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Meet Sarah Wilson: Women’s History Month Highlight

Sarah Wilson is a photographer, cinematographer, film producer and co-founder of Go-Valley, the Austin-based production company. Sarah has worked with major publications like The New York Times Magazine, Time, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, and Texas Monthly. We connected with Sarah to learn how she got started in photography, projects she worked on during the pandemic, and her perspective on Women’s History Month.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your career?

My name is Sarah Wilson, and I'm a photographer and cinematographer. Photography for me started in high school. I have always been a creative person, but I ended up going to this art camp in high school over the summer and choosing both photography and drawing as mediums to study. I found that I was much better at photography than I was at drawing. I ended up getting some accolades for it, and it stuck with me. I kept going from there, taking classes in high school, and then deciding to major in it in college as an undergrad. I like watching people, I think photography allows me to observe people and help people tell their stories, help tell the way that I observe the world. I'm not really starting from scratch. I'm starting from reality in a sense with photography. So, it's kind of like just having an eyeball observation on the world. I don't know if that's an answer that you want.

Where did your career take you over the years after college?

Right after college, I assisted other photographers, fashion photographers, motorsports photographers, architectural photographers, and portrait photographers. So, I've helped different kinds of photographers. And I think I ended up absorbing pieces and parts of their skills, and I've brought them into my own. I always wanted to be a documentary photographer. I always wanted to work for magazines, to tell stories. True crime is kind of how I got started. I was really doing a documentary about a small town in East Texas where there was a terrible hate crime that occurred. But that brought me to work for Texas Monthly Magazine. It was a real goal of mine to work for them. It snowballs. No one can really predict where you're going to end up in a creative career. One opportunity leads to another, and then another, and then another. You have no idea sometimes how you got from point A to point B. I feel like I've had such an exciting, adventurous life through photography. I get to meet amazing people that have such varying interests. I get to be a fly on a wall, or even a participant in a whole lifestyle that is not exactly my own. But just through photography, I'm able to have those experiences.

What led to you wanting to make a difference and contribute your talent somehow amidst the pandemic?

I wasn't out there working. I was home with my family. We were quarantined, and kind of feeling a little bit helpless in a sense. That we couldn't do anything to make things better. A couple months in, my husband and I were talking, and we were like, "What can we do? How can we maybe make a difference?" And I thought about possibly doing a portrait project of essential workers. I saw on the news all these healthcare workers, teachers, and food service workers that were still going to work daily. But they were risking their lives to do so. They may have family members at home that they're putting at risk, but they've decided, "We're doing this, we're going in."

The folks that you saw that were out there doing this and bracing themselves. There were times when I felt as a photographer, that I wasn't out in the world. I wasn't interacting with anyone. But I had this idea that I really wanted to honor some of the people that were out there, that were putting their lives at risk by going to work every day. I decided to do a portrait project, to photograph some of the essential workers that were putting themselves at risk. Just to honor them and what they were doing for our community. I started reaching out to people, and photographing people at their place of work, and all masked up and safe. It was a very satisfying project, first to be out in the world again and meet new people. And then be able to honor what they're doing through this portraiture. I felt that was important. I think it was good for them, and good for me as well. I felt like I was doing something productive and helpful.

How did you come up with the idea for Essentials? Was it that then, or did the Essentials come later?

I thought I was going to photograph essential workers, men, and omen. Then I started to think about it. I am a woman; I am a mother. I decided to photograph and concentrate on essential women workers here in Austin. I thought about these women, many of whom are mothers. They're out doing these jobs where they're in contact with a bunch of other people. They're putting themselves at risk. Then they have to come home, and be a mom, and possibly put their own families in danger just from the work that they were doing.

I saw so much strength and determination through these women. They often help our community in so many important ways. I think that parts of our society may have just dissolved without them. They were very important glue that kept our community together. They didn't have to stay, they decided. They stayed with their jobs; they stayed in their work environments. And if they hadn't, I don't know. It would be much more difficult for our community group to rebuild. Many of these women had not only this difficult day-to-day career where they were in contact with the general public. They'd also have to come home, and be a mom, cook dinner, and maybe even take care of an ailing parent. I'm sure daily, that was so challenging and scary. But they kept doing it. The bravery and the perseverance of these people just really touched me, and I felt like I just wanted to find a way to really honor them.

I'd photographed one woman, and then she'd be like, "You really need to photograph this other woman. She's amazing." It would be kind of a network of people suggesting that I call someone else and highlight this other person. It kind of started to grow as a web in a sense. I had about 14 portraits at that time of women. I photographed a paramedic, a park ranger, a woman who worked at the voting polls. Just a whole bunch of different people of different walks of life. And at that point I thought, "Well, it'd be great to have a show of this work, so that the city could see these people, and see the portraits, and further celebrate them."

And so, I sent the work to the Dougherty Arts Center here in Austin. It's part of Parks and Recreation, this great art gallery. I thought maybe there'd be a way to have an outdoor exhibition of this work. Then I heard about this call for grant entry through the city of Austin. This public art grant through the city of Austin that was basically open to artists that were dealing with the subject of COVID-19, and how it's affecting our community. I submitted these portraits of these essential women workers, and they ended up awarding me the grant. Once I received this grant, things took a complete turn. Basically, the grant required that the community be involved in the project itself.

I had a wonderful person that I worked with who helped me create a call for entries from the community, where people within Austin could nominate the essential women workers in their lives. And upload a photograph, tell the story of this person, and why they inspire them. We received about 115 nominations. And from there, we selected 12 people to be photographed. And then these photographs became these large-scale portraits that were pasted on the sides of buildings throughout Austin, Texas.

One thing that I really loved about this project was being able to photograph the women next to their large-scale portrait, and just feel the pride and the beautiful energy. And them knowing, "Yes, I'm being honored." I think it was a pat on the back. "Keep going, you're doing amazing things. And we support you." It was kind of this beautiful ongoing project that changed, even after the pictures were on the wall. There were all these other layers that kept revealing themselves.

Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share about Women’s History Month?

I wish that we didn't have to specifically have a Women's History Month to remind us to seek out the stories of women in our society who have done amazing work.

They had to show up every day knowing that they couldn't keep themselves completely safe. They couldn't always do everything to keep everyone safe around them. They showed up every day and were problem solvers. Meeting these people, these women who were out there working, regardless of what was happening to our society around us, it was an inspiration to just do something, like take one step out of the house, take one step into the world, and do what I know how to do best, which is celebrate others through photography and celebrate other people's stories. I felt like that was my way of giving back during that time.

The everyday work of these women was so brave and commendable. I was inspired by these people who really had to, in certain ways, make it up as they went along. Everything was different. Everything had changed. The only way to move forward is to know that you might not do it perfectly. This portrait project, Essentials, was totally new to me and in a new territory. I knew that if I took one step forward and just started on something, regardless of whether the outcome would be perfect, it had to be positive, it was going in the right direction. From there, I feel even letting go and not looking for a perfect outcome, it was even better than I expected. I've started to learn that you have to put that one foot out. You have to take that one first step and try. It might not be perfect, but you might get something that's even better than you expected in the first place. I think when you don't worry about perfection, you start to experiment more. You might try different mediums; you might try different techniques that might lead you down a completely different path and on to something that's even greater than you expected from the beginning. Sometimes the perfect outcome is not what's important. It's the journey and the learning experience that happens in making the mistakes along the way. I think anybody can take that lesson into their own lives, into their own work.

Date March 08, 2023
Category Lifestyle