Bailey Kobelin is an artist from Berkeley, CA. This fall she will be moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA to study Sociology with a focus on Thanatology. I met with Bailey in Albany, CA to discuss her photographic work and her project Mortality Salience before her departure.
Would you say you're a photographer?
Yes, and no. Yes because that's what my business is advertised as, no because I don't like the idea of falling into a category. I would say people would approach my business as a photography business, in terms of commercial work, but I hate the word “photographer” because I think that I'm an artist. I feel that when you say you're a photographer people assume that you just take photos of things, but I feel that I make art out of shit. So I prefer to say that I'm an artist with a camera more than I am a photographer. That's not original by the way, I stole that from one of my favorite photographers; Kirsty Mitchell. I don't know who she stole it from, but she probably stole it from someone too
How would you describe your style of photography?
I would say I definitely aim for surrealism. But, I love to capture people in a natural way. I like to manipulate photographs, but my favorite photos have always been when someone is looking into the camera and you just capture them; not so much the elaborate ones all the time.
Why do you think you have a tendency towards the surreal?
When I started doing art I wanted to create realistic images but my drawing and painting techniques aren't very good. It's therapeutic for me, to draw and paint, but I realized that the realistic image I had in my head could only be made with the camera. I can't draw faces realistically, I can draw other things but faces are so hard for me. So that's when I started doing photography. Then I just realized that so much photography was boring and I wanted to make it weird; I wanted to make it creative and artistic. So that's where the surrealism comes from, it’s just seeing so much boring photography online.
What commitment does photography have to reality?
I think that people assume photographs are reality because you are capturing what’s there. But since the beginning of Photography people have edited and made fake images. Even now, people see Photoshopped things online or magazines and they think it's real. I like to present people as real; I don't ever Photoshop or airbrush people. At the same time, it’s false to assume that photography is meant to capture reality because everything is a perspective; even a documentary. Sure that's “reality” but it's the reality of the person who made the documentary; you're seeing it through their eyes. So, I don't think it does have that commitment.
Can you tell me more about your project and exhibition Mortality Salience?
I started this project about a year and a half ago. It stemmed from my sociologist side mixing with my artistic side. I wanted to do a personal project about death and dying and I decided that I would interview people and take their photograph, then I would share their stories. The title “Mortality Salience” comes from a sociological theory called Terror Management Theory. It is this idea that we all know we're gonna die, we all have mortality salience, but we're still afraid of it so we do things to avoid death in our daily lives. This theory talks about proximal and distal defenses. A proximal defense, for example, would be people hearing about death on the news and they just turn it off or you're walking down the street you see an ambulance and you just avoid it because you don't want to know. Little things like that almost everyone will do unconsciously to avoid death. Then there are bigger things like religion that say you're going to live on after you die. Not to say that a belief is wrong or right but it’s just the idea that you see in so many religions, this obsession and this clarity about how death isn't the end. So that theory was interesting to me and I loved this idea of mortality salience because there's a lot of people who think we should talk about death more and bring more death into our world and to think positively about death. There's a death positivism movement happening in the death work industry that is great and I'm really glad it's happening, but I don't always agree with being positive about death. I don't always agree with making jokes and being light-hearted. I think we should all have more mortality salience, more understanding that we're going to die. It's not loving it, it's not hating it, it's just recognizing it and talking about it. That's why I called the project Mortality Salience.
It started at Laney Community College. I took an independent study photography class because the professor I was working with said if I make this my independent class, I'll get to use the studio. The first five interviews I did were all in that studio. I got to sit alone with someone in a room, interview them, and then I got to take their photo. It was very personal. Then when the class ended I lost the studio space so I had to accommodate to how the project would change. I started asking people if I could go to their houses or if we could go to their favorite place or just sit outside. It did change the atmosphere. I think people are a bit more guarded when they're in public. One of the subjects I photographed and interviewed in the garden of her synagogue. So they were personal places, which I liked, but it did make for a less intense conversation in a way.
Do you remember any type of questions that you ask?
I asked personal things such as, “What do you want to be done with your body when you die?” I asked some more structural questions, “Do you think we have a death silent culture?” and then I always ended by asking if people would want to share a personal story of bereavement, if they want to share something about someone who they had lost. Pretty much everyone wanted to share something. I love that because that's the most personal question in a way and I wanted to avoid being invasive about it, but I found that everyone wanted to talk about it.
A lot of the questions came from the class that I was TA’ing for. For about a year I was a teaching assistant for the Sociology of Death and Dying class for Dr. Linda McAllister at Berkeley City College. I pulled a lot of questions from what the professor would ask students, and what students were engaged by. She really helped me with this. I think three community colleges in California have a death and dying class. So it is great that that class is available to students because people that aren't even interested in sociology or the subject of death, will take it and benefit from it.
Did you notice any themes and motifs in these portraits that you took? like Expressions or anything?
I think everyone had their own expression, but my favorite portraits were all the ones where people were looking right in the camera because it feels like they're looking right at you. It's powerful when you can see in someone's eyes that they're vulnerable. I think all of them had a little bit of vulnerability, people opened up. because I took their photo after we finished talking, I think that people were more open in the images, they were more relaxed even though we just had an intense conversation. It was great to be able to capture that.
I noticed that you said no photos specifically at this exhibition. Was this just for privacy sake or something more?
I decided I didn't want these pieces on social media because I felt that it was something that you have to experience in person and social media has been mentally hard for me lately. So I didn't want to put any pressure on myself for this project. I had each person sign a model release form and some people consented to being in the art show, but they didn't consent to being on social media. So far, I haven't posted any of this project on social media and I don't intend to, but I still had them check just in case for future liability reasons and because I care about their comfort zones. There were also some people in the art show that hadn't consented to social media, so I didn’t want anyone else taking photos. People respected it, I took photos for my own personal memory, but I didn't see anyone else take photos.
Was this limited viewing and not preserving it on social media an intentional performance of the themes that you explored? That things don’t last forever?
I hadn't thought about that. The art show was one night, but the pieces stayed up all month. So anyone shopping at Econo Jam Records saw it. Even if they didn't look at it, it was there for them to see. I liked that because it meant not everyone had to come the same night. I would say that for me it was more because I love reading books by artists that were making art in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I just find certain artists from those time periods inspiring. The thing that makes me so sad, reading their work, is how people used to show up for art and there were communities that were tight-knit and in-person. I found some of that here, but so much of it is “I like art online.”, “I like stuff on social media.”, which is great, but I wanted people to support my art in person. If I put the photos on social media, why would they come to the show? I have a friend who had a show and they put a lot of photographs on social media, which was their choice, but when I went to their show, I had a moment where I thought “oh, but I've seen all these pieces.” Seeing them in person was great, but I'd already seen them online. I wanted people to have to show up and be a part of that art scene and to come to the event, you know? I think it's important to hold onto whatever bits of in-person connections we have left
Would it be fair to say that death is an overarching theme in a lot of your work?
In my personal project, absolutely. I wouldn't say it's a theme in my music photography as much. In portraiture, I have been wondering if it's the fear of people dying that prompts me to take photos of people. Because they could just disappear and you don't have a photograph of them. I didn't like the idea of using photography as documentation until I started realizing how precious individual people are and how, when I look through my photos, I see this collection of queer freaks that I’ve been photographing for years. I like the fact that I have immortalized them in a way. Maybe it's a weird power trip, but it feels nice to be able to have images of people and you don't know how long they'll be around, how long they'll look that way, or what can happen in the world. So, death is constant and I'm always thinking about death, but when I photograph someone it's a collaboration. If we do something related to death and dying or we do something weird and artsy, it's also their ideas. So I wouldn't be able to say that every photo I take is related to death, you know, it's always a collaboration.
What relation does photography have with death?
The history of photography has a lot to do with death. Before there were photographs people would sit and have an artist paint them and it was to immortalize them. They wanted to live on forever because they were afraid of death and they were afraid of disappearing and they wanted people to see their faces. That's how photography started too. If you look at the history of photography, there was a whole market for post-mortem photography for a while. It was a form of immortalizing people. Because not everyone had cameras or were always getting painted, when they died the family would want a photograph because it was their last chance. So they would save that money until the last minute. It's interesting because it became such a prominent business that you had photographers making fake death photos because they wanted to advertise their business so badly. So many of the ones you see of corpses standing up are fake because you can't make a corpse stand up; you just can't, that's not how it works. I think that a lot of photography, at least portrait photography, really started with documentation and I think the source of documentation is just fear that something is going to disappear.
“Every photograph is simultaneously post-mortem and pre-mortem. That is dead and that is going to die.” - Roland Barthes. Any thoughts on that?
If she's talking about a moment and a person I could see it. Everyone you photograph is gonna die. Everyone you know and love is going to die. You're going to die. I've had friends die and I've seen photographers lose friends to death and I think it's beautiful that they have photos of their friends because they got to see this person and they got to capture them before they died. It’s special. Everyone I've photographed is going to die. I don't know if they'll die in my lifetime, but I like the idea that there are images of them that we both enjoy. I guess it's, yeah, it's like you're preserving someone.
“Life is a movie, death is a photograph.” -Susan Sontag
I’ve never thought about that. That's an interesting one. I guess it depends on what kind of movies.
I want to talk about your live music photography. First off, it seems really difficult to do.
It’s how I started. I started taking photographs because I went to live music shows and I really wanted to get involved in the music scene. I've never been a musician but I ran sound and I did photography starting at 924 Gilman when I was in high school and then I just fell in love with the energy. There's something really beautiful with doing a portrait session and having one-on-one moments with someone, but it feels so good to get a photograph when you have no control. When I shoot a live show, I have no control of where the person is moving, how they're going to be standing, no control over the lighting, etc. There's this adrenaline I get more with shooting live music because I never know if it's going to turn out okay and I never know what to expect. When I get a good shot during live music, I feel proud because it was really difficult.
What are the difficulties of photographing live shows?
It's competitive around here. I think I've only gotten two photo passes my entire career so far. I don't really shoot at big venues. I've only shot at two venues where I needed a photo pass. I got the photo pass because my friends were in the band. So I could do it; maybe, if I was driven enough. If I put my shit out there and wrote magazines. That's pretty much what you can do. Maybe I could have gotten more but I don't have the time for letdown; I really don’t. I see shitty male photographers all the time with awful photos, not fun, terribly muted, awfully edited, just crap, and they're shooting the biggest fucking bands and getting paid money for shit because they’re some dude with a fucking five grand camera and I'm a girl with a film camera. No one cares. I know that's so negative. I shouldn't be negative but it's true. Shooting live shows around here is this awful competition.
I shoot my friends’ bands and I shoot the artist that I enjoy. I've never tried to write for a press pass because it's scary putting yourself out there when people say, “no your work sucks.” or “no that's not what we want” or “that's too surreal.” I always get the “that's too artistic.”; people just want commercial shit. It's hard wanting to do concert photography because people want clean crisp beautiful images, they don't want anything different because they want to publish that shit and put it online and put it in their magazines, but it's just it's so boring to flip through photographs of bands just standing there singing into a mic. Why not make it weird or cool or capture some other emotions?
Sometimes it sucks because you still have to pay for a ticket. It feels like you're working and bands ask you for your photos and I’m just thinking, “but you didn't pay me and I paid to get into your show”. No one cares to pay someone to photograph a live show because everyone has an iPhone now. But, I've been trying more, especially with friends, to get put on the list and most of them are cool about it. Sometimes I feel a weird guilt, I shouldn't. If I know them they usually say yes, but sometimes they say no and it’s awkward because I'm still gonna show up for the music. I want to take photos because I love it, but then it's free labor so it's this constant fight between that.
I feel like the way you do live shows is more expressionistic of what's going on. I feel like I have a better understanding of the energy.
I think some of that has to do with the fact that half, more than half, the people you see on my live show page are friends of mine and I connect to their music. I don't do live shows for money, every time I photograph a live show it’s because I want to be there; I'm photographing music that I feel. When I do commercial photography, I don't always feel it. So the photographs are good, they’re what the client wants but they're not as emotional because I'm not in it, I'm not connected to the sounds or anything.
What venues did you frequent while you were doing photography around here?
Oh God, a lot. I started at 924 Gilman. I used to volunteer there and I would photograph as much as I could. That was where I really got to practice because no one gave a shit. Even if I didn't love the music it was a venue where I felt comfortable. I was volunteering there so it wasn't weird and I could go and stand in certain areas. So it was a great place to start. I photograph a lot of the venues that the local Goth and Punk bands play because that's the kind of music I like. I like a lot of smaller venues like warehouses, and things like that. It's really just wherever they take me.
Do you feel like where you grew up has had an influence on your artistry?
Growing up in Albany, and near Berkeley, and near Oakland, I feel that I was always surrounded by art. So I’m thankful for that. It's Berkeley, there's art everywhere, there are murals, and my mum's an artist so my whole childhood was always around art and that definitely affected me. But, Albany, when you don't have a car or when you're too young to bus, it's boring, it's filled with a lot more privileged people, a lot more white people, the proportion of racial diversity at my high school was not good. The high school I went to was not very artistic. I just wanted to push art boundaries a lot there and I got in trouble a lot. There are only a few weirdos there, it wasn't Berkeley High. There, everyone's weird and artsy but in Albany not as much.
Do you think your work will change from such a big shift of moving away from your hometown?
I think I'm always gonna have the same eye that I have. I noticed that in the work of a lot of photographers, the eye that they have, the compositions they choose are consistent. But, I think all my art has changed and will continue to change because I'm always going to change and the people I'm photographing are going to change. I hope to keep it up when I'm a student, but I know that time is crazy and I don't have a real place to live yet so I'm not going to be able to bring most my gear with me and that's going to be kind of a setback. I have to go back to not having good photography gear which is okay because the gear doesn't matter but, you know, it helps.
I hope to make more money from it over time. In the last few years I've really tried to advertise it as a business, but at the same time, it's never about the money. That's why it's so easy to say yes to free work because I love it. But then I have to charge because otherwise it’s not valued and people do take advantage. So finding that balance has been really challenging.
Any particular places that you're going to miss since you're moving away?
I'm really gonna miss Mountain View Cemetery. That's one of my favorite places. I started practicing photography there because the statues are so gorgeous and I would practice portraiture; how to position someone in the frame and how to work with prisms. I practiced so much in that cemetery, I lead tours for the death and dying class in that cemetery. It's very special to me, I’ll miss that place a lot.