Sarah Race Captures the Party – Dayna McLeod

Sarah Race is a Vancouver-based photographer who documents the party. Coaxing out vulnerability and a queer sense of playfulness from her subjects, she fixes our gaze on glimpses of the fabulous, the sensitive and the raring to go. Her series, The Oddball, is showcased here, and she talks to NMP about her practice, Portland, and just exactly how she gets her subjects to expose themselves through the fine art of conversation.

Dayna McLeod: Where are you from?

Sarah Race: I was born in Ipwsich England and my parents immigrated to The States when I was about 4. But I grew up in Oregon. And I went to college in the mid-west and I moved to Vancouver about 6 years ago.

DMC: Why Vancouver?

SR: I was in a relationship with someone, so I was kind of like a queer refugee. That was before the marriage laws went through. That’s how I ended up moving to Vancouver. I didn’t stay with the person, but I did choose to stay here.

DMC: Do you consider Vancouver ‘home’ now?

SR: I’m always in a bit of a dilemma about that because I’m really attached to Portland emotionally. I love Portland as a city. There’re a lot of things that I can do in Vancouver that are more difficult to do in Portland.

DMC: Like what?

SR: I’m making my living doing photography here and I think that in Portland that would be more challenging because it’s a smaller city. There’s not as many commercial connections there. If you’re going to do that sort of work, then you pretty much have to move to New York, LA or Chicago- larger cities to start out. Portland is a difficult ‘starting out’ city.

DMC: What is the queer scene like in Portland?

SR: It’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty amazing, but it’s a lot bigger now -the queer scene itself- then it used to be when I was there. But it’s also kind of a small town compared to Vancouver. Everyone sort of knows everyone. And there are some elements of Portland that are really good because Vancouver housing is so incredibly expensive. But in Portland, everyone has a house and there’s space to do whatever sort of art that you do. Like you can play drums in a basement whenever you want because you live in a house or you could have a dark room. You just have access to space, and I find that in Vancouver that that’s quite limiting. So that’s one of the reasons that I’m emotionally attached to Portland. There’s access to space to do things. In Vancouver, you’re always kind of cramped. You have to pre-plan a lot.

DMC: Would you say that your photography practice in Vancouver is divided between a commercial one and one that is more artistic?

SR: I work for a couple of the gay presses here and I do stuff like that. But I also do a lot of photography work for different unions and political parties. Just doing some commercial –slash- event photography, and I also do band shots and things like that. That’s how I make my income, and through a lot of events. But it’s completely separate from the other stuff I do.

DMC: Do you separate these aspects of your practice? Are there similarities in your approach? What do you look for when you’re shooting?

SR: I think that the only similarity would be that I feel that I’m fairly good with dealing with people. I sort of have this instinct- I make people feel comfortable when I’m taking their photograph and I think that that’s an important trait to have. I see people who are starting out as photographers, and all of their technical skills can pretty much be learned, but that is more challenging, I find for people. When you’re nervous around people, it’s kind of difficult. But if you can do that thing where you can make people relax -there are professions that are like that, like hairdressers I guess would fall into that category- then that’s a skill that you bring in that affects people’s demeanor. I mean, stylistically, obviously it looks different because they’re looking for something different. But that’s definitely a trait that I bring into both the commercial realm and the artistic realm.

DMC: I’m assuming that with your commercial practice, time is money, and catching that perfect shot in event photography is so incredibly important. How does this type of time management affect your artistic practice?

SR: That’s kind of a difficult question because obviously yes you need time in order to… but you’re still thinking. My thing with time goes back to relating to people. If it takes 5 minutes to do a shoot, then you’re not going to have any rapport with them, and you‘re going to have an uninteresting image. It’s kind of like when people take a photo class cause they’re planning a trip to Mexico to take pictures of kids and stuff, even though they don’t speak Spanish. So some of those images are going to be interesting but the majority of the time, they’re really quite boring and the reason why they’re boring is because they’re not having any kind of dialogue with the person they’re photographing. They’re quite one-sided. So what I find interesting is when you have the ability to have a dialogue with a person and have them contribute. When I’m taking a photograph of someone, to me it’s more of a conversation. I’m taking the picture, but half of the time, I’m showing them the back of the camera too, “this is what it looks like”, “this is what it could be like”. It’s a conversation. And I think that’s an amazing element about digital photography, that you can have that conversation. But if you’re doing more fast-paced event sort of stuff, you can’t obviously do that. But it depends on the style with commercial work. If I’m doing band portraits or things like that that have a more creative bent, then I bring that into that practice. But if you’re under a time restraint, the images are never going to be as good. At least for me. For some photographers, that’s what they specialize in and that’s what they’re amazing and good at is picking up those images. To me it’s important to have that dialogue.

DMC: Collaboration with your subjects in both your commercial work and your artistic practice seems to be important to encourage them to let their guard down so that they can show us a side of themselves that they perhaps haven’t shown before. Can you talk about this relationship within the context of The Oddball project?

SR: Even with The Oddball project, that was somewhat rushed. It was a party, and I knew a lot of the people there- I mean I don’t really personally know them, it was sort of an East Van party. I already have a lot of rapport with those people. It’s kind of that thing where if you move to a town and you keep going to the same coffee shop over and over again, you might not personally know them very well, but you kind of think you do just because you’ve seen them around. So you automatically have an element of comfortability. And it was such an amazing, fun party. And the organizers did such a good job doing it with so much creativity, and there was so much great energy there. It was quite easy to photograph and have people feel comfortable for that environment. But a lot of times I would still show them the back of the camera to show them what was going on and sometimes I would photograph them in the party, and sometimes I would take them somewhere more interesting to photograph them in their outfits. There was always a dialogue. I’m not the kind of photographer who just goes up to somebody and just starts snapping. I always like to talk to people and approach them, and then take their photograph.

DMC: What do you say? What’s your photographer pick-up line?

SR: I try to keep it simple, “Can I take your photograph?” And then we just have a conversation and talk. I’m not opposed to people who take photos without asking permission, but I just find that I get better pictures when I actually do talk to them.

DMC: Do you find that there is a sense of performance, that your subjects are performing for you, or wanting to please you, that there is some sort of playful power dynamic there? With The Oddball series specifically, the images seem so joyful where you’ve really captured this sense of fun. But there also seems to be something else going on there. What do you look for when you make your final selection? What drives you? What is at the heart of your practice?

SR: I remember reading somewhere a photographer talking about his own photography and about how the most important aspect is, that you could have a really pretty picture, but unless there’s an element of vulnerability in it, it’s not interesting. And I find the exact same thing. What I look for in a photograph whether it’s mine or whether I’m looking at someone else’s photograph, when it doesn’t say anything to me- it could be beautiful and have amazing light, it could be spectacular, but if there’s not that element of vulnerability, and sort of awkwardness, it doesn’t say anything. And the reason why you have to have this element of vulnerability is because it brings out a little bit of humanity. Even though people can look at these and think, “oh, quirky, strange”, you know, with the costumes- “Odd”, “The Oddball”, but to me, yes, there’s the costume, but I like the element of awkwardness and vulnerability. And that’s pretty much, when I do the editing process, that’s what I look for.

In regards to the larger picture, I’ve never been one for large artist statements. I remember Diane Arbus -I watched a video about her once- and she said something about the reason why she likes the photograph is that there really is no other profession that you can get a key to other people, people you don’t know very well, and you can get invited into their house, have tea, have a dialogue and talk to people you might not necessarily have access to. And I really like that. I like the communication that occurs and the possibilities of meeting different people that you might not necessarily have a conversation with. That’s what drives me. It’s never even the end product of what I get. It’s that one moment of being able to talk to people. The experience itself is the most important aspect. Obviously I do a lot of queer photography, even just in general the events that I shoot, I meet so many different kinds of people from so many different walks of life. If I’m just walking down the street, I would never have the opportunity to meet them, let alone be invited into their lives. And I just appreciate that. I appreciate being able to have conversations and grow in that sort of way that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to grow or have access to, and I guess that’s what drives me. It’s amazing and great that I get to have these images afterwards. But the big driving force in my work is the ability to have that conversation.

Born in Ipwsich, England and raised in small town Oregon, Sarah Race received her first camera, a poloroid 600 when she was 10. She has since upgraded. She now resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, where she works both as a photographer and a digital retoucher, and continues to enjoy listening to the stories of strangers. www.sarahrace.com

Comments from old site:

Submitted by lyndsay (not verified) on Wed, 09/09/2009 – 18:02.

so nice! I love sarah race’s work and it is so nice to see this article… 🙂

Submitted by Lexa (not verified) on Wed, 09/02/2009 – 15:13.

Awesome.