You might recognize Tabitha Soren from her time as a newscaster for MTV News. But that’s a different story. As a graduate of Stanford University and the California College of the Arts, Soren has built an impressive body of work as a photographer. Among that work is a series called Running, which has spawned two Blurb books. These tense and dramatic portraits show people in desperate attempts to escape. While she leaves the catalysts for her subjects’ flights ambiguous, she punctuates the series periodically with images that suggest disasters or subtle disquiet. It’s all part of what she describes as the “Running universe.” And it is all encompassing—after going through the images in her book, one feels a little on edge, so infused is the series with a palpable sense of panic.
Tabitha will be talking about her photography and storytelling on June 26 at the Hattery in San Francisco (get tickets here). But she also took some time to talk with us about her journalist past, photography present, and, of course, “Running.”
Blurb: Can you please talk about your “Running” series?
Tabitha: I wanted to see people on the verge of something but I felt like my portraits were too static. The most intense way I could think of visualizing that was to ask someone to run. I started out shooting friends but eventually was able to also put myself in the uneasy position of shooting strangers. The fight or flight response is something everyone is familiar with. In these pictures, archetypal figures struggle to escape or arrive – the viewer cannot be sure. Uncertainty, chaos and vulnerability infuse the “Running” universe. A theater of the absurd unfolds as the pictures describe our shared instinct to survive. The figures run – but they also stumble, grimace and lose composure. They are both wounded and heroic. The shoots themselves were sometimes similar to a roller coaster ride.
Blurb: What about the technical side?
Tabitha: On a technical note, dramatic light is really important to the pictures—so that decides quite a bit about where I shoot, which direction and when. Each image is a mixture of available natural and artificial- as the pictures are a combination of constructed artifice and uncontrolled motion. There isn’t really a decisive moment—as much as shooting and letting power of accident take over.
Blurb: How has your journalism career influenced your photography?
Tabitha: My photographs probably look the way they look because television and working with moving images is where my experience lies. I hope that each Running has a story we want to know about. Why are they running? What are they running from or to? I like the fact that with a still image you can expand the narrative beyond the breadth of the frame. The still image is frozen so it allows elemental fears to made visible in a way that a viewer might not notice in a moving image. However, during the shoot, the movement of running provides an excellent opportunity for loss of control, un-self-consciousness. It’s really a very dynamic combination.
The canvas is different, but my photography work seems just as focused on being true. In news, I was focused on the truth of the story of the day. I was observing the outside world and translating it for my audience. To me, a photograph is a place to observe your inside world, your interior life. Americans are often in too big of a rush to bother. I am often in too big of a rush. Art is the antidote. I look for imperfection. Everything that moves me or captivates me, can often be found in the space where things go wrong, or fall short. Journalism was a very different challenge. For me, the act of photography bears some relationship to how we consciously manage the uncontrollable set of possibilities that exist in life. That’s what I want to see pictures of.
Blurb: What key things do you think about when sequencing a book?
Tabitha: I shot over a period of three years. I am still shooting, actually, because I felt like I didn’t have the pictures I needed to make the sequencing of the book perfect. I may be editing the books for three years at the rate I’m going! I’m trying to make sure the “Running” book is it’s own entity and that the pictures build up a momentum as you page through it. The exhibit included 24 pictures of 24 different people in 24 different locations. I don’t think that changing protagonists and setting every single page works well in the “Running” book. I’m breaking up the exhibition images with lots of interstitial pictures without runners in them. I am hoping that look like they are from the point of view of the runner. I’ve been toiling away at it for about a year. I think I’m on Version 17! Thankfully, I have several other projects that I’m shooting. Otherwise, it’d be crazy-making. I am a total photo book nerd so it’s really important to me to get it right. I’m attempting to produce an honest to goodness photo book – not a monograph.
Blurb: What’s the thing that you’re always trying to capture in your work?
Tabitha: As an art photographer, I am after emotional truth. The spirit of the enterprise is a lot more important to me than whether or not the image is cropped, or if it’s multiple exposures or even if it’s not an actual photograph. All bets are off in contemporary art. I often wonder–perhaps perversely–if these days only the “staged” can be authentic. I try to avow the power of the fictional–the concocted, the made-up–in my work. To fabricate without irony–to fabricate in pursuit of some vision or truth–is perhaps the skill I am always trying hardest to learn.