Resilience: Part Two of Three

Finding Beauty Amongst the Chaos of Change: Through the Liminal Waves

Sometimes you can’t see what you’re learning till you come out the other side…

We were never taught to navigate through sustained stress or how to overcome our instinctual response to trauma. 2020 impacted all of us, and as we emerge from the depths of all this change, I offer a different way to make sense of the jumble that trauma leaves in its wake. A compass to navigate with. In these articles, I draw on my own experiences putting myself back together: the importance of being seen and feeling understood, the power that comes with accepting my own individual uniqueness, and the bravery to be vulnerable enough to integrate all parts of my Self. I am able to emerge from feeling broken when I find the beauty amongst the chaos. We can all emerge from the breaking, leaving behind what once was, and become unbroken.

This series of articles is a compass for when we feel most lost.

Part Two: Through the Liminal Waves

I photograph underwater worlds. Photography is the medium that allows me to make sense of my raw, messy feelings, the hard feelings, feelings I do not (yet) understand. When I started creating images to visualize things I had no words for, I discovered a new space. A beautiful, complex, disorienting space. I had found liminal space — between old and new stories, where there is no up and no down.

Photographing underwater allows me to access those liminal spaces, spaces disconnected from any frame of reference. Some people see the images as uplifting and angelic, while others see descents into darkness. The liminal space does not impose my narrative or frame of reference on the viewer; they are invited to reestablish their own.

On July 7th, 2006, I was diagnosed with MS. Whether acute, chronic, or complex, trauma breaks your frame of reference. You’re thrust into a world you never planned or wanted to be a part of. But you need time to understand the jumble of emotions caused by chaotic events. Resilience takes time. To recover in the face of unrelenting challenges. To bounce back. To sort through and make sense of the jumble — trauma doesn’t come with a clear narrative. The condition left me partially blind in my left eye. Yes, a photographer who is partially blind. It feels just as ironic as it sounds. My livelihood, my passion, the thing that brought me purpose felt ripped away. I closed my studio and put away my camera, sidelining my Self.

Instead of being defined by the condition, I now use it as source material for my art, making sense of all my emotions that I do not understand and am too scared to share. Feeling seen helps to put my Self back together.

Entropy, which was included in the 2012 Dublin biennial, was the first series that displayed my broken frame of reference as I began in earnest to put the pieces back together after my diagnosis. In that series, I created underwater tableaus. Other worlds were made as I mixed organic materials with transparent images. To resemble air bubbles, I injected droplets with the same syringes I used for my medication. My art reframes what I make my chronic condition mean about me.

The environments I create wrap hard, complicated, incomprehensible feelings in beauty. Through beauty, I invite people to look deeper at feelings of shame, brokenness, and loss — all the vulnerable emotions that maybe you feel too uncomfortable to share. Showing the beauty within painful experiences and dark moments invites the viewer into a liminal space to find a new frame of reference instead of wrenching away from these hard feelings.

There are three elements in all my photographs: the figure, the water, and the material. The faceless female figure presents the feminine experience, the water becomes the traumatic experience, and the material is the emotional state when submerged in that experience.

Your instincts go into overdrive in chaotic events — your Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn responses are over-accentuated. However, you can choose your reaction. When you’re in those situations where your instincts take over, leaving you with shortness of breath, you must consciously slow your breathing down.

The underwater worlds I create simulate being (re)submerged in a traumatic event. One model and I have found a simpatico experience — a rhythm of working in silence without diving equipment. We hold our breath, and as the session progresses, we’re able to hold our breath longer. Deep breathing and the slow exhale will put your body in a meditative state.

In such a meditative, liminal state, you can process your subconscious emotions, so they don’t contain you, limit you, or define you. Sometimes you can understand your feelings, and sometimes they take over to the point that you don’t know why you said or did something.

So, take a deep breath and slowly exhale.

There is a connection between feeling unable to breathe and photographing underwater. I am placing myself and the camera in an unnatural environment. My camera — my most prized possession. Underwater. Cameras are not designed to be submerged. Naturally, there was the moment of truth. In the first session, I tested my gear countless times: sealing the camera, putting it underwater, taking it out immediately, and unsealing it to make sure it wasn’t drowning. I did that for several hours.

I have grown comfortable working underwater. It has returned me to the intuitive process of analog photography. Even though I work digitally, I can’t see each photo on the screen as I take it. I have to know, instinctually, when I have captured the image I want. The image that gives me space to breathe.

Like these images from We Are Not Made of Wood, many of my series can be viewed as rising or falling. You can’t figure out the direction. The direction is disoriented — skewing the frame of reference. I began submitting to art shows because I felt that these images needed to be seen. When I went to France after this series won the Contemporary Talent award from the François Schneider Foundation in 2012, I couldn’t speak French in the slightest. I couldn’t understand anything. It was discombobulating. Like being underwater.

After, We Are Not Made of Wood, an image from the following series was included in the CONNORSMITH 2013 Academy Invitational. This photograph exists at the edge of looking, and it can be seen positively or negatively. It has an Alice in Wonderland, down the rabbit hole element, as it expresses what I can’t articulate — that feeling of being in-between. Then, I take a deep breath and let the audience create their narratives, giving the photograph a life of its own.

My series Some Things I Can’t Explain includes this image. In the midst of life-changing events, questions inevitably arise. Questions that can’t be explained. Questions that reflect a disconnection with the Self and its environment. This series grapples with these questions. In this image, the figure crawls away from those questions, but she can’t escape.

My work continues to evolve as my ability to find beauty within chaos matures. I introduced color fabric in my series, What I Haven’t Told You. Here, the neutral, beige material represents the feminine emotional experience — the baseline emotion of who we are — while the colors represent the conflicting emotions that engulf us. The International Photography Society awarded this image an honorable mention in 2018 and exhibited it at the Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art. I cocoon the model in the material to the point that you can’t tell where the emotion begins and the figure ends. Because what you resist persists. The more I resist the feeling — and the more I try to be fine — the more I’m not fine. You must wrap your arms around those experiences so they don’t contain you, or limit you, or define you.

Such a guide is what we need, now.

No such curriculums are taught for navigating the aftermath of trauma, and no compass was given; it’s not in the everyday collective learning. We’re not taught how to deal with these things. We don’t know how to process or heal from traumatic experiences — we hide away the hard emotions. We need to be given the tools to find the beauty within these experiences.

My new work explores what we leave behind as we emerge from the breaking. It reveals the unbroken. The Color of my Lipstick Doesn’t Concern You — recently included in Undertow at the Open Art Exchange of Schiedam, Netherlands — is a visual guide through the liminal waves. It reveals the power of emerging from chaos: owning your vulnerability, integrating your entire self, and introducing that whole self to the world. My work has become more than finding my frame of reference; it now shows others how to find their way. To craft their story.

You must be brave enough to be the only person like you. Embrace the discomfort. Be patient. Be ruthlessly vulnerable. Take a deep breath and slowly exhale. That is how you become unbroken.

Be brave enough to be the only person like you — take a deep breath and slowly exhale — and become unbroken.

Acknowledgments

Nothing happens in a bubble, and this work would not have been possible if not for the visual artists before me; Laurie Simmons, Bill Viola, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and Robert Longo. The professors who showed me the way: Peggy Feerick, Sue Wrbican, Claudia Smigrod, Chan Chao, and Colby Caldwell. For the models that trusted and explored underwater spaces with me: Kelly Durham and Camillia Elci. To those closest to me and the countless hours of sense-making and critique: Neil Sawyer, Stephanie Booth, Asma Chaudry, and Paul-Newell Reaves.

Rahshia Sawyer is a creative professional and third-culture individual based in the Washington DC area.