Shannon Finnell is a New York based photographer who explores ideas of gender and politics through long term projects. She is currently working on We Are Women, a photography and dance collaboration examining the idea of women supporting other women. We swat down with her to discuss the influence of politics and place on her art practice.
We Are Women has been an ongoing piece since 2014 – how has it developed over time?
In 2014 I graduated from college with a degree in Studio Art and Peace Studies (From Goucher College in Baltimore, MD). It was from my schooling that I started to be seriously interested in how to marry these two disciplines but in a way that was more fine art and less community art. It really began as something I talked about with other women in my life. A combination of trying to unpack why women pull each other down and a way to connect more deeply with the women in my life. This period of time was full of amazing conversations and shared stories that I had with close friends, acquaintances, and even strangers at bars. These moments often left me with the realisation that every woman is grappling with this internalised misogyny either consciously or subconsciously and that’s why I wanted to focus on how women support each other.
When I got to New York, I was inspired by my roommate (who is a modern dancer) to work with her and with body movement – a subject that I find is a beautiful metaphor for support. Not only do women struggle to support other women, but we also find it hard to support our bodies and in return trust that our bodies will support us through life.
We Are Women can be viewed as being strongly activist in the way it looks at how women can unite to disrupt the system. Do you find that your art tends to come from deeply personal or political origins?
As a feminist and with my interest in social change, I think it’s important for my art to say something. Although the other projects I have done in the past have not been inherently political or as obviously political as We Are Women, I think even examining human nature or vulnerability is important in a culture (especially in the USA) that focuses so much on rising to the top in a capitalist system and the importance of monetary success. I think we forget about what makes us human sometimes in the rush of work/life.
With that in mind, I think my work does come from a personal and political place. Perhaps the personal is political when it comes to the arts and expressing compassion, vulnerability, and support. When we can connect with others, see how others feel, and experience a bit of something that is outside of our own minds and communities, I believe social change can happen.
You work with dancers to create We Are Women – can you talk a bit about the process of combining art and dance?
I think I was a dancer in another life. I find myself being wrapped up with awe at how beautiful and brave and fearless the dancers I work with are as we work on a shoot. It’s an incredible experience to give these talented ladies a few words or thoughts about the different aspects of support and then watch movements I hadn’t thought about unfold before my camera.
We work as a team (specifically with my primary dancers Lucy Wild and Therese Ronco). We often start our shoots with talking about experiences we’ve had this week, what we saw in terms of our own relationships with other women, or what we have all been thinking about. For example, we have recently been thinking about how mimicking others is a form of support. How seeing women represented in media or in your life can influence what you think is possible and how you can build off of those role models. From there, I let the dancers do what they do best. Their training in modern dance transforms into movements that are inspired by words.
You’re currently working on a MFA in Photography – do you have a typical artistic process?
Since I’m at the beginning stages of my MFA (just about to finish up my first year in May), I’m still exploring different ways of making.
Up until this point, I have always had a an idea that I think about a lot and then slowly design small projects that usually involve a repetitive action such a photographing myself every day (Sleep Project) or asking people to photograph me for social media (#ISpyShannon). It felt like collecting data.
However, since starting my MFA I have been playing with different methods. For (Not) My Home, I tried every idea that would come to my head, simply making sure I was consistently making work through a difficult transition. For We Are Women, I took almost 2 years to research and solidify my idea before I starting thinking about how to visually explore support. I think at the stage in the game it’s been important for me to at the very least keep making no matter how hard life gets. It’s those moments when you’re exhausted and emotionally drained and have no clean laundry left at home because you’re too busy to stop that you make your best and most interesting work.
What have been some of your main artistic influences?
I’ve been strongly influenced by Robert Frank and his work that he made after his photo series “The Americans”. The raw and vulnerable portrayal of pain have always stuck with me.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from Kara Walker and her ability to connect her personal experiences with racism and the collective pain, grotesqueness and seductiveness of slavery to a simple, powerful and elegant visual experience.
Recently, I have been inspired by Claudia Rankine and her poetry books, Aria Dean and her essay “Closing the Loop” and work by Ann Hirsch as they uniquely dive into ideas about body, identity and how to disrupt systematic oppression.
Your work (Not) My Home looked at the influence of spaces. You’re currently based in New York City but have also studied in Baltimore, how have these cities influenced your art practice?
This is such a good question and I find it interesting because since moving I haven’t really stopped to think about the actual differences these two cities have in relation to my work. I often dwell on the communities that I left behind when I moved to New York and the process of building new networks and communities here in this crazy city. All normal things when transitioning to a new place. However, I think New York really is an amazing city full of energy and full of potentially that as a creative I tap into. It’s accelerated my work in ways that Baltimore did not. Instead, Baltimore with its beautiful grassroots communities and passionate activists taught me about how important it is to fight for others and to disrupt the patriarchy and systematic racism.
Baltimore gave me my roots and my beliefs and New York has given me a place to run with them.
What are some of the issues you’d like to explore next?
Someone once said to me (I wish I could remember where the quote originated from) that every artist really only has three major ideas they tackle in their lifetime. These ideas may manifest in numerous ways, but the work will always circle back to three ideas.
My three ideas are women’s rights (feminism and womanism included), racism, and male fragility. I think I’m starting with women because I am part of this community and therefore feel a bit more confident in exploring how I make work, solidifying how I explore social structures and systematic oppression through visual means and in a productive way.