Stuart Abelson Research Grant Proposal

Although the United States has embedded the idea of happiness into its national character, all humans share the collective hopes and trappings of the pursuit of happiness. The progression of my photographic practice led me to question — What is the “happiest” nation in the world? Since 2012, the World Happiness Report has conducted an annual survey that attempts to quantify subjective well-being and ranks nations by the life satisfaction of its citizens. The report is produced by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, draws data from Gallup International surveys, and utilizes over 30 years of happiness research to support their claims. The study asked citizens to “value their lives today on a 0 to 10 scale, with the worst possible life as a 0 and the best possible life as a 10.” In 2018, the report concluded that Finland is the happiest country in the world.

The artistic vision for the proposed project, Finding Happiness, is to travel to Finland and explore the theme of subjective well-being in a thriving social landscape. The questions that create the conceptual framework for this proposal are -- Why are the citizens of Finland so happy? What does a photograph of happiness look like? My approach to solving this interesting challenge for the medium of photography is to make deeply personal engagements with people and the spaces that influence their well-being. Interviewing members of the community will reveal the elements of their life that make them happy. Although happiness sounds abstract, it could be manifested in a number of tangible ways, such as family, places of vocation, the inside of a sauna, celebrating nature, or even access to medicine. Allowing people to define their own personal narrative will break down the barrier of being an outsider and give agency to the person being photographed. In addition to photography, personal writings and found documents will be collected to support the project.

Building a significant body of work over the course of six weeks requires a sound strategy. Approaching random strangers on the street could be interesting and useful, but this project needs a better entry point into the community. I’ve been introduced to a personal friend of Margaret Denny who is a Finland native and practicing photographer working on an art-based doctoral thesis. Collaborating with a colleague in Finland will allow me to schedule an initial round of at least 8- 10 portrait sessions and interviews with mutual friends. Having the sessions scheduled before I arrive in Helsinki will provide a real structure to the beginning of the project. I would encourage each person I photograph to act as a liaison, introducing me to more people. In gratitude to their time, I will mail the participants an archival print when I return.

Many people in Finland use the word “Sisu” to describe their cultural identity. The word can’t be translated into a single English world and even the Finnish admit that the idiom represents a number of traits. “Sisu” comes from a Finnish root word that implies “inner” or “inside.” The concept is described as stoic determination, the prevalence of purpose, and willpower over adversity — a gritty, gusty, white-knuckle approach to life. The purpose of Finding Happiness is to observe the socially co-opted signifiers of subjective well-being in Finland to gain a deeper understanding of the community involved. Learning from this community could reshape cultural values that constitute the pursuit of happiness and how to achieve it. This conversation is meaningful to a global audience as well as the challenging social landscape of America today. This project could benefit the public by igniting a dialogue about the human right of the pursuit of happiness through an engaged connection between the subject, audience, and community.

Completing the series Finding Happiness will help answer questions at the core of my photographic practice which requires more than an American perspective. All humans are looking for happiness and I could spend my entire life’s practice searching for evidence of this in various communities. This project will help me fulfill a calling to create a socially engaged fine art photography series relevant to a global audience. I believe my proposal embodies the spirit of the Stuart Abelson Graduate Research Fellowship by pushing my current photographic practice forward, engaging in meaningful research, completing a site-specific project abroad, and commenting upon a timely social dialogue.

2018 Photo EMERGE

This is the sixth year of the EMERGE competition hosted by the Midwest Center for Photography. The competition offers a Fellowship Award and exhibition opportunity to emerging photographers. This fellowship opportunity is geared toward photographers looking to launch their art careers through the exposure of exhibition. Photographers build their exhibition record by competing for a space in the gallery and the chance to be designated as the 2018 emerging photographer and receive one-year artist representation online. Out of all of the emerging photographers who entered the Midwest Photo Emerge competition, 20 photographers stood out to be outstanding and were selected to participate in the exhibition.

Exhibiting artists: Kelly Chuning, Cedar City, UT; Dave Conkling, Grinnell, IA; Anne Connor, Madison, WI; Robert Gordon, Fayetteville, AR; Charles Hively, Brooklyn, NY; Brooklynn Kascel, Burnsville, MN; Sarah Kaufman, Philadelphia, PA; Jack Long, Grafton, WI; Molly McCall, Monterey, CA; Jacob Moffett, Nacogdoches, TX; Peter Nicholson, New York, NY; Ryan Perry, Silver Lake, KS; Hailee Potter, Savannah, GA; Nat Raum, Baltimore, MD; Rahshia Sawyer, Sterling, VA; Leah Schretenthaler, Milwaukee, WI; Peter Sitt, North Augusta, SC; J.P. Terlizzi, New York, NY; Dylan Yarbrough, Little Rock, AR; and Feifan Zhang, Chicago, IL.  

Ain't Bad Magazine

I guess my photography "Ain't Bad!" Per their website, Aint–Bad is an independent publisher of new photographic art. Founded in Savannah, Georgia, the collective is dedicated to publishing contemporary photography and text to support a progressive community of artists from around the world through online web features, printed periodicals, monographs, and exhibitions. I've been added to their online curation! Ain't–Bad is one of my favorite publications, so having my work featured is an honor! See it on their site!

A Southern Myth: Artist Statement

Many southerners have a deeply rooted pride in their identity. An identity shaped by their family, home, traditions, spirituality, and history. It's difficult for me to share this pride. Most often I feel misunderstood, stigmatized, longing for change, lonesome, and haunted. I think these same feelings are also characteristics that represent the South in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. A Southern Myth is a contemporary photography series that explores the relationship between identity and place. In other words, these images are the tropes of a young, lonely, middle-class white man searching for meaning in the American South.

Myth is used as a poetic device to narrate a struggle for both the artist and the region to maintain a sense of identity. Sometimes the role of myth is literal and symbolizes cultural stereotypes or southern spirituality. Many of the images in this series are enigmatic. I frame the context of the image to leave the viewer with more questions than truths. The first impression may not read this way, but the intended tone of this series is optimistic. The subject matter may be bleak or critical, but there is an underlying message of hope.

The process of making these photographs is meditative. I either arrive at an idea through meditation, or I just start walking. I choose a direction and amble through my surroundings. I mine the landscape for aesthetic value and patiently wait for happenstance. My process and concept are also informed by the material I use. The photographs in this series are made with large format and 35mm film. Using different styles of analog cameras allows me to create different levels of intimacy with the subject. Working with film is slower, cumbersome, and exact which makes me a more mindful photographer.

These images are important to me personally, but they also fulfill the role of art in contemporary society. A simple photograph can challenge the viewer’s perceptions of cultural practices. A Southern Myth proposes questions and ideas that relate to a broader discussion of identity in the world while encouraging the viewer to compare their interpretations of the work to their reality.

"One Take"

Arkansas Life Magazine created an ongoing project in which they give a local photographer a Polaroid camera, eight frames of film, a theme, and "one take" to get the shot. I was selected as the first artist outside of the publication to complete the project. See more on their website!