Q&A with Ralph Wilson

With 25 years of experience as a photojournalist, Ralph Wilson has seen his work appear in USA Today and Time magazine, as well as numerous other publications across the country. He’s created with and met people from all walks of life, which is how his current exhibit, “STAY,” came to be.

The exhibit is a look into the world of depression and self-harm, done using conceptual portraits interspersed with letters and journals of those that have made the journey through – and also have lost – their battle to depression.

Wilson will be opening his exhibit “STAY” from 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Center for Creativity Gallery in the Pajama Factory, and will conduct an artist’s talk at the opening reception at 7 p.m.

The Sun-Gazette recently chatted with him to get a look into the journey from desperation to hope, and what “STAY” really means.

SIMONE BROWN: How was the idea of “STAY” conceived?

RALPH WILSON: The idea for “STAY” came out of talks with Kate Traxler, who was an intern working at my studio in 2013. She was working through both creative and technical issues of her senior art exhibit. That exhibit addressed a period in her life when she had contemplated suicide. Our conversations turned to more personal accounts of what lead her to that point and how it had affected her daily life since childhood. We reached a point when I asked her to collaborate on a body of work that dealt with the feelings she had and was experiencing. She agreed and the project was formed. The name, “STAY,” actually came out of a misunderstanding between her and a friend that gave the word a special meaning. The friend asked her to stay, meaning stay longer at her house. Not knowing that Kate was contemplating suicide. Kate interpreted it as asking her to stay in this world.

SB: Did you have the help of another photographer with the project, or was it just yourself?

RW: The project was a collaboration from the beginning with the photography student who was interning, but quickly grew to include fellow photographer Stephanie Carey. Carey and I have worked on various exhibits over the years and partnered in a commercial business for the past ten years. While she helped with the concept and producing the images, her role in this project was in front of the camera instead of behind the lens. She is the primary model and appears in each of the frames.

SB: How did you first get started in photography?

RW: I began creating photographs almost 50 years ago when my father introduced me to the process at a weekly newspaper he published in Western New York. I studied fine art photography and graphic design in the 1970s at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. I did personal work until 1991 when I began freelancing for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. I continue to freelance for the Sun-Gazette and Associated Press. I am currently phasing out the commercial aspect of my work to concentrate on special projects, such as “STAY.”

SB: Was it hard to find individuals willing to put their story out there and be photographed for this project?

RW: Not at all. It seemed like nearly everyone we talked to had been touched by the subjects of depression, self harm and recovery somehow in their lives. The general consensus was the stigma associated with these subjects needs to be erased and that will be best accomplished by open dialog and an increased awareness of the numbers of people this affects. People suffering from depression often feel like they are all alone. I found that people who have experience with it are eager to tell others that it’s not true. You are not alone. Although Stephanie Carey is the principal model in the project, we asked others to fill roles in scenes that involved interaction. Everyone we asked had a personal connection to the subjects portrayed and were more than willing to help put a face on the message.

SB: Was this a difficult exhibit for you to photograph and create?

RW: It was extremely difficult. I cried. It was a very emotional experience to research this project. We spoke to suicide survivors, and so you understand, a survivor is not someone who did not complete a suicide, it is someone who is left behind after losing a loved one. We listened to their stories of learning that a loved one was gone or discovering the loss themselves. We met people who are only here to tell their stories because some force stepped in and altered their plans to end their lives. Written words in the form of notes and journal entries are interspersed throughout the exhibit to give a first person voice to some who have struggled or lost their battle with the darkness.

SB: Did the exhibit take a long time to complete?

RW: Research started in April of 2013 and shooting started in June that year. The final print was processed in July of 2014. The project was shot entirely in one room that offered few amenities. We dealt with both high and low temperatures that go with the seasons of this region, along with the quality of available light in the area we chose. It was shot entirely with available light and reflectors using medium format, black and white film. We chose film over digital photography for two reasons. First, it makes the photographer think harder and pay more attention to the process. Secondly, it lacks the technical precision of digital and film seems to generate a look and feel of its own.

SB: The exhibit revolves around living with depression and healing – how do the portraits portray the hardship of living every day in a world of depression?

RW: We refer to the project as a travelogue into and back out of depression and it touches on three aspects of a life of darkness. It starts by identifying situations that can trigger depression in a person. It’s not a definitive list and a person’s mental health will determine how they react. From there we depict ways that depression manifests itself in some people. It touches on self-medication, self-injury, isolation and suicidal ideations. We feel that people mask those feelings and keep them as secrets held within themselves. The portraits are meant to say that other people understand and share those feelings. They are meant to get back to the message that you are not alone. We discovered a lot of statistics and social trends dealing with depression and suicide, but our exhibit doesn’t try to educate anyone on them. It is entirely an emotional view of the subject.

SB: What are the paths to healing that are portrayed as well?

RW: This is the third aspect of the exhibit. We depict ways that work for some people and there is a common thread that you have to find peace with yourself. We looked at ways that worked for the people we talked to. Some found it through art or religion; some through the support of friends or counseling. The exhibit delves deeper into all three aspects than I have mentioned here. The images are meant to be metaphorical. Some are more vague and offer more personal interpretation than others, but all are meant to let the viewer fill in the blanks based on their own experiences.

SB: Lastly, did you learn a lot from completing this project? Would you do something like this again?

RW: I did learn a lot. I learned a lot about myself and how depression is more a part of my life than I realized, but I also learned to understand depression better and keep it in check. I have learned to interact with people differently and understand that so many people I pass, even momentarily, may really be struggling with life and giving everyone the benefit of the doubt by showing a little compassion may have a huge impact on their wellbeing. In a broader sense, the project taught me where I want to go next with my work. I like mixing story-telling with art, and my medium is photography. I’m currently working on two new projects. One is a short-term essay on a period of my life that will probably be completed by the end of the year. The other is a long term project that is in a very early stage of development.