SEE MY NEIGHBOURHOOD
Photography by Cahleen Hudson
Interview by Melanie Meggs
IN CONVERSATION WITH CAHLEEN HUDSON
Cahleen Hudson is an American expat living in Taiwan. Since taking up photography just under a year ago, it has become the way that Cahleen now sees the world. It keeps her present giving her a reason to look for all of the beautiful and interesting things around her proving to herself that she can see the same places everyday and make them new with her camera. Cahleen is a busy mom who works from home and homeschools her children. Limited to a daily walk most days with the company of her children, Cahleen has challenged herself to 'see' her neighbourhood. Every photo in this series has been captured around her local neighbourhood with an indirect gaze. Photographing through barriers such as glass or plastic, or by using reflections, has allowed Cahleen to play with light, colour and texture, making it all feel like she was really seeing this place for the first time.
“My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear.”
Hello Cahleen, tell us a little bit about yourself. How does where you are from influence your work?
I grew up in Lakewood, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The area feels very orderly and planned—people travel around in their cars and there are tracks and tracks of single story homes, shopping centers with big parking lots, Starbucks. I now seek out the opposite of this in my life and my photography. I can’t help but poke at expectations and then completely subvert them, which is why we live abroad and homeschool our kids. Now, I’m attracted to the mess that happens when a lot of people need to live together in a small space; I like the organic way that people spread out and take up space when there aren’t such rigid rules about where they should go—you get busy markets and nonsensical parking strategies when this happens. I like taking photos of these things.
You are new to photography. What drew you to photography and art? What was that moment that you decided to pick up a camera?
I’ve always appreciated art for the power it has to make people feel things, but I never imagined I was capable of creating it myself. I thought creating art was for “talented artsy people” who could produce something obviously beautiful like a painting, and that everyone else wasn’t allowed in the club. I’ve dabbled in writing but have never felt drawn to make that my artistic “thing,” so I just stuffed down this desire to create and forgot about it for many years while I was busy with babies and life in general. The baby years were so all-consuming for me, I don’t know that I could have learned a new skill like photography at that time. But now my kids are a bit older, and that love for art and the desire to create something never completely went away. My mom had a Canon Rebel T6 that she bought for aspirational reasons and never used, and I talked her into giving it to me for my 38th birthday so I could have fun with a new hobby. However, once I saw what was possible with a camera, the desire to use it for artistic expression woke up the creative side of me that I never thought was worthy of acknowledging. I realized that photography is like writing, not because photos need to tell a story — that’s too much pressure to put on any one image — but because it communicates a feeling or an impression. It’s a way for the artist to share their vision with the person consuming the art. The hope is that others will recognize some of their own experience in that vision and connect with it, just like they would when they’re reading a good novel or watching a movie.
You are an American expat living in Taiwan. Talk to us about your life in Taiwan and how the streets and culture have influenced your photography.
On a practical level, I can get away with taking more candid street photos because people think I’m a tourist! I’m loosely paraphrasing here, but David Sedaris once wrote that being an outsider in a culture can allow you a deeper view because people reveal things about themselves when they don’t think you’re capable of understanding what’s going on. I wouldn’t say that people in Taiwan act differently around me because I’m obviously not from here, but I can say that being an “outsider” allows you a different view. I’ve lived here for 16 years, so I don’t feel extreme awe about the things I see anymore, but there is still always that slight feeling of being on an adventure when you live in a culture that’s completely different from the one you grew up in. I don’t think I have to work quite as hard to have fresh eyes and find things to be delighted by when I go out with my camera.
What role has the digital community played in your photography?
The photography community on Instagram has played the biggest role in my life so far, and like most photographers I have mixed feelings about it. We all know what the downsides are, so I’ll focus on the positives. I’m constantly amazed by how generous people can be with their advice and encouragement. I’m horrified by some of the things I used to post, but even then, people took the time to answer my questions and introduce new ways of thinking about photography to me. While Instagram has sucked away more of my time and attention than I care to admit, it’s also shown me what’s possible in photography. I didn’t own any photo books (or even know the names of very many photographers) when I first started out, so Instagram was my only window into this world at first. Photographers on Instagram taught me that tack sharp photos are overrated, blur can be intentional, and grain can be good. I didn’t know any of this stuff was “allowed” in the beginning. Instagram gives me access to approaches that inspire me, challenge me, and teach me. Now I just need to figure out how to extract these benefits without getting sucked into the endless scroll!
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process.
I don’t pick up my camera with a concept in mind, but when I see something that interests me, I like to stop and work the scene a little and take my time to experiment. I only take one lens with me, so I will have a general idea of what kind of photos I’ll be taking based on the focal length for the day. I also might want to work on a certain skill that day or shoot in high contrast black and white because the light isn’t very interesting, but I never know exactly what I’ll be taking pictures of. I like approaching the day this way because it makes me mindful and present.
Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
The work of different photographers has spoken to me at different times, depending on what skill I’m currently working on or what style of photography I’m currently obsessed with. When I first came out of the “learning what exposure is” phase and realized I could use my camera to create art, I devoured Valerie Jardin’s podcast. I don’t take the same kind of photos as her, but I needed to learn from her contemplative, heart-driven approach to street photography at that time. She also takes tender, loving photos of details that inspire me to notice all of the small, beautiful things in my day as well.
After Valerie, I took Gustavo Minas’ Domestika class on street photography. He showed me that a photo doesn’t have to be a straight, frontal view. I think he does what I like to do, which is to walk around without an idea but then stop and work a scene a little once you see something interesting — the result is so thoughtful and complex! I can only hope I learn to wrangle so many layers of complexity like he does someday. He also instilled in me my love of reflection photos.
Next I fell in love with Saul Leiter. He started my journey into abstract street photography. What I learned from him is that it’s okay for a photo to just give you the impression of the thing you’re photographing. Shapes, colors, light — maybe they matter more than a realistic depiction of the subject. I also find his use of longer lenses in street photography interesting — there’s definitely something I can learn there!
My current favorites are Sally Mann and Lisa Sorgini, for the same reason even though they have different styles. What I love about them both is how they incorporate motherhood into their art. Their work feels honest and brave to me; they turn their lens to things that not everyone wants to see (especially Sally Mann), and they still make it beautiful. They also both make me feel like it’s possible to create with my camera even when my kids are hanging all over me!
If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day...who would you choose? And why?
This is hard, because I’ve never shot with another photographer — I have this sneaking suspicion they would find the things I wanted to photograph, and also get impatient when I stopped in front of a window to get some reflection shots for ten minutes! I would love to spend the day with Sally Mann, though. I’m inspired by her vision and her audacity.
Do you have a favorite photography/art quote that has been an inspiration to you?
In the Saul Leiter documentary In No Great Hurry, Saul said, “My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear.” He was saying that his photos didn’t have to be analyzed or understood, the person viewing them could just allow themselves to enjoy how beautiful they are without interrogating all of the reasons that the photo works or trying to decipher a hidden meaning that isn’t necessarily there. I find this to be so freeing! When an artist has to imbue everything they do with meaning, it can paralyze. It leaves no room for experimentation or play.
What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? Is there any particular equipment you need or wish you had to help you achieve your photographic vision?
The Canon Rebel T6 and kit lens was great for learning about exposure and the basics of how a camera works — it is possible to take great photos with an entry level DSLR! I was ready for something lighter and with more features, though, and I now have a used Canon EOS M5 along with a 22mm, 32mm, and 56mm lens. I don’t like to fuss with a zoom or carry a bunch of lenses with me—I wake up and decide what focal length I feel like shooting with and that’s my lens for the day. If I miss a shot because I don’t have the right focal length and I can’t move fast enough, I trust that there are other shots I will be able to get. If not, there’s always tomorrow. Life will always give you more shots.
If I had to pick just one lens to use forever, I guess it would be my 32mm because it’s my Jack-of-all-trades lens.
I don’t think I need anything else for what I’m currently doing, but maybe I don’t know what I’m missing. (Please don’t tell me!) If I had unlimited funds, I’d get a Leica and go full frame or a Fujifilm medium format camera.
What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? What direction do you think you will take your photography? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I love this question! My first instinct is to pretend I don’t have any goals because it feels presumptuous. But that’s just that old way of thinking — the joy-stealing thinking about who is and isn’t allowed to create art! So I’m going to be real and admit I have dreams for my photography and challenge anyone who says I shouldn’t have them. Just like all of the amazing photographers I’ve already mentioned, I want people to be able to recognize my photos no matter what genre they fall into because they recognize my way of seeing the world in them. To see my work in print or even in my own photo book one day would be the ultimate dream come true! I have a long way to go before anything like that is possible, but I’m no longer afraid to say that this is what I want because I no longer believe that there are rules for who gets to create art. And even if I never reach these goals, striving for them can only make me better.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
Read fiction, spend time with my family, go to coffee shops and enjoy delicious carbs, and go to the beach."