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Courtney Lowry (USA) is a photographic artist from Baltimore, Maryland. Her series Generalized Anxiety Distortions depicts her world and experiences after being diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder) in 2017.
What is your background in photography? How did you get started and how would you describe your practice?
I started photography when I was in high school. The arts program in my high school was really well-funded. We had darkrooms, cameras, and even film accessible for everyone to use. I’ve always been a storyteller. I used to write short stories all the time as a kid and then I found that you could do the same with photography, which is why I wanted to pursue it. I got my first camera (a Canon Rebel T3) when I was my senior year in high school. I was just shooting on vacation. I only had one lens with that camera. I was also shooting YouTube vlogs with it but then when I got to college, I upgraded to using lights, different lenses, and cameras. I never thought I’d get into studio photography because I’d always photographed outside with natural lighting. My practice is very introspective and it’s a reflection of where I’m at in my life. Each of my projects has a foundation of issues that I am passionate and about issues that I feel like I need to be spoken about. I like to get to know who I’m working with. Each time I shoot, I sit down with the person or people and I jump into deep questions just to get to know them on a personal level before we shoot, because I feel like bringing that human connection aspect to each shoot will translate into the project itself. I’m never going to just have a person pose for me and that’s it. I always take probably 20-30 minutes talking to them, ask them where they’re from, and ask them about their life. It’s not me photographing you and you posing for me. It’s us working together to share a story.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
What brought me to Hong Kong was actually a friend. She had told me how studying there changes your perception as a woman and as an American. So, I thought “I’m here. I’m gonna go take this moment.” I wanted to change because I’d been studying in Atlanta for a year and I was comfortable. And I loved it and I was just like “OK. I’m too comfortable now.” That’s the thing about me is if I’m in a situation for too long, I want to get a change and see life from a different perspective. But I soon realized, after being in Hong Kong for about two days, being comfortable is not a bad thing. I’d been in Savannah for quite some time and it wasn’t the best and then Atlanta really changed my perception of the city. Then, going to Hong Kong and feeling as if I was an alien was a bad transition. Already feeling alienated and isolated because of being black and then being female and then there wasn’t a lot of photo majors studying abroad–it was a lot of little things that built up into big giant barrier against me. In Atlanta, there’s a tightknit community. The campus is predominately black. I was really happy and comfortable. I had friends that I could talk about issues that affected the black community. To go from that to being like one of like six black students was incredibly difficult.
What was it about making these images that allowed you to ‘heal’? how did the process affect you?
These images allowed me to heal because for the first time I was addressing my mental health outside of myself in the form of a photo. My struggles with anxiety, depression and low self-esteem combined with physical health issues, like having the early stages of psoriasis and then getting a viral infection twice, I was finally able to come to terms with my struggles. I understood that I was going through a hard time. But being able to put those feelings on paper allowed me to heal because while I was photographing I was very anxious. Every little sound seems to set off another panic attack. For a while, I was just in this state of pure hypersensitivity: abrupt, quick, and loud noises. People getting too close. People being too loud. Certain smells. The thick, hot air clinging to my skin. If I wasn’t able to find something (I always got lost), I’d have another panic attack. If somebody didn’t speak to me that day, or if I didn’t do well on the test, I would crumble. These images stabilized me and allowed me to face the fact that I was struggling with my mental health, but it was possible to get out of that. Right after those images were created, I entered a state of self-awareness and rebirth. But I couldn’t stop turning over in my head that when I was presenting these images to the class, nobody gave a shit about them. It really bothered me as I stood up there and talked about the images and cried because I was putting my soul into them and people were talking over me and texting on their phones. It was the “perfect” way to end it because I, at that time, felt as if no one cared about me anyway.
How would you describe your relationship to anxiety and what role does photography play in helping you deal with it?
My relationship with anxiety is an interesting one. I remember having early panic attacks in elementary school because I was overthinking my projects and my assignments. Growing up, I’ve always been lanky, and I’m still lanky. In middle school, people would always comment on how short and little I was and that created a lot of insecurity and doubt in my appearance. Then high school brought the the pressures of having a boyfriend and going to prom and getting straight As. But if you got straight As, people would tease you about that. I never had a solid group of friends, and floated between groups of people. Most were toxic in high school. I knew I didn’t belong in my small town, so I spent free time reading and researching know to improve myself, but that wasn’t as cool as going to a party. I used to question God as to why he made me this way. I have always struggled with anxiety and never feeling good enough, but just when it comes to other people.
With myself, I know my capability and my drive and work ethic. I don’t know where I’d be without photography because it makes a different person. I was talking to somebody earlier today and they said, “you know it’s so funny that you’re so quiet in class,” after I told them about my process of creating new work. I don’t tolerate lateness. I don’t tolerate models being on their phones. I don’t tolerate poor attitudes during a shoot. I’ve even told models to go home. Photography is my life and to just have life wasted on other people is tragic. Photography gives me a sense of confidence that empowers me. I may not be good at everything but I know I’m good at this thing (photography). Photography silences the nagging voices in my head and makes me feel as if I have a place in this world.
What are you working on now?
So right now I’m working on a project about black male masculinity and that the stigma that comes with it. I was inspired by two films, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and Mid 90s by Jonah Hill. I knew I always wanted to do a project about black men. It took me two years to take to get the project going on to where I could execute it in a way that I was proud of. It’s been such an amazing journey. All the men I’ve worked with have been absolutely fantastic. I thank them for allowing me to craft my vision. It’s enlightening–bringing my own perceptions of black men and combining them with actual black men and hearing how they view themselves. What I’ve been studying in the last few weeks is the contrast between the hardness of the male and the softness of the fabric. At first, I didn’t know how to really get a grip on it. I felt lost, and it was an emotionally draining experience because I felt like a failure. For all of March and into mid-April, I was just grinding my gears trying to figure out what I wanted from this project. But overall, I’m seeing a new vulnerability from my friends I’d never seen before and it’s beautiful.