Kitra Cahana: Questioning the Self
Kitra Cahana is just 25-years-old but the weight of her achievements so early on in her career is staggering. She has appeared on the front page of the New York Times and was named a TED Fellow this year. Being bestowed with such an honour means she joins a group of other young innovators deemed to have the potential to influence the world. In May she was awarded the 2013 Infinity Award for Young Photographer and she’s just getting started. I got the chance to speak with Kitra – who is wise beyond her years and so engaged with and immersed in her craft. Her work seems to contain some essential truth. The moments she captures appear unrehearsed and very much in the present but their revelatory nature is what makes them so stirring.
How did your passion for photography develop?
I started taking to photography around the age of 12. My father, realising my interest in art, dropped me off one early morning at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, and he picked me up at closing time. What happened in between was life changing. He then began giving me assignments to photograph through a positive emotional lens. He would say: This month focus on the word ‘happiness’ or ‘fulfilment.’ And then for a month, I would photograph through a lens of joy or compassion; always overlaying a narrative that corresponded with the word, whether real or imagined. This was photography qua therapy. It forced me to begin practicing each of those attributes. It began to shape the way I perceived my environment. His assignments allowed me to reframe the external viewfinder, whereby my own being in the world began to transform
Throughout high school I found myself repeatedly in the photography and art section of the library, pouring hours into the books studying what I liked and didn’t like about certain photographs and movements in art. Then, after high school I started working professionally as a documentary photographer. I was 16 years old and living in New York. I interned for the fashion and celebrity portrait photographer, Mark Seliger, but quickly realised that I wasn’t interested in fashion photography and celebrity portraiture. I started my academics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and found an internship at Ma’ariv, a daily Israeli newspaper, transcribing captions in their archives and tagging along as the other photojournalists went out to photograph daily news in the Jerusalem area and the West Bank. It was the year of the Israeli Disengagement from Gaza, so I had the opportunity to partake in documenting an event of international import. That was when I realised my ability and recognised my medium.
Who do you consider to be your major influences?
My grandmother Alice Lok Cahana is a mixed-media painter and writer and has had the largest impact on my work. She brought her experiences of being a 15 year old in the Auchwitz concentration camp during World War II to canvas. From a young age she taught me that art is testimony, art is memory, art is spiritual and above all, it is personal. A lot of my aesthetic interests are also influenced by her work. Her canvases are layered, textured, and deeply symbolic. She weaves the light with the dark, the broken with the divine. She conveys her message mixing photographs, objects, text and paint.
Do you feel it is important to become an expert on your subject before you photograph it?
I believe strongly in devoting oneself to a long research period before entering the field in order to become acquainted and familiar with the questions and conversations of the world one is covering. But one can and should never expect to be an expert. Ultimately our subjects are our primary source. They guide and collaborate with us to tell the final story. Anyone considering whether they would like to become a documentary photographer must consider whether they are ready to live in a perpetual state of intimacy-making. There are certainly different ways to arrive at beautiful and moving images, but few which circumvent the process of becoming close to the people you are photographing.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging aspect of my work, as a documentary photographer, has been trying to gauge how distant or close to my subjects I should remain. Positioning myself on the outside, again and again has over time put to test my notion of a self, not belonging to any world except the world of my craft. But being too close to one’s subject can blur the power dynamics naturally at play. In Anthropology it is almost incumbent upon a researcher to understand her subjects from the inside out, but not so journalism.
You’ve travelled to so many places and seen so many different things – is there a certain experience you’ve had during your travels that stands out?
This way of life is so full of radically diverging moments. One moment I’m living as a hobo, travelling across the United States, trying to translate the hardships and magical freedom of being an in and out-of the system vagabond, defining a nomadic way of life and in another moment I’m engaging with the realities of being the only woman in a 30,000 pilgrimage in Ukraine intended for religious men only. There is no routine, way of life or home. I have mountains of singular stories, but because of the vastly different lives I’ve been privileged to have, few are punctuated. Instead life as a photojournalist turns into a stream of endless peaks and nadirs of every flavour.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement to date?
I’m very proud of the work that I’m currently producing alongside my father. Two years ago, July, my father had a brainstem stroke that left him locked-in, totally paralysed with the exception of eye movement, but with complete cognitive capacity. I spent four months living with him in the Montreal Neurological Institute in Montreal, first in the ICU and then in the recovery ward. He communicated his thoughts through a blinking system, wherein the listener would recite the alphabet: ABCDEFGH… and he would blink at each letter, slowly, tenderly communicating whatever he wanted to say or write painstakingly letter by letter, word by word. This experience was a spiritual opening, for him as well as for me and for our family. As he regains his capacities, now able to breathe, eat, and speak on his own, with slight movements throughout his body, he feels as though he’s being reborn, but with full awareness of his body coming to life again.
What advice would you give to young, aspiring photographers?
My advice to young photographers would be to distance yourself from self-righteousness. Don’t turn yourself into the hero of your own stories. This is the antithesis to staying curious, staying humble and playful. It’ll burn you out and eat your spirit. When photographing social stories one needs to of course believe in the importance of one’s own mission, but I think a trait of great documentarians is that they meet their subjects as equals. They try to minimise the power plays and the natural hierarchies of the dynamic. They open themselves up to their subjects and allow the story of the other to be told through them, a kind of spirit possession of sorts. Being a tabula rasa does not mean being open for manipulation. But it does mean always staying on the side of searching for the deeper and the deeper question. One loses one’s humanity when one has lost one’s curiosity about another human being’s experience.
Where do you hope to be in the future and how will you get there?
In all truth I don’t know where I want to be. Artistically I hope to become more experimental. Journalistically, I hope to take on more topics of political import. I’ve recently been fortunate enough to have been picked as a TED Fellow, where I’ve been exposed to a network of brilliant out of the box thinkers and doers who are less motivated by profit, and more by innovating the world to be a more just and creative place. I am a firm believer in creating more autonomous zones and hope to use my work to support radical networks like Free Schools and the Open Source Movement.
Find out more about Kitra’s work and to have a look at her photography for yourself, visit her website and let us know what you think.