In late July 2021 my mentor suddenly died. She was very important to me and although I’d only known her for about one and a half years, I just assumed she would be my mentor throughout my career as a photographer. She was my photography teacher, she was encouraging of my project ideas, and she gave me feedback and opportunities to realise them.
My mentor understood photography and also how autism affects me as a person and my photography; the strengths and challenges, and the support I needed to be able to study and succeed. This was invaluable to me. I was allowed to succeed within my capabilities and without exhausting myself entirely in the process of achieving.
My mentor helped me edit projects, spent hours giving me feedback, and told me to say when I thought my photos were good. Being Swedish, it is very familiar to hear “Du ska inte tro att du är något” or “You shouldn’t think you are something”. In Sweden, it is part of the culture to not say you are proud of yourself or your work and if you do you, shouldn’t be too proud. It still feels weird to say I think I’m good at what I do but self-deprecation can become internalised to the point that one believes they really don’t have anything new to offer with what they make.
After my mentor died I cried a lot. I needed to be occupied constantly because otherwise I just cried more. So I spent the weeks after her death shooting a lot of 35mm film. Colour and black and white. I just needed to photograph and at the same time, I didn’t know why, it just was what I needed. I shot a lot of film and then the reality of not having a mentor caught up. I had planned to make a book of the photos and dedicate it to her but I wasn’t motivated and didn’t want to think more about her. I scanned the film, edited the scans, posted some to Instagram, and then left them on my desktop. I haven’t done anything with them aside from selecting some to show in my portfolio.
The strange thing is that as I write this in September, I have suddenly gotten a lot of attention for my photography. I’ve been chosen for 2 exhibitions and 2 publications and I’ve done 2 freelance jobs. I am in shock and appreciative but my mentor isn’t alive and she said she would be at my first exhibition and joked about being my agent. I took It as given that she would be there and I also didn’t expect to start working and getting exposure for my photography.
It is a mixed feeling, I can’t believe the amount of success in a short time. I put a lot of work in but to have it all happen at once is unexpected for me. At the same time, most days, I am sad, I remind myself that maybe I am grieving still, I don’t know but maybe that is why I am sad — and the pandemic and also the energy required to take in all of the positive things can make me tired. I still need to pause and when I do, I bring a camera. I go on long walks in nature and shoot film: this week it was a roll of ILFORD FP4 PLUS, which I still need to scan. I shot mostly trees, leaves with water drops, and paths. Maybe they won’t be unique or interesting, I don’t know, but in the moment taking those photographs was what helped me focus and was a pause for me.
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I have chosen photos taken in the weeks after my mentor’s death to show with this article. Some were taken days before I found out she’d died and the majority after. I don’t know if her death has changed my photography but it has affected the responsibility I feel to continue to shoot, enter open calls, find jobs and succeed. It is a good pressure at times but also a pressure that can suffocate. Suffocate ideas, motivation, curiosity, and energy. When people talk to me about finding a new mentor I don’t have an interest, it is hard to imagine there is anyone as good as my mentor was that could take her role. People have said she’s irreplaceable but I don’t think anyone can even come close to what she was, and if they can, it still takes a lot of time to have the relationship I had with her.
I thought a lot about what I would write next time I wrote an article for EMULSIVE and somehow I felt I needed to mention my mentor. It has taken me a long time to feel I could write about this without crying, or writing something and throwing it away because it wasn’t good enough.
I couldn’t review a film stock and not mention my mentor or upload my summer photos of sun, pride, flowers, and the swimming pool and pretend my summer wasn’t largely spent on my bed crying. I can’t lie, and I will write film reviews like the previous ones, or review cameras again but before I can I needed to mention my mentor because without her, I wouldn’t have achieved the things I have with photography in the past year. The work of taking the photos is, of course, my own but the feedback and support my mentor provided opened doors and provided me with links to opportunities, some of which led to success.
When you are a member of a marginalised community you do not have the privilege of others. I am part of more than one marginalised community and although I am not unprivileged because I am white and have grown up in Europe, I am still made aware of the privilege that those who fit in have. I mention privilege at the end of this article because it was a privilege to have had this lady as my mentor. It was a privilege to be taught by her because her knowledge of autism and interest in my work helped me to graduate from school, something which I thought would never happen because I found school difficult and inaccessible.
When privilege is taken away it is noticeable. I now have to rely on myself more, I have to trust my skill and thoughts when I show work, and I have to feel the grief and cope. I don’t know when or if I will have a mentor again, or what will happen with my photography but I am still just trying to continue photographing and trying to take photographs that I am proud to say are mine.
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My photographic mentor was my father. Every time I pick up a camera I regret that he’s not still here to talk about it but also with happiness remembering that it was something we shared. I use his old cameras safe in the knowledge that he’d be very happy that what we shared was still part of my life. With time I hope you will feel the same way too.
A heartfelt and thoughtful article. Thanks for sharing this with us.