Kiele Twarowski is an artist documenting her mental health experience. Through film photography, and particularly self portraiture, she finds connection back to herself – and that’s the theme of her new photo book, Longing. We chatted with her about the release, and how her mental health and film photography are entwined.
How would you describe the past two years of your life?
My first instinct was to respond to this question with all the gloom and doom I’ve experienced, but I don’t want to negate all the amazing things that have happened during that time. To put it lightly, the past two years of my life have been a roller coaster. There have been a lot of ups, which have been incredible. I was signed to a production company called Adolescent Content, and I had my work exhibited in two gallery shows in Los Angeles thanks to the wonderful women over at Girlgaze.
I lived in the south of France for 3 months while studying abroad and had the most eye opening and awe-inspiring moments while travelling through Europe. I was commissioned to shoot for an ad campaign for a collaboration between Amanda de Cadenet and Warby Parker. That was huge. I also won 2nd place in the debut section for PDN: The Look and was featured in their print diversity issue.
I think sharing these successes is important for a couple reasons, the first being that I want to share that despite having the appearance of being accomplished, you can still be struggling and suffering, even if you’re not showing it. The second reason is that I want to make it known that despite suffering and setbacks, you can still be successful! Adversity doesn’t have to hold you back from achieving your goals and doing things you’re proud of.
However, there have also been an unbearable amount of downs. I’ve spent the past 10 months or so receiving treatment for severe depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and complex PTSD. I’ve been in three different intensive therapy programs, have worked with a multitude of mental health professionals, taken 8 different psychiatric medications, and put countless hours into therapy. I had to take 2 quarters off of my senior year of college and won’t be graduating on time now. It’s been hell honestly, but I wouldn’t have changed the experience for anything. I’ve learned so much more about myself in the past year or so than I have during the rest of my life. It’s been so difficult, but I truly believe that it made me a stronger and healthier person.
How has having a camera in your hand helped you to recover and cope? Why do you think the process of photography can be so healing?
I think photography and shooting self portraiture helped me in terms of understanding myself. In dealing with mental illness, I felt such a disconnect from myself and others. My internal experience was so drastically different from my external one. Taking photos of myself helped to bridge that gap for me. I journal regularly about what I’m feeling, but sometimes I don’t have the words for what I’m experiencing. That’s where my camera comes in handy. I don’t have to label what I was feeling because my facial expression or body language can do that for me.
Taking photos has given me a purpose too. Depression tries to take away the things you love by making you lose interest or unable to feel joy, but I refused to let it take photography away from me. Even finishing a roll of film feels like a huge accomplishment to me. The solace and pride I feel from taking photos is something I will never let mental illness steal from me.
Why do you shoot primarily in film?
I’ve never liked digital. I took my first film photography class my sophomore year of high school and immediately fell in love. In the class, we shot black and white film first and learned how to develop it and make prints in the darkroom. I loved not knowing how the images would turn out when I was shooting. There was so much anticipation in not seeing what you shot until you went through this laborious process of developing the film with your own two hands, then had to spend a considerable amount of time in the darkroom to transform this tiny image on a piece of film to an actual photograph on a piece of paper just by using light and chemicals.
It was like magic.
I’m really introverted, so I loved putting headphones in and just being in my own world. I don’t shoot black and white too much anymore, and I haven’t been in a darkroom in some time, but the love of film stuck. I’m such a tactile person, so I love that film photography is such a hands-on process. There’s nothing better than getting your negatives back from being developed and holding them in your hands.
Have you always known you wanted to put a book of your photographs together? When did you realize that was what you were working towards?
I’m obsessed with photo books and magazines. I buy them any chance I can because they are so special to me. Being able to touch and hold a photograph and see it up close is such an emotional experience. I knew that this was necessary for my own book since the subject matter was so personal and intimate. Making a book was incredibly therapeutic for me. Putting the book together and having to relive the memories associated with the photos was really emotional and overwhelming for me. Sometimes I would have to take a step back and leave my computer because I would start crying or even have a panic attack. By continuing to work on the book, I was able to work through the feelings that were overwhelming me at first. I knew I had come a long way in my emotional growth once I was able to finish the book and feel good about it.
Why the title, Longing?
I am maybe the most nostalgic person in the entire world. The reason I take photos is because I can’t bear the thought of not remembering all of the special moments, the little details. Once I take a photo, the memory is cemented in my mind. It’s something I can never lose, even though the moment I took the photo has passed. The feeling I get from looking at my photos and remembering all of those moments makes my heart swell with this indescribable anguish that creates this larger than life ache. That’s what longing is to me. Feeling desperate to be anywhere except where you are. I have a really hard time being present in my day to day life because it feels like my heart is always elsewhere.