Interview with Photographer Isa Leshko

CDS undergraduate student Jesse Dembo conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2012.


In your artist statement on Elderly Animals you state that you “began this series shortly after [you] had spent a year in New Jersey helping to take care of [y]our mom who has Alzheimer’s disease.” And that “the experience had a profound impact on [you] and forced [you] to confront [your] own mortality.”  Can you expound on this experience and how the process of photographing animals allowed you to speak about this experience?

By working on this project, I am attempting to conquer my fear of aging. My maternal grandmother had dementia during her later years, and now my mom has it. I am terrified of developing Alzheimer’s disease and I get nervous whenever I lose my keys or forget a person’s name. Photographing geriatric animals enables me to immerse myself in my fear of growing old.

In psychology there is a concept called habituation, which manifests as a diminished response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to it. One application of this idea is exposure therapy used to treat post traumatic stress disorder. A therapist exposes the patient to stimuli that trigger anxiety and distress. After frequent exposure to these stimuli, the patient becomes less fearful and experiences fewer PTSD symptoms.

I think in many respects I’m doing the same thing by repeatedly exposing myself to animals who are old or close to death. I also am taking these pictures to better understand my fears and hopes about what I will be like when I am old.

Mind you, I did not begin this project with all of these thoughts fully formed. In the very beginning, all I knew was that I was compelled to photograph this subject matter. It took several shoots for me to realize what I was doing with this work.

Does photographing animals instead of people provide a certain distance that allows you to explore these topics more fully? Or is your connection with the animals similar to that of your connections with other people? 

Photographing animals does not provide me with emotional distance, actually. I care deeply about the animals I photograph and I cry whenever one of them passes away. These animals frequently are near death and many die within weeks or months after I meet them. I spend several hours with them falling in love knowing all the while that they will break my heart.

I chose not to photograph my mother (or other people with Alzheimer’s Disease) mainly out of ethical squeamishness. I have deep reservations about photographing people who are unable to provide informed consent. I did not feel I had a right to photograph my mother while she was in such a vulnerable state. My mother was very concerned with how other people viewed her. I know she would never want people other than her immediate family to see her in the throes of dementia.

That said, I admit that I am very conflicted on this issue. One of my inspirations for my project was Nicholas Nixon’s images of elderly and AIDS hospice patients. Those images are so honest and raw. They never fail to bring tears to my eyes. I do not know for certain, but I suspect many of the people in these images were unable to fully comprehend what Nixon was doing when he photographed them. I am grateful that those images exist because I think they are important ones. But I am not sure whether I could take photos like these. I am still wrestling with this quandary. In fact, I have a few ideas for projects that I would pursue if only I could make peace with these ethical concerns.

Your previous work is of amusement parks. There is a very different connotation between amusement and growing old. Are you consciously addressing issues related to youth and aging?

I think the common thread between both projects is that they each explore a certain fear of mine. With Elderly Animals I examine my fear of aging; with Thrills & Chills, I look at my fear of not being in control.

I am quite frightened of amusement park rides which was why I began photographing them. The experience of being on a ride is ultimately about surrendering control, which is one reason why I am so terrified of these mechanical beasts.

I shot Thrills & Chills with a Holga camera mainly because doing so forced me to find beauty in imperfection. I tend to be a perfectionist with my work and obsess over the smallest details in my images. I found working with such an imprecise and flawed camera to be both frightening and liberating, akin to being on a roller coaster.

Your previous work has been with traditional modes of technology. Do you foresee venturing into any new processes, such as digital photography?

It’s an exciting time to be a photographer because of the vast array of technologies at our disposal. We have so many camera choices—from 8 x 10 view cameras to iPhone cameras. The line between digital and analogue processes is now completely blurred. Digital images can be printed in the wet darkroom or transformed into negatives to be used for contact printing processes like platinum printing. Film negatives can easily be scanned and printed as archival pignment prints.

When beginning a new project there are a lot of questions you should ask yourself before you even pick up your camera: why do you want to photograph this subject? Likely, there exist countless images of this subject. How are your images going to be unique? What are your goals for your work? What thoughts and feelings do you want to evoke through your images?

The answers to these questions will guide all aspects of your work: from the books you read while researching your subject matter to the gear and lighting you employ to the process you use to print your images. You should not have all of the answers to these questions when you begin your project. But it’s important to revisit these questions before and after each shoot, particularly in the early stages of your project.

I do love the look of images shot with a Hasselblad 503CW, which is the camera I am using for my Elderly Animals project. But, I admit that there have been points in this project when I wished I was shooting digitally, particularly when working in low light locations like the inside of barns.

I will be focused on my Elderly Animals project for another few years and I do not want to switch cameras mid-project, budgetary considerations aside. But, I am certainly open to working with a digital camera, if the right project came along.

You can find Isa’s work on her website.

Also, check out Isa’s recent interview in Photo District News found here.

Isa Leshko’s prints are in numerous private and public collections including the Boston Public Library, the Harry Ransom Center, Haverford College, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Her images have been published in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, The Guardian, Harper’s Magazinethe Houston ChronicleThe New York Times, and Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine. In 2012, Isa received both the Houston Center for Photography Fellowship and the Silver Eye Center for Photography Keystone Award for her Elderly Animals project. She has exhibited her work widely throughout the U.S., including solo exhibitions at the Corden|Potts Gallery, the Galveston Arts Center, the Griffin Museum of Photography, the Houston Arts Alliance, the Houston Center for Photography, the Silver Eye Center for Photography, and the Richard Levy Gallery. Isa’s work is represented by the Corden|Potts Gallery in San Francisco, CA and the Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque, NM.

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