Feeling haunted by a sense of loss in her community and seeking creative ways to connect with new people, Kael Alford, photographer and journalist, began imagining how to bring the ghosts in. She started by finding her collaborators, storytellers united by their use of photographic images, and enlisted them to capture portraits. The photographs are meant to be imbued with loss, memory, anxiety, joy, and relief — the messiness that we all, as humans, carry with us. Her collaborators’ job is to document these emotions, to create a record of this time that we’re in. Photographers for the project, in addition to Alford, include, Ciara Elle Bryant, Greta Diaz, Diane Durant, and Christopher Sonny Martinez.
Alford also brought in Emily Riggert and Rachel Rushing of Sunset Art Studios, a social practice nonprofit organization, to design an art making/storytelling exercise as part of the project’s process. Relying on the hand (writing) and on the tactile experiences of gossamer-edged torn paper and sewn pages, Riggert and Rushing’s activity centers the project’s participants as the authors of their own stories — both good and bad.
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit outside at Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff with Alford and Riggert to talk about their upcoming community art project, entitled Ghost Studio, which is funded through a grant from the Office of Arts & Culture of the City of Dallas. The final installation of the project will be open from October 30th through November 20th at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center.
Kael Alford: During the pandemic, I was home with two small kids and not working very much, and I was feeling really like my world had turned inside out after some amount of time. I wanted to reconnect with people or do some sort of project that brought me back in collaboration with creative people. I looked for photographers and artists who I thought would be good at collaborating and telling people’s stories, because that’s kind of what I do in all of my work.
Ghost Studio is a pop-up portrait studio, but it’s not a photo booth. I call the photographs collaborative self-portraits or psychological portraits. All of the involved artists come with a practice that includes portraiture that isn’t about glamor or style for the sake of commerce; they’re artists whose work is about ideas related to personal experience, and they and use images of people to convey that.
We’ve created hour-long slots for sitters to sign up so that we can get to know them and hear their stories during this time, before we take their photographs. We’ll work inside and outside. For the week of the project, the space will function as our multipurpose art studio.
Space became such a problem during the pandemic for me, as a creative person, and as a mother with kids. All of my fantasies of a better life include more space. And I thought, well, there’s a community art center right there, so there’s the space. We are very fortunate to have these community art centers in Dallas.
Anne Lawrence: And what about you Emily? What drew you to this?
Emily Riggert: Around the time that [we were closing Sunset Studios’ physical location], Kael was coming to me with this Ghost Studio idea and, as one project subsided, the other one kind of grew — it seemed like a natural step to finally begin working together.
A lot of my work has to do with engaging people around making — or using making as a conversation starter. Her idea was to have a Spirit Wall, where people could share their stories and do something maybe a little more hands on before entering the portrait studio.
For this project, I’m going to create a living room in the studio. We’re calling it the Reflection Sala, (Sala meaning “room” in Spanish). After participants have their portrait made, they’ll come back and we will create a Vision Wall. The Spirit Wall might be things that we lost, or things that we changed. The Vision Wall will be a representation of how we would like to go forward from here.
AL: How did you come up with this title, Ghost Studio?
KA: I was thinking about how there were people all around me in this community who were having these very traumatic experiences with illness and with losing loved ones. These people had fear of interpersonal contact and they lost their jobs and homes, and yet they were invisible to me. These stories were not accessible to even me, as a journalist, because of the limitations of the pandemic.
I’m reading news all the time, and I was teaching at Eastfield College where my news photography students struggled to tell the intimate stories of the pandemic. We may take it for granted as photographers, but getting close to people was suddenly off limits. It just started to feel like there was this invisible army of stories around us that we didn’t have access to.
I felt my community was haunted, especially right in the midst of the pandemic, when I’d be walking through the street and I’d see somebody who looked so alone that I could just feel it. It was like vibrating out there, but I didn’t have an access point and I wasn’t doing journalism because I was a full-time caretaker. I was at a loss for knowing how to interact with the world.
Also, I really wanted to have a studio, a place without household clutter to think and work — I had that years ago, before we shared our house with kids and worked from home, and during the pandemic it seemed just out of my grasp. This is the ephemeral studio space. The Ghost Space.
When I told the Oak Cliff Cultural Center about the idea, they said, “well, we need to do this leading up to Día de los Muertos, it’s perfect for that holiday.” During Día de los Muertos the ghosts are all around us. The holiday celebrates the sweetness of life, and also celebrates the people we’ve loved and lost. They’re still a part of our lives — the ghosts are with us in a positive way.
Ghost Studio is at the confluence of these needs and ideas, a celebration of what is possible when we come together to make meaning in a safe space. It can deal with traumatic stories and worries in a meditative or healing way, and can bring a few members of the community together to show people that there are some common themes in our lives during this difficult time. They’re not alone; we are connected in some ways, even if we feel disconnected.
In the end, we’ll have this installation we made together. Then, when the exhibition is over, people can come collect their portraits and take them home. We are accepting donations to help cover materials, but thanks to the grant from the City of Dallas, we can offer the portraits for free.
AL: For someone who’s participating in this, what do you hope that they take away from this experience?
KA: Sometimes, I have a creative experience that opens a window or a door in my mind and makes me consider something I hadn’t before. Here’s another way of seeing things; new perspectives can be expansive. I hope this is a stop on the journey of making meaning out of the changes and the particular time that we’re in.
I think everyone has been impacted by this pandemic and the other significant events of the last 18 months in different ways. Again, I feel the stories vibrating around me. We have intentionally invited photographers from very different backgrounds, hoping they will encourage a diverse group of participants and visitors. I want to know what other people are thinking, people who are different from me; what have their experiences been?
Ghost Studio will be on view at the Oak Cliff Cultural Center from October 30th through November 20, 2021. Ghost Studio will hold community portrait sessions on Thursday, October 28th and Friday, October 29th from 4-6 PM, and on Saturday, October 30th from 12-5 PM.