Sarah Elizabeth Borst is a documentary and portrait photographer from the humble town of Davidson, North Carolina. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Photography from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Finding brilliance in seemingly banal, everyday occurrences, she is intimately and obsessively drawn to situations that stimulate the narrative documentary portrait. Sarah’s mother will tell you that she does not know a stranger. With adoration for humankind, people become characters and characters become her subjects. She thirsts to understand and relate to their condition through making their picture. For Sarah, photographing is an approach to process, understand and explore questions about America and the social gallery we have oh, so carefully and comfortably constructed for ourselves. In addition to being a finalist in the Lucie Awards in New York City this past Fall, Sarah has most recently been working in Hong Kong on Scholarship from Savannah College of Art and Design, and will be exhibiting five of her series in Sham Shui Po in January of 2016. In May, Sarah was named one of the top 7 seniors graduating in 2015 by American Photo Magazine on Campus, and featured in the Spring print issue. She will be starting in the Master of Fine Arts program at Duke University this Fall, earning a degree in Experimental and Documentary Arts. Today we share her series, Dagmawit.
Dagmawit is about nine years old, and lives in Savannah, Georgia. She is homeschooled by her two parents, Margie and Kevin, who also both work at the local health food store, Brighter Day. Brighter Day has been in business since 1978, and you can often find the original owners hustling and bustling around the small, “mom and pop shop”.
Margie and Kevin adopted Dagmawit from Ethiopia when she was about four years old. She did not speak any English when she came to the United States, nor did she have a birth certificate. Five years later, she is a bright, young, American girl, on the brink of teenage hood, articulating herself in a manner that most adults do not even know how to achieve. Mature beyond her years, Dagmawit can be found exploring the world of her quaint backyard with an inquisitive mind and eager eyes. She would like to be a Herpetologist when she grows up.
I have investigated Dagmawit in her space, documenting her interactions with the people and world around her. Interested in our pre-conceived notions of people or situations, compared to their realities, I have chosen a girl between the phases of childhood and adulthood to document- a brilliant Ethiopian girl, turned American- and explored the conversation that they generate.
The intent of this project is to continue the documentation of Dagmawit throughout the span of her life. Observing her relationship with the circumstances at hand, and recording her development into teenage hood, and eventually adulthood.
AB : Why Dagmawit? How did you get involved with her and her family? Did you have a relationship with her before beginning the series, or did you decide to photograph her before developing an intimate connection?
SB : I guess I should start out by telling the story of Brighter Day. So, my sophomore year at SCAD I started working at the local, mom and pop health food store, Brighter Day. Brighter Day is extremely unique in the sense that it opened in 1970, and is still run by its original owners Peter and Janie Broadhead, who are extremely active in the everyday breath of the place. Due to the nature of the store, there are quite a few employees that have been a part of the family for many years, Dagmawit’s mom, Margie, being one of them. After Margie and Kevin, Dagmawit’s Dad, found out that I originally came to SCAD to pursue my BFA in Performing Arts and was a classically trained ballet dancer (changed to photography halfway through) they approached me about teaching Dagmawit private dance lessons. Margie was not enthused by the idea of her daughter entering the traditional world of ballet, and all that it entails, so, I taught Dagmawit private ballet lessons in the vitamin isle of Brighter Day. I became extremely fond of this brilliant little girl and her two totally rad, hippie parents. Margie was also a good person to talk to about boy problems, and we all know essential that is.
AB : Did you ever formally present the idea to Dagmawit about photographing her extensively? What was her response?
SB : I originally proposed the idea to Margie. Now, it is essential to note that I had already been close to the family for about three years at the time. Seeing as Dagmawit was homeschooled, on some days she would often be sitting at the deli counter of Brighter Day doing her schoolwork while Margie would work in the store. Dagmawit would come hang out with me at the counter while I bagged customer’s groceries. She liked my jewelry and I liked her spirit. We just clicked. So, after getting the OK from Margie, I told Dagmawit that I was very interested in photographing her, and she was ecstatic. To Dag, a photoshoot meant we could have ultimate girl time.
AB : About how much time did you spend with her while working on the project? How did you find a way to integrate yourself into both her intimate and public spaces? Outside her home, where did you follow?
SB :A quarter at SCAD is 10 weeks, and I knew before it started that I wanted to work with her, so I spent those 10 weeks with her and her family. Seeing as Dagmawit is about 9 years old (as I said in my statement she is adopted from Ethiopia and does not have a birth certificate) I would go through Margie to plan out our photo dates. This was a very comfortable process because Margie and I were already good friends, and I loved our daily emails back and forth. Although Dagmawit is homeschooled, she is a very busy little thing! Between soccer, swimming, making iced coffee lattés with almond milk in the kitchen, spending time outside building her fort or in the neighbor’s yard with the chickens, the girl is booked solid. So, I would come hang out at the house and eat dinner with the family, or I’d join them at the soccer games, frequently becoming swept up in the experience and often forgetting that my goal was to photograph. I thoroughly enjoy assimilating into my subject’s lives, and often become close to them.
AB : In many of your other series, you seem to seek out eccentric people, or those who would be considered different or on the fringes of society by others. In my experience, these are the people with high guards due to that very same fact, and it generally takes some time to bring them out of their shell. Have you experienced this? How do you cultivate a space of trust while wielding a camera?
SB : This is true. I’m still not sure if that is intentional or not —the seeking out part. I grew up in the theatre so I am naturally drawn to those who perform in their day-to-day lives. Sometimes I honestly feel like I am a character of myself. Ha, so poetic right? Jeez. Though, yes, I will admit that I am attracted to those who challenge our traditional ideas of the social hierarchy, or the “social gallery”, if you will. Though, my goal is never to exploit. Rather, my camera gives me access to discover and reveal something that I otherwise may not have access to. It is my excuse to spend time with my subjects. It is my “in” into these people’s lives. But to answer your actual question, yes, sometimes it is very difficult to break through the preformative aspect of the project, and a lot of invested time is required. So, I’ll often use a few of the initial, performative photographs in the final edit of the series to compare and contrast to the final images taken. Seeing that growth and development over time becomes addictive. I will also say that being completely vulnerable with my subjects is an essential aspect of what I do. I mean, one day I was having a mid-life crisis (even though I’m only 22) when I went over to photograph Dagmawit at her house, and totally broke down in front of her the moment Margie asked me how I was. That became a really beneficial experience for the project because Dagmawit no longer saw me in this artificial light, as an older girl with no problems, whom she had to impress. I think she really respected that I was willing to let my guard down, and started to let hers down too.
AB : Related to this, concerning Dagmawit specifically, there aren’t many people more self-conscious out there than pre-teen girls, especially ones coming from an outside culture into a country as polarizing as America. How much of a role did this play in the work? Have you ever been afraid that Dagmawit would view herself as different in a negative way because someone with a camera was specifically interested in her life?
SB : What initially drew me to Dagmawit was her contagious confidence. She is able to light up any room that she walks into. She’s just one of those people, you know? She does not noticeably doubt her identity, and part of me wonders if this is because she has been kept away from the “mean girls” of elementary school. Of course Dag has some friends that are her own age from doing extracurricular activities, but a lot of them are my age, or her parent’s age. Like I said before, Brighter Day is like a family, and we all tend to spend a lot of time together. So it has become an essential part of Dagmawit’s community, and I believe that has matured her in a way that most adults haven’t even reached. I will admit, that the pre-conceived ideas I had about puberty and pre-teen angst initially played into my interest in Dagmawit. I think part of me wanted to go back to that time in my life, to relive it, and come out the other side understanding a bit more about myself. Even though I looked for that “idea” I had about self-conscious pre-teens, that is not what I found. But, if I had discovered what I was looking for, how boring would that be? Instead, Dagmawit trumped my intentions, and revealed a beautiful human on the brink of adulthood, avoiding the technological traps that the kids of 2015 seem to be falling into by the millions, and rising above it with a life full of nature, good food, and great parents. The challenge with Dagmawit was not getting her comfortable with the camera. That photograph of her in the red dress is from the first day we spent photographing together. Rather, my goal became to show that sort of image, the red dress one, acknowledge it’s performative existence but then strip it to the point where she was no longer interested in the camera in the same way. About halfway through, she was so over the camera, and just wanted to talk. That’s when the magic began.
AB : So far, how much of a change was there in your relationship as the project moved forward? There must be a bond or some kind of intimacy that has been developed – how have you seen it evolve?
SB : In my experience, there is something that manifests itself in the space between the subject and the photographer that has the possibility of resulting in electrifying chemistry. I get as much out of the actual click of the shutter as I do in the experience surrounding it. I adore Dagmawit, and all of the subjects that I have worked with for that matter. It is the human relationship that is catalyzed through the project that continually draws me back in, leaving me thirsty for more. This kind of work is rooted in trust — a trust that the subject will not be taken advantage of, or manipulated in order to convey a particular message. There was an unspoken expectation between Dagmawit and I to be open in exposing our weaknesses, as well as being comfortable in displaying our strengths. Through this mentality, together we were able to get to a place of comfort in vulnerability.
AB : You’ve stated that you would like to continue the project through to her adulthood. How do you think this will be possible, and what is your ideal end result for the series? Do you hope it will specifically benefit Dagmawit and her family, or is here a larger aim towards girls of similar ages that come to live in places outside their own cultures?
SB : My dad is always telling me to stay out of the “results business”, and anyone who knows me knows I am an absolute control freak, and that this kind of thinking is very difficult for me. But, I think he’s on to something there because whenever I try to project a message onto my work, it ends up feeling artificial and forced. So, I am going to embrace the organic process here, and document this young woman developing into an adult woman outside of her native culture, in a place as spectacularly unusual as Savannah. The nostalgia and messages of identity will follow. For me, that is enough, and that is exciting. Savannah has a special place in my heart after spending the last four years there, so I have no doubts that I will be back for regular visits.
AB : How did you become interested in photography?
SB : Through dance, actually. Like I said before, I grew up in the theatre and was always surrounded by louder-than-life characters and glitter. There was a lot of glitter. I felt like there was beautiful chaos surrounding us at all times and by gosh SOMEONE had to document it, and that someone just ended up being me. I would carry around my secondhand canon rebel to all of our shows and record our lives. It was fantastic. I’ve never lost the thrill in being able to hold on to moments, and I feel incredibly lucky for that.
AB : How did you become involved with Aint-Bad?
SB : So I sent Carson and Taylor a sappy email about a year ago expressing my interest in becoming a part of the team, they approached me in the Fall, and the deal was done. I say sappy, but it was genuinely sappy, not annoying sappy. I hate annoying sappy. I used Aint-Bad (and still do) as my contemporary photographic encyclopedia, and it was actually one of the reasons I started becoming interested in Graduate School. I feel so fortunate to be on this team.
AB : What is your favorite memory or experience from working with Aint-Bad and why?
SB : Just one? Umm, let’s see. I mean when I joined Aint-Bad I not only gained a position working on a project I really believe in, I also gained this incredible group of friends. I think It’s really cool that we can professionally work together, as artists and art enthusiasts, as well as thoroughly enjoy getting a beer (or two) together at the end of the day. I mean, we really love each other’s company and that is totally invaluable. Going to New Orleans for SPE this past Spring was a blast, and I can’t wait for Vegas.
AB : How has Aint-Bad changed your perspective on contemporary photography and how has it affected you as an artist?
SB : In Aint-Bad, we all bring something unique to the table. Although there tends to be a certain aesthetic we are drawn to as a whole, I think that has begun to expand and push the boundaries of what contemporary photography is right now, in 2015. Seeking out these artists and their bodies of work is a thrilling experience. You feel connected to the contemporary scene in a significant way, as you are actively making a difference in artists’ lives by giving them a platform for displaying their work. I’ve become as invested in the promotion of work I believe in done by other artists, as I have in the making and advertising of my own. I think that’s pretty cool.
AB : Most Aint-Bad members are in a time of transition, what’s next for you and your work?
SB : Oh MAN, well I’ll tell ya what, I actually start Graduate School on Monday to get my MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. It is a two-year program, and I am nervous, eager, anxious, elated, pretty much all of the above. I have not narrowed in on what I want to tackle this semester, but I am very interested in seeing how I become involved in the community in Durham and how that will naturally spark some sort of new adventure. I will say that in my past work I tend to be very drawn to working with women, and that may be something I want to continue to do more intentionally. We shall see where the wind takes me.
To view more of Sarah’s work, please visit her website.