“My Work That Makes People Uncomfortable is My Favorite”

Kate Sweeney combines the human form, color, and abstraction to challenge perspectives.

Columbus, Ohio-based photographer Kate Sweeney challenges perspectives by combining the human form, color and abstraction.

We discuss her residency at The Photographic Journal, her attraction to Mother Nature-made colors, and making work that challenges norms and makes people uncomfortable.

Your bio for The Photographic Journal there says you focus on the human form, abstraction and color. How did you discover the importance of that in your work? 

I’m drawn to the human body and color because they inspire me so endlessly, I am completely and utterly obsessed with both, and I’ve always felt a certain responsibility to capture people from a female perspective, especially other female-identifying persons. I try to combine the human form, color, and abstraction to challenge perspectives- what is the line between fantasy, memory, and reality, the in-between of awake and dreaming? This is what ultimately drives me to make work at all.

“What is the line between fantasy, memory, and reality, the in-between of awake and dreaming?”

What cameras and gear did you first start with and what do you currently use?

My very first camera was a pink Concord 110CEF that I got for Christmas when I was 7. I remember immediately taking photos of my sister playing dress up and shot 2 rolls of film of my hamster, Gus. I learned how to develop film in high school and shot with my Mom’s 35mm Nikon FG. That camera is incredible. I’ve always shot film as well as digital and tons of Polaroids. I had a Nikon d60 that I shot until it fell apart. Right now I’m shooting with a Fuji x100T. It’s my favorite digital camera I’ve ever had. I’ve never really been a techy kind of photographer. I’d always use the same camera for 6 or 7 years until it gave out. Always a 35mm lens. I have one very small continuous light. I keep it minimal. I’d shoot everything with a disposable camera if it’s all I had.

What has your favorite part of working with The Photographic Journal been?

I feel really fortunate to be working with them, it has pushed my work to a better place. There’s an irreplaceable sense of community there, and I trust my editor’s feedback. I have total artistic freedom on what I shoot for them, yet he’s not afraid to tell me to work harder. I need that kick in the ass sometimes. I always want to be better. I’m very blessed to be working with a team of people that is as obsessed with photography as I am. We all believe so deeply in every artist that we feature. We keep growing and it’s very exciting.

I love the shoot you just did with TPJ, 24 Hours in Catalina.” What was that experience like?

That experience was a total whirlwind. First time in L.A., first time meeting my editor at TPJ, Lou Noble, first time meeting the model, May Daniels, and we all met up that morning, drove to Long Beach, and got on the ferry to Catalina Island. It was a quick overnight trip, so we pretty much immediately got to work exploring the area and shooting. I’m all for new adventures and it was priceless. It’s also my absolute favorite way to shoot- outdoors, no plan, just me and the model interacting with the environment, never knowing what scene awaits us around the corner. I prefer spontaneity over planned creativity. For me, it allows more room for those magic, unknown moments. Those moments are so vital to my work. I was so happy with the results and feel emotionally tied to the photos in that series. I highly recommend anyone going to Catalina Island if they ever get the opportunity. The rest of the world kind of disappears while you’re there. And the cacti is beyond heavenly.

Do you have a process for how you decide on color in your work?

My color choices are always instinctual. I love color theory, but any decision I make about color is a gut feeling. I’m drawn to really weird color combinations, ones I’ve never seen celebrated before- you can probably find me drooling over the colors in construction sites or the produce section at any grocery store. I owe a lot of my inspiration to fruits and vegetables. I geek out over them! Mother Nature just created these colors?! And then they grow from the ground? And then we’re given eyes that can see them?! Blows my mind sometimes. So for me, nothing’s more representative of the beauty of nature than the opulence of the female body and food and plants that we are given from the Earth.

“For me, nothing’s more representative of the beauty of nature than the opulence of the female body and food and plants that we are given from the Earth.”

Are there any projects or pieces you’ve done that are particularly meaningful to you? 

Any of my work that makes people feel uncomfortable is my favorite. I never want my work to be solely aesthetic. I hope to challenge norms and make people think and react. Like, let’s confront how much society oversexualizes bodies. Let’s talk about periods and vaginas. Let’s be humans and celebrate our differences. That’s the most meaningful to me.

“Like, let’s confront how much society oversexualizes bodies. Let’s talk about periods and vaginas. Let’s be humans and celebrate our differences. That’s the most meaningful to me.”

What’s your favorite photo you’ve taken recently and why?

That’s such a hard question because I really only like photos I’ve taken very recently. Usually after the honeymoon phase with new work I end up being so overly critical of it that I end up not liking it anymore. Typical torture. Keeps me evolving I guess.

What has your experience been like in Columbus?

Columbus is fucking awesome. It’s the perfect combo of big-city and midwestern. I know so many people, myself included, that have previously moved to big cities like New York and LA and ended up coming back. It’s less competitive here and more about community- not just one person succeeding, but a whole network. The arts scene is thriving and inspiring. The majority of models and artists I work with are local to me. It’s fairly cheap to live here, too, so there’s much more time for exploration and travel. There’s an incredible surge of innovation and its citizens care about the city and its future. Lots of pride in Columbus and it’s forever growing.

Within your creative community, in your city or elsewhere, who inspires you?

SO many of them. I feel so overwhelmed with inspiration all of the time. There are a lot of young photographers that have been inspiring me lately… Grace Lillash, Chloe Lillash, and Hana Mendel, who all live in Columbus. Seriously check out their work. Chip Willis, also in Columbus. His ability to capture deep emotions from people, that have never been captured before, blows my fucking mind. I’m constantly amazed at the caliber of photographers these days, especially the young ones. There’s crazy inspiration all over the place.

As you develop as an artist, are there new places you want to take your ideas?

Literally anywhere. I have been so lucky to have worked with incredible people that help me to see the world in different ways. I will always allow the room for change in my work. I fully believe the best shot is the next shot. You have to look ahead. And keep your eyes open.

Keep up with Kate’s work:

Instagram / The Photographic Journal