful.
A: That sounds like a dream, like a lot of peoples lives at 18.
RG: I wouldn’t mind trying that
A: Go for it, Roxane. If there aren’t any more questions I think this is a good a place as any to wrap it up.
RG: Nina answered the question I would have asked!
A: All told then. Thanks again for taking part and I hope the both of you have a good evening.
NH: Night everyone!
RG: Thank you for having me, Chris!
A: Thanks Nina, I’ll be in touch.
RG: Or interviewing me, I reckon.
A: My pleasure, I’ll speak to you soon, I’m sure. Bye yall!