Rana Young (b. 1983, Missouri) is an MFA candidate, Othmer Fellowship recipient, and Instructor of Record at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Rana also serves as an on-call Exhibitions Technician and Installation Photographer for the Sheldon Museum of Art. She is a recipient of the Society for Photographic Education 2016 Innovations in Imaging Award and has been exhibited in group exhibitions in galleries such as Newspace Center for Photography and Midwest Center for Photography, as well as being included in public art projects such as Photolucida’s “Then.Now.Here”. Before returning to the midwest for graduate studies, Rana spent six years living in Portland, Oregon. There, she earned her BFA from Portland State University, held gallery internship positions at Blue Sky Gallery/Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts & Black Box Gallery, and served as a freelance photographer for “Willamette Week”. Today we share an interview with Rana about her latest body of work, The Rug’s Topography.
The Rug’s Topography began with me photographing my intimate partner of six years, staging him as a conduit for my own fears and insecurities. These anxieties arose in response to distance widening within our shared private space. You could say we were growing apart romantically while we were growing up together. We were coming to terms with what roles we served in our relationship based on examples from our upbringings. When my partner revealed his internal struggle with expected gender roles, I started to re-evaluate the expectations that I had projected onto him. We ultimately determined we had compromised beyond our comfort zones resulting in a mutual acceptance that the context of our relationship could change, but our emotional intimacy did not have to be sacrificed.
The staged portraits and ambient photographs create a cyclical narrative capturing the push-pull through the liminal space between the performative self and the expected self and serve as my reflections on the trajectory and circumstances within our relationship, past and present. The vantage point allows access into the private domain to witness the madness of self-discovery. The ebbs and flows of growth redefining identity are highlighted through themes of intimacy, transition, and introspection within the home.
Why did you decide to photograph your ex partner as opposed to a new or current partner? Isn’t that a little awkward?
I’ve always been more comfortable photographing those close to me, especially when the context of an image stems from a personal experience or my own internal dialogue. I feel the result I aim to convey is best elicited from the inmate process of creating an image with someone who knows me as well as I know them. When first making the work, Matty and I were still together romantically. I knew I wanted to make imagery that depicted the private space — our private space — and served as reflections on the transitions and trajectory of our relationship. In retrospect, I could sense Matty’s internal struggle and something felt “off” between us. I first related these feelings through my work by focusing on the insecurity that can arise when you may not feel particularly comfortable in your own home. When Matty told me what was going on, it made sense with what I had been feeling and expressing creatively. We were determined not to let what we were going through create a rift in our friendship, and have been able to lean on each other and live together outside the context of our previous intimate relationship.
As our bond with one another evolved from romantic partners to something different, the work I was creating also evolved and that is how we ended up here. I like to think of this later iteration, in which we are engaged now, as more of a collaboration between Matty and I. Working together alleviates any awkwardness we may encounter from the imbalance of power often occurring between photographers and their subjects. If I could offer one piece of advice to the viewer, it would be to try hanging onto the people close to you and don’t let it get awkward if you can help it, even if you realize that the expectations in your head of what role they were going to serve in your life can never be realized.
Do you feel like you have total and complete access to your subject even though you are not together in the same way anymore?
To be honest, I think I have much more access now than ever before. When people have secrets, when they aren’t being honest with who they are inside, it’s obviously difficult to foster a partnership. We’ve definitely achieved that great sense of friendship where we can tell each other anything. In terms of the work, this new sense of trust has helped us make better photographs. As the subject, he’s not as worried about how I think he “looks” and I’m more inclined to take the work to places that are more uncomfortable; it’s an organic process with communication serving as a threshold into an expression of the emotions that we might otherwise be inclined to keep bottled inside. We realize what we have gone through could have ended badly, but the separation, for us, was personally and creatively liberating.
The work is very cinematic, is this on purpose? What goes through your head when composing a photograph?
Our most surreal moments in life parallel powerful imagery in films and I wanted to make allusion to the scenes that move me through emphasizing what I was witnessing. These images aren’t pure documentation, but are heightened reconstructions or projections of my perceived environment. The body of work contains depictions of the performative self, the expected self, or the liminal space between. Accompanying these are symbols that reference time and place. They become signifiers of personal cycles of evolution encompassing the threshold, transitioning between public and private, the portal or barrier between these realms, as well as the literal or metaphorical mirror embodying the process of self-reflection. The cinematic aesthetic lends itself to the blending of a personal narrative told through a constructed/staged reality.
With this being said, I guess what goes through my head when I compose a photograph is to achieve a balance between the very intimate moment that occurs organically and the theatrical moment that presents itself cinematically. Life, for many of us, is comprised of moments balancing or navigating between these two realms and I hope the representation of this dichotomy comes across in my work.
Because you are still living together, this work is ongoing. At what point do you think this series will come to an end?
We’ve committed to living in the house (along with our other roommates) for another couple of years, so I imagine when the the home can no longer serve as the vantage point for the images, this particular body of work will come to a close. However, I’ve been making images with Matty for over 7 years now, so it’s safe to say that the potential for future collaboration is pretty strong.
How does your family and his react to these images?
This is a little crazy to admit, but some of my family did not know that we had separated before they saw the work and I guess that just goes to show how natural it was for us to transition into the friendship we have now. In a sense, I was able to use this work as a segue into talking about our new chapter in life with them. Matty is estranged from his family so I do not believe any of them have seen it, but I think the people who know us best understand why we are making this work and how it relates to who we are and our connection to each other.
Besides still images, do you think that other media could play a roll in this work such as audio or video?
Definitely. Currently, we are working on a few video pieces to accompany the images. Although the work now stands as still frames, I’ve always thought of portraits as having more life, more sense of time than just a singular moment. I often think in narrative form, and while we can certainly comprise narratives out of photographs, video lends itself to narrative storytelling in a way that can be enriching to the overall experience of viewing. In addition to video, we are also incorporating letters, recorded conversations, saved voicemails, and personal objects/artifacts with the hopes of creating an immersive experience for the purpose of exhibition. I think that this work could also have multiple manifestations: an immersive and interactive environment with film and artifacts could be accompanied by traditional prints or even a book. To me, it’s more about the entire experience than any particular media. A definite goal is to provide a rare and precious glimpse into the madness involved in knowing oneself.
To view more of Rana’s work, visit her website.