An interview with Ryan Vaarsi, writer and photographer for We Are Juxt, now Grryo.

Reproduced with kind permission from Ryan Vaarsi. Thank you. 

Originally published in October 2013 by We Are Juxt.

It comes from everywhere nowhere, this dark matter we offhandedly refer to as Inspiration. It is weird and intangible and elusive and seems to be in all places and none simultaneously. Some find it in a field of daffodils on a bright spring morning, or the splendor of the Milky Way draped across the Kalahari sky. Others come by it in the torment and challenge of a mud run or time spent in a black-lit dungeon with a leather-clad midget whipping the holy hell out of them for $200 an hour.

And there are those rare souls who can find Inspiration in the darkest moments of their lives. The kind of times and circumstances that would send most of us screaming for the exits at full gallop. Michelle Robinson fits this last bit. She survived an abusive childhood and subsequent mental breakdown and, through some alchemical miracle and years of working on herself, has become a talented artist and dedicated mother. She’s also dabbled in law and high finance from time-to-time.

Her mobile photography regularly wins praise, despite her protestations to the contrary, and she recently produced a series of photos chronicling her abuse, collapse and rebirth called The Secret Story. During the course of a wide-ranging exchange of emails we discussed the worlds of art and mobile photography, the greater glories of Vegemite, and the ways in which quantum mechanics informs us as photographers.

R: Ryan, M: Michelle

R: Tell me about yourself. You’re Singaporean by birth and live in Adelaide, Australia. What does a day in Michelle’s life consist of?

M: A day in the life of Me consists of everything to do with being a stay-at-home mother. I was doing a visual arts degree because I wanted to learn the traditional techniques of photography, i.e. before film: glass-plate and pinhole. I had a go at it and totally loved it, but my daughter’s schedule means that I have to be on-call 24/7. So on the outside I am just a regular mother and photography is my outlet since as far back as I can remember. Mobile photography is where my love for art and photography come together.

R: Your 24/7 schedule is largely because your daughter’s a competitive swimmer, right? Does her schedule force you to be more opportunistic with your photography? Do you have to “make” time for photography?

M: No, I don’t make time for photography. That is what the mobile phone is for–it’s the new point-and-shoot. I always had a point-and-shoot in the car so that I could hop out and take a photo of a flower or something that caught my eye. Now the camera is in my phone and therefore on me, near me all the time. It’s an attachment. I’ve tried to open my garage door with it.

People who love photography are keen observers, I feel. If someone has to make time to take photos, that means there is a likelihood that they only take one type of photo and therefore limit themselves to experimentation and exploring boundaries. When I am hunting for inspiration, I don’t scroll any of my feeds on IG or EyeEm or Flickr because often people stick to a “style” to cater to their audience. I tend to hunt on certain European art networks where the photography tends to be more abstract, more of an element of surprise, more artistic, and often more holistic and definitely not generic.

R: You attended law school but opted to go into finance, rather than becoming a barrister. How did that come about?

M: I was an idealist. My final year at law school was when the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 were released due to miscarriages of justice, mishandling of evidence and confessions due to police coercion. I was a left-wing, tree-hugging, student but that was a given because, coming from Singapore–where freedoms of thought and speech were not so welcome–I embraced Liberal ideas and opinions. I was a Greenpeace supporter, I went on my first protest march in London against the student poll tax and also found that I really, really dug (and still do) Garage and House music.

On the last day of my Bar exams I threw down my pen in the paper called Conflict of Laws. I loved the subject but thought, “What the fuck, I don’t want to be a lawyer?” I flew home disgraced. So I had to get a job and finance seemed noble and professional enough. I was a money market broker, brokering millions of USD on the money market between banks in a room full of men, shouting at the top of my voice. All of my repressed rage was suitable and the entertaining of dealers fed my alcoholism. Then I became a private banker of sorts–high net worth clients with too much in their bank accounts. A lot of responsibility at a tender age of 23 or 24-ish. Fast forward to throw it all in because I couldn’t see the point of another pair of designer shoes and I got married to an Aussie.

R: That seems like a good lead-in to talking about The Secret Story. It’s an incredibly personal, very powerful series of photos. In some ways they seem confessional. What motivated you to share such a traumatic part of your life with the world?

M: The Secret Story… It was time. I don’t know how else to explain it. I was ready. I always knew I was going to tell my story one day, though I thought it’d be in words. But visually, I feel that more of my emotions are in the image than 1000 words.

Most of all, it’s in preparation for when I tell my daughter. She can recall when I was in the hospital. But she only knows I have issues with my brain. It’s now more physiological and neurological than psychological.

One other reason is the number of people I have encountered who have had violations to their persons and haven’t spoken about it. Being a victim and survivor, I can tell. Pain is drawn to pain. I have been confided in through the years. Not everyone has the opportunity that I have had with the level of care that I’ve received. But many cases are not as severe in the post-trauma phase as mine has been. I want to show those people who have kept it a secret that it is okay, that you can  get to a peaceful place, that breaking the cycle of abuse is possible, that you can stop the manifestations of abuse–whether they’re alcohol, drugs, or any kind of addiction. Most of all you don’t have to be superhuman to do it. The brain is an ever-powerful tool, which gets used wrongly so often. Moreover, with all the specialist help around, people give up too easily. Discipline is not an easy thing but it literally is this: keep on doing the doing.

I share my story because I want anyone who comes across it to know: whatever issue a person has, no matter how big or small, it CAN be fixed. It’s just a matter of seeking the help, being disciplined about it and applying it, and being completely aware that it is a long, arduous journey. Do we all not have the mantra: be the best you can be every single day?

R: The Secret Story photos stand out stylistically from your other work. What inspired their look?

Stylistically I went with the flow. I’ve always been either an app-stacker or a purist: no in-between. Then I looked back on some of my earlier mobile photos and I had combined the two a lot. Perhaps I wanted to test my own range. I don’t think I’ve departed from my style too much, to be honest. The people who have known me longer, when I didn’t know where or how to contribute, know the extent of my style. Style is something to be pushed. I refuse to stick to one. Even if black and white is the most popular, I will still try colour. Even if abstract is the least understood, I still love it. As for self portraits: mine have always been a reflection of how I truly feel at any given time. I don’t often do them: only when I am articulating my own thoughts and emotions that stem from within me. I think it it my way of making up for my inability to paint forms and figures well – self-portraits in “iphoneography” is a great replacement. In painting, I expressed through abstraction, palpable in the use of textures and paint brush forms.

R: You’ve studied “traditional”–or maybe “foundational” is the better word–photographic techniques. Do you think that it’s important for a photographer, whatever device they may be using, to have a sense ofthe form’s history? Are there any renowned photographers whose work inspire you?

I have not studied any photographic history to be honest. I read a lot, I scour the Internet (avoiding all blogs by photographers unless I know them in print), I watch documentaries.

There is an intangible quality to many photographers: you look at their images and your hair stands up. For reportage, it’s definitely Eros Hoagland. One cannot love photography and not love Annie Liebowitz and definitely Anton Corbijn is one of my heroes. For him to still shoot on film even when digital started made me just say “YES.” There is a commonality between them, I feel. They all think about what they want before they snap – they see it way beforehand in their mind. Watching Anton Corbijn work in his documentary is a lesson on why snapping multiple times is not good practise, especially if it’s not sport photography or a moving subject. Get it in the camera right. Bang. Then you don’t have to sit down and look at all the crap that you have taken just to choose ONE. That is the downside of instant sharing, particularly on some networks.

Lastly, there’s David LaChapelle. His relationship with a camera, any camera, is like mine. It is a tool to capture. He knows no technical knowledge – it’s always: I want to use the lens that will make the photo go like this; or I want to take a photo and have it turn out like that, so I need the one with the pink thing attached. If I had to sit and think about it, I guess I sort of know my way around a camera. But I don’t know the names, words or numbers. So I can use any camera and as long as I find the Aperture and Exposure settings, I am fine. It’s the same with the mobile, especially with apps. I actually have to think of the names when I am leaving descriptions. I don’t write it down. What I do is I look at every saved image and then write down the apps I use and the settings. This is something I’ve done recently only because I am seeking greater intention and cohesion with my images in a series.

R: You seem to respect photographers with a strong extant vision–people who know what they want to see before they even begin composing. Is it fair to say that this is what you want from yourself as well?

I didn’t realise that I liked photographers who have that sort of vision. I actually assumed that it is what photography is all about! And do I set that as a goal? I think I have asked and answered that. Given that I have no clue I guess one could say that it is inherent than?

There is a school of photography that is called “Miksang” photography. A bogus enterprise I suspect, that has been developed by the ever-clever Americans as yet another way to make money. To be a Miksang master one must pay thousands of dollars and go to some retreat to learn it. Miksang is like the zen of photography. It teaches you to abandon the rules and be holistic in taking photos regardless of the subject-matter, making use of light and observation. Ironic, isn’t it, that people will pay thousands to be essentially taught how to be child-like and listen to their instincts? Give a child a camera and they don’t know anything. The most interesting shots come out of it. Always compelling and strange and most of the time it can be considered fine art photography.

That is how I photograph. Everything I see around me is in frames. In whatever the frame size that a full frame camera is. It all fits in. You see a whole scene at once or before it happens. Or when you sit and have coffee, you contemplate shapes and patterns and details. Most of all, the contemplation of how light hits an object.

And then you think about the amazing topic of quantum physics and the theory of quantum reality: the possibility that all the atoms that make up everything around us is that way because light is being cast on it and therefore a gaze, which gives it form and shape; and if that light is taken away, the notion that object you are gazing at may not exist in that shape because it is just trillions of particles floating about to form the object is just such an abstract notion that it is beautiful. Thus my love for abstracts or abstraction. Something that looked like this, could be this, or maybe that – when all the atoms are pulled apart the shape may not be defined. Interesting, yes?

R: A lot of your work blurs the boundary between mobile art and mobile photography: is that part of what you were exploring in your Channeling Atget series?

No Channeling Atget is not about that. It is but it’s not. It still leans more towards the photographic. When I combine it I mean I use apps that specifically glitch pixels: like Decim8 or any of the effects brushes in iColorama. Warping, distorting etc. and using apps like Superimpose to blend etc. Or using a combination of apps to create a completely new image. The only thing is that I use my own images. It’s my thing that I don’t use stock images. I am precious about owning every single piece in it (not including what was created by the app developer ie textures etc – I think to go into that is to then tear the idea of mobile photo apps apart too much and therefore unnecessary – having said that “My Secret Story” includes textures that I photographed and created specifically for it.). So that is what I mean by combining mobile art and mobile photography. I think that the most fun can be gotten out of the whole mobile movement is from the area of “mobile art photography”. It’s mind-blowing the results one can get. I think to myself: well, we have cameras and sure we can take simple photos with our mobiles as well – but why bother when there is an arsenal of fantastic photo apps out there to play with? Right now I am finding that there are people who are extremely closed-minded about the whole thing. There should be a complete embracing of app’d photos and the non-app’d photos.

R: Is it fair to say you have a love/hate relationship with social media?

My relationship with social media is a bittersweet one. I am still considered a novice by all accounts, as I only started publicly sharing my photos in 2011. You get sucked right in and either you allow it to completely rule you or you tear away from it. It’s not that I don’t like social media per se. It’s the expectations of others and the results when you don’t respond that annoy me. I have intentionally turned on my Follow button on Facebook. People should use that. Why send me a friend request when we are not really going to be friends? Just because you follow me doesn’t mean I will follow you back, especially if your work doesn’t add to my inspiration pool. If we all love art and we all love creativity, isn’t it about seeking out the best to be inspired by? I have followed some people for years with no expectation that they will follow me back. It’s not how the learning process works. Sometimes I will study someone for a long time before I follow them. Susan Tuttle and Nettie Edwards are examples. Most of all, I dislike the obsession with followers and “likes” – there are many people who say they don’t care but really deep down inside, they do. The hypocrisy on the photo-sharing platforms is high and so is the politics. But I think that is the same in real life as well. So given that I am pretty down-to-earth and as real as one can get, it would be natural for me to have a crappy relationship with social media.

I just want to enjoy the privilege of the ability that we all have to share and not abuse it … sometimes be surprised by it when I come across incredibly inspirational work. Let’s face it: without all of it, would you know me?

R: What kinds of things do you do when you’re not making art and presiding over Chick? What other hobbies/joys do you have?

My joy is my daughter. Full stop. The crash and re-creation of me is completely inspired by her. If not for her, I don’t know who I would be today. She is the one reason that I wanted to break the cycle of abuse and be better. I simply want to be the best mother I can be.

Beyond that, I will devour anything to do with art, photography or visual culture when time permits. I read, when I can focus. I stare at details a lot. And I mean a lot. It keeps my mind still–like meditation. I can stare at a green leaf for a fair few minutes or just the way the green is against the blue sky or how leaves fall on the ground.

When I empty my brain, that is when I either get a stupid [Facebook] status update to write or an idea or a thought that leads to an idea.

Other things? Watching stuff on the screen. But it has to be great drama. But I also have to have my dose of Jon Stewart. When he goes on holiday, I feel like I am missing something. He alone makes me think America has hope. My abnormal interest in American politics is because of Christopher Hitchens and Jon Stewart.

R: iOS 7 was released relatively recently, what are your thoughts?

I LOVE AIR DROP! I can air drop from the light box straight to my iPad without cluttering my photo stream or camera roll. Love that I can work from one folder – so I have put all my favourites in the order that I normally use them and I love how I can seamlessly go back and forth between apps really fast now. But I am a fan girl. Oh one gripe: don’t like the circular contacts – too Android and the alphabets for people with no photos. I love how it’s lightning quick too.

R: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?

What is next project-wise? I never know. I think I might continue with my Whispers of Souls series or improve on it. But I am going to have a brand new set of images so I am not sure how they will go. I have a trillion ideas in the back of my head. It’s just getting to do them. Often times, something else will occur and I will get to that first. I will be working more or less on my involvement in the AMPt Community Leadership team: there is a lot coming up so that will be my focus for the rest of the year. At the moment, I have more or less dropped out of the photo-sharing networks because of the volume of images that I have to curate myself (I am a stickler about self-curation and editing), basically wrapping things up for the year. Most of all, I get to attend an exhibition where one of my works is displayed – finally!

R: Let’s close with a series of exceptionally important questions. If Ben and Jerry’s was to name a flavor of ice cream after you, what would they call it?

Marvelous Mich. It would have to be pure vanilla bean ice cream with little chunks of hazelnut praline and just a hint of really high quality chocolate. I’d want to be a premium flavour.

R: As an Aussie, what is your official position on Vegemite?

I loved Vegemite before I was Aussie. I grew up with Marmite (British version). When I was living in the UK, buying Vegemite from a British supermarket was a real treat as it was very expensive! So to be living in the Land of Vegemite is awesome! and when I finally lived here I preferred Vegemite and spent an exorbitant amount buying it. Vegemite is the bees knees when spread lightly on toast with butter and then with a small dollop on your knife, you mash up a hard boiled egg on it. Just the most comforting thing EVER. People tend to use too much Vegemite on one slice of toast. The next best combination is a Vegemite and cheese sandwich. Total yumz.

R: Duran Duran: yea or nay?

Yes Duran Duran, but Depeche Mode forever!

R: What’s your favorite vulgar gesture?

The Italian “fuck you.” Full on smack in the elbow and fist up. It has so much more gusto than a wave of the middle finger. I have small hands but you should hear me swear in the Chinese dialect of Hokkien. You wouldn’t need to understand it to know I was insulting the recipient’s mother. I have improved a lot though. I think it was my rebellious and fucked-up nature that made me enjoy the idea of a well-bred, troubled silver spooner with a gutter mouth.