Moments – every photo captured a particular moment in time and in it whispered a story, an emotion, an experience. This was what I realised as I browsed through Shelby’s photography albums on her website. It was impressive to see how expressive a single photo could get, as if you were reading an inner dialogue without even meeting the persons in the picture or the photographer. I formed the impression that Shelby was a philosophical person, contemplating life and wishing to discover the meaning behind it. I didn’t get a chance to check with Shelby whether this was an accurate conjecture, but from her answers in our interview, I would venture to say that I’m not too far off. Forgive me Shelby, if I have indeed got it wrong.
People say that an artist’s work is a reflection of his/ her voice. I guess that was what gave me the courage to make such a bold assumption about Shelby. Many of her photos featured nature, either as the central focus or in the background – but even then, you could sense that the protagonists were in awe of nature’s beauty. I was, therefore, not surprised when Shelby told me that “she had a love affair with being outdoors”. To her, this is a good way to get out in the world when one starts losing sight of what is important.
“Being in nature makes you feel small, and that’s a really beautiful thing.”
This belief has translated into many of Shelby’s photos, where people were often made small in contrast to the vastness of nature. Yet, she also feels this has posed difficulties to her at times when she wanted to take her photographs in the opposite direction and become closer with her subjects. Struggling between distance and intimacy is a conflict Shelby hopes to find a better balance to. She’s determined not to bow down to this challenge.
“I’d really like to push myself to get closer and learn how to incorporate much more emotion in my photographs.”
When asked to name an inspirational figure, Mary Ellen Mark was Shelby’s answer – an incredible photographer in capturing people and emotions. Enjoying telling other people’s stories through her own photos, Shelby found it enlightening to see how Mary Ellen conveys such intense emotions in her work. After taking a look at Ward 81 myself (Shelby’s favourite project of Mary Ellen’s) I could see the allure and why Shelby found her so stimulating.
“I don’t ever want to stop learning and growing as a photographer.”
Shelby is a dedicated photographer. Her journey began with darkroom photography classes at the age of 15. Perhaps this explains the reason for Shelby’s mastery of playing with light and space in her photos with the intention of getting to know her camera. “It’s so easy to pick up a digital camera and let it do all the thinking for you,” she said. “I didn’t want that to be my foundation for learning.” By choosing the analog route, it allowed Shelby to learn all about the history behind photography as well as how her camera functioned as a tool. The unique, tangible experience of rolling the film canister to making the final prints made her fall in love and inspired her to make as many pictures as possible.
Currently, the subject of her inspiration lies in death and dying. A taboo topic in many societies, death is something every human encounters at some point in our lives. This escapist human nature is what drew Shelby to the desire of exploring death’s meaning, especially in situations where someone’s occupation involves mortality.
Photography has become a new craze in which people have immersed themselves into these days. It records the plethora of moments in our lives. Because of this, I thought photography beginners out there would love to hear some of Shelby’s tips on how to improve. “Looking at other people’s work and seeing what they’re photographing can help generate ideas and serve as a model for style and aesthetic,” she advised. “While it’s crucial to do this, remember to photograph for yourself and not take things too seriously. It’s easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to others and end up feeling like shit. Keep in mind that there is always room to grow and you should never settle, but also remember to have fun and experiment with things.”
“…some people tell me that I’m a distant photographer.”
Perhaps. But flipping through Shelby’s photographs, my impression was more of amazement and appreciation. Amazed by the grandeur of nature and beauty of life’s moments she was able to translate in her photos; and more appreciative, as a result, of the wonders that life brings. Shelby Feistner may be an “impersonal” photographer, but I would say she is definitely a thought-provoking one.
“We have to remember to bask in beauty instead of being too far wrapped up in our own little worlds.”