Sometimes through pain, comes creativity
Sarah Allegra is a photographer based in L.A and suffers from ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) which is also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Suffering almost everyday, Sarah often becomes tired and struggles with her daily activities, and there is currently no cure. But through what she experiences with ME, she has utilised for her creative products. Six years ago when her ME became worse, her usual creative exercises of illustration and painting became exhausting, as her tendons in her forearm would feel like they were on fire after she would paint or draw.
However, Sarah didn’t let that element stray her away from creating, so she turned to photography instead. Seeking help from her husband who is also a photographer, she learned the basics and he helped her switch off the auto settings and learn manual. From the beginning he showed her how to master various effects with her camera, and from that point forward, she fell in love with photography.
Several years on and Sarah Allegra is creating intrinsic imagery with some handmade props and a box full of ideas. Allegra often explores her condition of ME, which is reflected in “Incurable” and “Spoon Theory”. Her other images often incoporate fairytale elements and underwater scenes. Below is our interview with Sarah, talking all things creative!
*Please be advised there are images contained in this interview that are NSFW and is for creative purposes only.
Hi Sarah how are you?
Tired! But I always am, so that’s nothing new. I have myalgic encephalomyelitis (or ME, also known in the United States as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) and one of its main effects on me is constant fatigue; unreasonable, chronic pain is another. It makes creating more challenging, but also more meaningful, I think.
So tell us a little about yourself and how you became a photographer….
I’m a California native and I live in Los Angeles right now. My background is in illustration and painting (though I’ve tried just about every art form there is). Six years ago when the ME was first becoming really bad, I found that my forearm tendons would feel like they were on fire after I tried to paint or draw.
So my usual artistic outlet was unavailable to me, but I also felt the need to create more than ever as art is extremely cathartic for me. My boyfriend at the time, now my husband, is a great photographer, so I made him sit down one day and teach me camera basics. He helped me get off auto settings and figure out how to get effects I wanted in the beginning, and before I knew it, I had a whole new art love! Photography soon eclipsed all the other art forms in my life and became my driving passion.
Do you think that where you live as impacted your work in any way?
Living where I am now, and have been living for the last four years, has certainly been good my images! I’m currently on the inner edge of Los Angeles, almost in the foothills of the mountains.
That means there is a LOT of gorgeous nature within 3-5 miles of me in any direction. When I was living in the middle of Hollywood, I found ways to make it work, but I’m very glad to have so much beautiful scenery nearby!
It’s also been very interesting to slowly get to know my bits of nature. One particular woods I visit often feels almost like a second home to me now. But no matter how many times I’ve been there, there’s something new each time.
Last summer there were tons of incredibly, spiky, brightly-colored flowers, this summer there are almost none, but there’s an amazing, bright yellow vine that snakes its way through the other plants. I almost never know the names of what I’m looking at (though I’m very slowly learning) but it’s wonderful to be presented with exciting, unexpected new things each year!
So getting right into your photography, you said you create all your props and costumes? That must be pretty challenging!
I design most of my props and costumes. If it’s a pretty basic-looking dress, it’s probably something I found on eBay or at a thrift store. Anything really specific or elaborate is something I’ve made.
I do usually sketch things, at least in a loose way, since drawing is a comfortable medium for me. It also helps the models (if I’m working with models) to give them a better idea of what I want instead of trying to describe it. A pictures does indeed say 1000 words! Sketching the designs helps me make sure I don’t forget any cool details and gives me a chance to try out variations before I decide of the final design.
My husband is extremely supportive of what I do, so he’s always willing to lend a hand, but I’d say I do 98% of the work myself. I’m not good at asking for help, and I also feel rather protective of my creations, so I tend to be a bit of a hermit when I’m working on things.
Hands down, the most challenging costume was Dream World’s King’s costume, no contest! It was going to be modelled by author Peter S. Beagle, one of my very favorite authors, best known for his novel The Last Unicorn (though I haven’t ever read anything bad by him!)
He was going to be in town for a short time, I had a finite window in which to shoot it, I had an insane costume to make in not nearly enough time and I needed to invent a bunch of new techniques for the costume too. In the end, most of it was made out of paper (touching on Peter’s writing); the ends of his robe were gradually transitioning from fabric to paper which was curling off the ground; and that was all done in camera.
His costume really did that! Then I had his paper crown to make, a lacy collar made of paper birds flying away PLUS his two hand-maidens’ costumes (which had a lot of paper accents as well as a crazy prop each)… the weeks leading up to that shoot are a nightmarish blur in my mind now, but it was SO worth it. Every agonizing second. I was a lifeless, ME-ridden shell of a person for days after, but it was still worth it.
Your images are certainly mystical, do you plan your images beforehand or do you like to change things on the day?
I generally plan things out pretty completely beforehand, but I like to leave room for spontaneity and surprises. Also, one of the things about the constantly changing landscape of nature is that you’re never 100% sure of what it will look like until you’re actually there, taking the photos. Sometimes I have to think on my feet and make up new ideas on the spot, but I try to always have as much ironed out beforehand as I can.
Also, sometimes I’ll get to a location with a model and something will be different than I expected, but we try it anyway and I’ll end up liking the results much better than what I had planned! It’s good to be prepared, but I think it’s also important to embrace the unknown.
Some of your images are quite dark, but beautiful: what was your concept behind:
I took this shortly after getting my ME diagnosis. Currently, ME is very poorly understood; no one knows exactly what causes it, there’s no set treatment and there’s no cure. This weighed heavily on me at the time (and sometimes still does) and putting what I was feeling in a self portrait was the most healing thing I could do. It also helps people unfamiliar with ME, or even any chronic illness, to understand a little bit of what it’s like living with it. This image eventually turned into a series called Enchanted Sleep, in which all the images portray having ME in a way that’s informative but without taking away from their beauty and impact just as photographs.
End of Line
This image was mostly influenced by Battlestar Galactica, which I was binge-watching on Netflix with my husband at the time! The ever-prattling Hybrids (who always end their proclamations with “end of line”) which are part human and part machine had really caught my imagination so I used that as a jumping-off point. Quite a lot of my images have pop-culture roots, even if it’s not evident in the final picture 🙂
And other secrets
And Other Secrets is inspired by a short story of Peter S. Beagle’s called Salt Wine (which is the title of another of my images, also based on the story). The story is about two sailors who learn the mer-people’s method of making wine from salt water. This prove extremely profitable for them until… unexpected things start happening and it takes a tragic turn.
‘End of Line’ is beautifully composed, how did you go about planning that image?
Thank you! End of Line is one of the few images I have shot in a real, actual photography studio. Generally I do everything on a non-existent budget, but I’d been able to get a really good deal at this studio so I had it for a couple hours. I knew that the studio had a second floor balcony from which you could peer down onto the first floor, so I’d planned to make use of that height.
Once I was on the balcony and my model, Aly Darling, was laying on the floor beneath me, it just took a little bit of repositioning both of us to get it the way I wanted. I’d also like to point out, because it always amazes me, that that is ALL Aly’s actual hair. I did not lengthen or thicken it except for a couple areas where the wires were sticking up through it. I’m jealous!
The costume in ‘Soul Retriever’ looks like it would’ve been a challenge structurally wise. What was it like shooting with that?
That dress does have a pretty huge skirt, and it’s one of the dresses I made. I made it specifically to have a dress with an enormous skirt, but it’s length has been enhanced in post. I had my camera on a tripod and stood behind the model, actress April Grace, set off my remote shutter release and billowed her dress. I did that a number of times until I’d gotten enough different shots of the skirt flowing beautifully and stitched several of them together in Photoshop. It is quite long and cumbersome, but Photoshop helps make it more manageable!
Do you think photography ‘means something more’ in the eyes of the viewer if the photographer photographed the image with an intended message? (Such as ‘incurable’)
It certainly does for me! I like looking at art which has a meaning, even if I’m not entirely sure what the artist’s intent was. Riddling out the meaning, or finding my own in it, is what I like, so I try and create similar images in my work. Obviously, everyone has their own opinion about this, but that’s how I feel about it.
What sort of themes would you like to explore with your photography in the future?
I often say that anything I feel strongly about ends up in my work. For better or worse, I seem to have been built with an extra helping of emotionality, so I feel strongly about a lot of things. This can feel burdensome in day-to-day life, but I do think it helps my art. I like to tell stories with my work, create entirely different worlds, as in my Dream World series.
I like to promote awareness about issues I’m passionate about, such as ME with Enchanted Sleep, and a newer series called Glass Walls. Glass Walls started as a reaction to the documentaries The Cove and Blackfish, as I wanted to show the horrors of what were happening to innocent, sentient creatures for man’s profit and entertainment. It’s expanding into a series involved with animal rights of all kinds, although I’m still in the process of shooting a lot of the images.
Basically, it comes down to this: I want my photographs to say something. What they say will vary from image to image, but they all need to have meaning and substance for me to feel satisfied with them.
Some of your images are self portraits? It often takes a lot of courage on the photographer’s part to be involved in the shoot that way. When did you first start taking self portraits and what state of mind are you usually in on shoot day?
Yes they are! I actually started shooting self portraits, like Incurable, because photography started as a therapy tool for me. It was a while before I felt confident asking other people to model for me; I needed to know my camera better first. Being on both sides of the lens is a steep learning curve, but it helped me figure the camera out much faster than I would have otherwise.
As far as my mindset, it varies a lot from image to image. Some photos, like To The Lost (with model Katie Johnson) and “Exoskeletonation” both were coming from very painful places in me. To The Lost commemorates the life and death of a childhood friend who died, along with 18 comrades in the Granite Mountain Hotshots, fighting a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona last year.
“Exoskeletonation” was shot during a particularly difficult time I was having with ME, where it felt like I was losing more of my body every day. My body began to feel like a cage I was trapped in rather than my home. Shooting To The Lost was a very emotional experience for me; I remember fighting back tears as we worked, but for “Exoskeletonation”, I was able to detach from my emotions for a bit and just think critically about getting the image.
So you never quite know! Usually if I’m shooting a self portrait, it’s because it’s something intensely personal to me, but my mood during the shoot itself can span the whole spectrum of emotions.
What was the concept behind ‘spoon theory’? It reminds me a little of the work of Ryan Schude, a photographer we interviewed a while back..
Thank you! “Spoon theory” is a common phrase among the chronically-ill community, spanning many diagnosis. The phrase was originated by Christine Miserandino on her blog: www.butyoudontlooksick.com
Christine has lupus, but there are a lot of auto/neuro-immune diseases which share many symptoms in common, and ME and lupus are practically kissing cousins.
In her blog, Christine is explaining what having lupus is like to a friend and uses spoons to represent how much energy a person has for each day; the idea being that the “normal” people in the world have a LOT more spoons than we do. We have to be very cautious with how we use our spoons. It’s a phrase and idea that really caught on across the internet, to the point that a “spoonie” is used to describe anyone with any kind of chronic, incurable, energy-draining illness.
Since it’s such a big part of the community I now belong to, I wanted to create something that I knew they’d all immediately understand, and would help spark questions from those who don’t have those kind of health problems.
Have you collaborated with another photographer in the past and if not would you like to in the future?
I have, quite a few times! Usually it’s something of a photo-trade, an I’ll-pose-for-you-if-you-pose-for-me kind of situation, though there have been a few larger photographer get-togethers where it’s more of a free-for-all. I’ve been able to photograph Brooke Shaden, Sarah Ann Loreth, David Talley, Erick Reidell and of course, my husband, Geoffrey Ashley. It’s always a fun thing to do and I hope to meet and work with more photographers in the future!
If you could photograph in any location in the world, what would it be and what possible message would you employ in your photographs?
Gosh… it’s hard to narrow it down! I’d like to go to New Zealand, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, England, Oregon, Washington… so many places! Their landscapes feel endlessly inspiring to me. It feels like those landscapes are the true home of the creatures and people I invent, of the stories I tell. But at the same time, I’m a big advocate of using what you have available to you when you have it, so I try to use the nature here to represent my dream to the best of my ability!