PHOTOGRAPHER SPOTLIGHT: Heather Whitten
The Photographer Spotlight is a recurring feature on the DFP Education Blog, where we chat with a member of the Documentary Family Photographers Community so we can get to know them better.
As we continue on with introducing our DFP Community Moderator Team, today we get to learn more about Heather Whitten from Tampa Florida. Heather is the definition of artistic vulnerability and her willingness to so candidly share her life is an inspiration.
Tell us about yourself
I’m so terrible at talking about myself. My basics are that I’m 32, married for almost 13 years (to a military guy), mother of four (10, 6, & twin 4 year olds), living in Tampa, Florida. I grew up in NC, lived in Arizona for 7 years and moved to FL 2 years ago. I’m an unflinching “truth teller”. I believe in making connections through transparency and vulnerability. Fuck shame. I taught a photography class for a few years and left it behind to find a way of bringing knowledge, support and confidence to others through ways that better align with who I am and the gaps I’d like to see filled in the community. And, I’m an open book. I love nothing more than hopping on a video call with other photographers to share my process and/or to talk through their shit with them “face to face”. So, don’t hesitate to reach out!!
Do you photograph anything besides documentary work? If so, how do you balance that?
I do not. I think I’m a little too much of a would-be perfectionist to do any work where I could feel like the responsibility of ALL THE THINGS is falling on my shoulders. With documentary work I can embrace that I am not in control of most of the elements at hand and I find a huge amount of comfort in it which leads to me feeling like I am able to thrive in any given situation! Limitation as liberation if you will!
Are there any projects you are currently working on? Tell us about them.
I stopped sharing my work a few years ago and have been playing “catch up” this last half of the year sharing images month by month. It’s been a great experience to cull through older images, to be putting work out in to the world again and to be connecting with others through it like I used to years ago. Also, a few months ago I kicked off two small groups from documentary photographers who feel overwhelmed or intimidated by the larger online communities. We meet via a live video chat once a week and they have both been really wonderful.
What do you struggle with and how do you overcome those struggles?
I have been struggling with depression and anxiety for a long time. There were times when photography was a therapy… or a way to help process everything during the low times. But, in the last handful of years my depression was very limiting to my ability to document my life (no matter how much I wanted to or how important I felt it was to do). And, in those moments, I just stepped back completely. I knew that I needed to let go of what photography had been to me and focus on getting myself to a better place, mentally and physically. I knew photography and the things that drive me in my work would always be there and that, really, I have my whole life to continue on making work. Giving myself the grace to let go not only of perceived outside expectations… but, even my own expectations and goals for a while was a wonderful practice that has brought me back feeling even more focused, confident and capable.
If you could give other photographers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Stop asking other people what they think of your work. Stop asking. Stop caring. Either for a select amount of time or forever*. I really encourage you to tap into what YOU like in your work or what YOU think is missing from your portfolio (if you’ve been holding back). And lean into whatever you find. Take those things and run with them for a while and see how you feel. I can promise you two things, 1. You’ll feel more confident and capable as an independent artist and 2. We as a community, as a world, will be all the better for being able to see things through your unique perspective.
*My little disclaimer here is that it is a good idea to “check-in” with people from time to time to hear from them what they are seeing in your body of work. Sometimes we aren’t able to comprehend the different ways our work can be interpreted. Knowledge is power. If you know some part of your work is being twisted you’ll be able to assess whether it’s something within or out of your control and adjust if you feel the need to (or not).
Heather, you are seriously one of our favorite people to learn from. You have a way of putting things into perspective which inspires us to push our work further.
Thank you for sharing with us.
And for our readers, meet us back in the Facebook group and join the discussion where you can ask Heather more questions on her Ask me Anything thread.