Director’s Choice winner, Heather Perera, has always had an affinity for the arts. From music to poetry, she always feels a strong connection with creative expression. Having gone through several rough periods in her life, channeling her feelings into expressive outlets has always brought her comfort, especially writing, which has been cathartic for her. “When I journal I am usually hashing something out, and because it's my journal, it's honest and raw.” As Perera began her photographic career, she found that photography could be a similar outlet. The ability to produce the same raw honesty made photography feel as natural as her writing:
I try to bring an honesty to my work, showing myself as authentically as possible. I tend to photograph some of the darker aspects of life, it's very intriguing to me. The crevice of the soul is beautifully rich and unfortunately, often hidden. There's a grace to opening up and revealing the pain, fear, doubt, shame, loneliness. My work is giving a voice to whatever I see and experience in life. And by giving a voice to my experiences or emotions they're released, like unlocking a caged bird.
Perera began photographing five years ago, after the birth of her son, Lucca. What began as a way to document his life eventually became a new passionate career. Though she had very little exposure to photography, she dove into the medium purchasing a DSLR and taking classes and workshops. Perera eventually connected with Aline Smithson, who has become her mentor. “For months she said, ‘you're on to something, but go deeper.’ She has a gift for gently pushing people towards their potential. One of my highest moments as an artist was when she told me she was proud of me.”
Her winning image, Cutting is a perfect example of delving deeper into the darker aspects of life she refers to. A small child (her son) holds a pair of sharp scissors uncomfortably close to his skin. Unafraid to infuse her photographs with discomfort, this moment just before cutting her son’s hair captivated her attention and she went for her camera to document it. The juxtaposition of his innocent wide-eyed expression and the impending danger of the sharp scissors has made some of the gallery’s visitors uncomfortable, yet portrays an honest portrait of childhood.
Although Perera has created other bodies of work, her son remains her favorite photographic subject. As her sophistication as a photographer has grown, simple snapshots have given way to a more detached and professional method. “With an active 5 year old, sometimes loading film, checking the light, etc. is not realistic and distracts from just enjoying my time with him. I have to remind myself that it's okay to document his life without being in control. It's a balance, but I'm so grateful I get to combine my two greatest passions, photography and Lucca.”
In addition to her personal work, Perera has built a substantial portrait photography business. Perera’s honest and uncontrived approach to portraiture carries over into her commercial work and has made it challenging to find a market. “As I become more honest in my personal work, it pushes me to want to be more honest in my business. The small moments, the messy kitchens, the half-dressed kids are beautiful, just as they are. I'm striving to build a business that peels away some of the ‘stuff’ and portrays the tenderness of family.” And in the end, that’s really what success means to Perera, “to continue to make honest work that pushes my own boundaries and by doing so, enabling me to financially support my son.”
Expressions: Contemporary Portraiture is on view through April 26, 2014.