Manuela Thames is a photographer originally from Germany, now living in the US. With a background in nursing and alternative healthcare, Manuela turned to photography after the death of her brother and birth of her son in an attempt to make sense of the contrast of both loss and creation of new life.
You’ve said that after the death of your brother and the birth of your first son that you gravitated towards photography. What is it about this medium that you love?
I have always loved photography and felt drawn to it, but for most of my life it didn’t really occur to me that I could pursue it as anything more than an idle hobby, partly becuase I did not really have any confidence in my own artistic abilities. But still, I consistently found myself admiring artists, and photographers in particular. I strongly connect with photographs, but I cannot say exactly why.
I found out I was pregnant with my first child only a couple of months after my brother passed away, so obviously that was an intense time. I was in such shock over my brother’s death that I felt incapable of embracing a new life. The words that come to mind about that year are sadness, anxiety, loneliness, extreme nausea, and guilt (especially because I did not feel very excited about the pregnancy). In a way I disappeared for months and withdrew from the world around me, even people closest to me. It was such an interruption of my life that I think deep down something shifted directions, and despite the pain and distress (or because of them), new possibilities were opened up to me, as well as a new urge – indeed a need – to express myself as a way of dealing with all the confusion and tumult.
After my son was born, my husband bought us a DSLR camera because he wanted to take lots of pictures of him. I ended up starting to just take pictures everywhere and of anything. I began studying other photographers and taking self-portraits. The combination of birth and death, grief and joy really changes you and shows you a lot more about life, and I found this was the perfect time to start using photography as a way to explore, ponder, and express some of this.
How do you think your background in nursing and alternative health care plays into your practice as a photographer?
When I decided to become a nurse, I had very idealistic intentions – helping people, being there for your patients, possibly going to a developing country for a while, and so on. But when I was in nursing school, and especially when I started working in a hospital, I found it to be quite different than what I had envisioned – it was mechanized and impersonal, very high stress, and nurses were treated with very low regard which led to a lot of antagonism and power-plays among the nurses themselves and between nurses and doctors. I had a strong sense of not fitting into that environment, which exacerbated the more general sense of not fitting in that I already struggled with. Moreover, I was in the lung cancer ward, and so was frequently confronted with dying, terrible smells, bodily fluids, grieving families, etc., but had no way of dealing with that at an emotional level in such an environment. I can definitely say I cared about my patients a lot, but I cared about them in a way that could not be realized in a fast paced, mechanized, and hostile environment. I think I naturally approached patients holistically, which, after I had moved to America and left nursing behind, led me to become interested in alternative health care. The sense of health that this represents – a kind of “wholeness” that encompasses body, mind, spirit, community, and nature – informs a lot of my photography, including the corresponding sense of “disease” as fragmentation, separation, lostness, and the like.
What was your motive behind producing the work from Broken Mirror?
We had a mirror hanging in our living room that I always wanted to use in my pictures.
I had a vision of an entire series using just a mirror and myself as an object, which then evolved into the idea of using pieces of a broken mirror and playing with the distortions and partial reflections. Before I start photographing, I often have a very clear sense of what I want a picture or series to look like, and then I just need to get it out. In this case, I just took the mirror off my wall and broke it myself so that I could play around with the pieces.
I had been thinking about the way we see different reflections of ourselves throughout the day, not just mirrors but also windows or other surfaces. And each time I am surprised at how different each reflection is and also how different I probably look to others from what I think I look like. This has always brought up the questions of perception, truth, reality, and how a reflection can be really deceptive, even though it’s usually assumed to be true.
Broken Mirror examines themes of identity and the returning gaze of ourselves in the mirror. What kind of research did you undertake around this subject?
I didn’t do any “formal” research, in the sense of devoted studies to literature on this subject. However, I have long been drawn to literature of all sorts – fiction, popular articles, essays and biographies, and so on – that explore these kinds of themes of self-perception and distortion.
But I think most of the inspiration simply came from my own thoughts and reflections on this topic, as well as conversations with others.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I often get inspired when I wonder around in nature. I love the beauty, solitude and quietness. While going for a walk or hike I think about life, relationships, struggles and my thoughts can just wander. Occasionally I then get an idea for a picture or concept. Sometimes it is very clear and I know exactly what I want it to look like, and sometimes it is something I need to pursue and just experiment with.
I also get inspired by poetry, music, film, and most especially by photographers whose work I admire.
What’s next for you?
I am currently in the process of working on a new series titled “Milk Bath”. This time it won’t be a self portrait series, but portraits of a variety of people, and they all have to get in a bath tub filled with milk water. I don’t want to give too much away, but very broadly speaking this series will explore themes of dependency, equality, and unity.
Fairly recently I began working with musicians and bands and shooting work that they can use for promotions or album covers.
And of course, I am always working on getting my work published, exhibited and expanding my portfolio.