In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)

Cynthia Haynes

In Part II of our interview with Susan Burnstine, she continues sharing the how and the why of her art—the photography that began as a way to deal with nightmares. The results are indeed dream-like, with soft edges, ghostly figures, and fuzzy but recognizable places. When conventional gear didn't work for her to tell those stories, she embraced her ingenuity to make her own, dismantling and rebuilding toy cameras before making her first "true" camera and lens. And 23 homemade cameras later, she's still at it. The photographs in this article are from her latest book, Absence of Being. Read Part I of the interview here.

If you had to describe your photography to someone who had never seen it, what would you say?

To be honest, trying to synopsize my work never does it justice. You just have to see it in person to have the experience of stepping into my unconscious existence. JPGs really don’t do it: I find the prints far more effective as they are the intended form. Of course over the years, I’ve come up with a two- or three-minute pitch that introduces the work in a clear manner so that when I sit in front of reviewers or gallerists they are able to step into my world, if they allow themselves.

In today’s tack-sharp, overly processed digitized world, your photography speaks a different language, one which might be perceived as flawed or imperfect: how does this factor into—or otherwise affect and/or influence—your artistic process?

Life is messy. There is no sense striving for perfection, as it does not actually exist. Furthermore, my reality is represented in the flaws within myself and others, and the world outside of myself is always reflected by symbols, metaphors and conscious elements that have affected me within my art.

Tell us a bit about your creative process: do you set out to create a body of work, or do you feel that it finds you?

My images and my series find me in my dreams. I can’t force an image. They are all essentially self-portraits—snippets of my conscious struggles represented within my unconscious world. My process is always the same. I have a night terror, I journal it, then I go out and shoot it. I never know where I’m going as my approach is all based on instinct. When I create an image that represents the dream I had the night before, I always look for a symbol, metaphor or actual element such as a location from my dream.

What attracts you about the locations where you make photographs? If you could go anywhere in the world to shoot, where would it be and why?

An essential part of the Absence of Being series is being in a location that makes me a bit uneasy for one reason or another. Mostly it’s because the location is tied to my nightmare, which represents being alone and trying to find roots and shadows of the past within the present within an unknown place. Lately, traveling has really set my night terrors off the most. That dramatic shift from a world that I know to one that I don’t causes all those questions about life and death to come flooding back into my unconscious, permeate my dreams and, subsequently, my images. So when most people are happy when they travel, I’m struggling on a multitude of levels, which is sad because I always loved traveling in the past—but it also creates fertile ground to create. Also when I’m traveling, I’m away from my new dog, Raven, and she has taught herself to climb atop of me and lay on me until I can awake from the terrors. At the age of two, she’s quite brilliant.

What has been the greatest struggle (or struggles) in your creative process?

My creative and technical process is all about struggle. But my biggest struggle with this new series is the element of travel that has become essential to the work. In addition to escalating my night terrors, from a monetary standpoint, funding the trips is also difficult on a shoestring budget.

What advice would you offer to photographers who are struggling to find their own artistic vision, their own voice?

As mentioned, I teach a class called “Visual Narratives.” It’s a unique class that helps photographers reach deep inside of themselves, identify what is most important to that individual, and how to select a visual representation of the meaning that guides them and what they truly want to say. I happened upon the process through all the work my mother inspired me to create over the years, which was sparked by great personal struggle. She was the first one who taught me that your work is merely a self-reflection of your conscious and unconscious worlds. Therefore, finding what it is that you have to say isn’t as hard as most make it out to be if you are willing to reach deep down and be honest with yourself about yourself and your life.

This interview first appeared in PHOTOGRAPH magazine, Issue 10

Susan Burnstine is an award-winning fine art and commercial photographer originally from Chicago and now based in Los Angeles. She is represented in galleries across the world, widely published throughout the globe and has also written for several photography magazines, including a monthly column for Black & White Photography (UK). For more information about Susan, her art, and her workshops, visit her website



Creativity Interview Susan Burnstine

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