Vanessa Tignanelli is a freelance documentary photographer whose work explores significant social and spiritual themes. Born in North Bay, Ontario, Vanessa earned her BA in Specialized Studio Art at the University of Guelph. Since her graduation in 2012 she has worked as Associate Editor & Photojournalist for SNAPD Guelph, Photo & Graphics Editor and Office Manager for The Ontarion, while operating an event photography business out of Guelph, Ontario. Recently she has entered into the independent film industry working under Production Designer Vince Moskowec. She is heading to Loyalist in the fall of 2016 to study photojournalism.
Through her analyses of our connections to people, places or concepts, Vanessa has committed herself to capturing our complicated yet often beautiful existence.
Christina: Are the collections posted on your website in chronological order?
Vanessa: No, they’re not. The website just highlights different kinds of work I have done, highlighting some strong series of mine. I tend to use it more for documentary style series, and facebook is what I use day to day.
Christina: So am I correct in thinking that Collective Isolation is the oldest series?
Vanessa: Yep! I still think it does well to showcase some of the themes I’m really interested in.
It was also at the point when my professor started to push me to consider photography as being the right medium for me. I was explaining to her that I wanted to take these photographs as a representation of disintegrating face-to-face communication and that I would paint them afterwards; she pointed out to me that my ideas were stronger if I left them as photographs, since that was where my original ideas lay.
Christina: Since graduating from Guelph, can you describe a bit of your process/journey towards doing documentary photography?
Vanessa: Well, as I naturally started to appreciate the use of the camera more and more, I wanted to get more involved in the community and practice the equipment that I had available to me. I started volunteering for The Ontarion newspaper as one of their photographers, and a few months later was offered the job as Photo & Graphics Editor. That was my real first step into photojournalism as a career.
Everything about photography really came together for me at that point. I realized how well it suits my personality, how even since I was a kid I had to take photographs to remember things in detail. I’m a visual learner, and I also like to be able to have access to people and different situations. I was my most comfortable and purposeful when I had a camera in my hand, and during that first year as a photojournalist something just clicked within me.
That position is only a year long, so I had to move on. I operated Snap’d Guelph for a little while, and then returned to The Ontarion as the Office Manager to gain a better understanding of the business behind print and online journalism. Such a valuable experience!
I’ve also operated my own photography business on the side, and helped a wedding photographer for a summer to try my hand at that. I eventually realized that it was the story that was the most important to me, and that I’m a documentary photographer at heart. Although it is nice to have the know-how to do all types of photography and make some money as I grow.
Christina: What’s your favourite part of documentary work? And what do you find the most challenging?
Vanessa: Documentary work is fascinating to me because it lets people in. It lets the viewer in, but more importantly it lets me in. I struggled for years as a painter trying to create something REAL and to point out connections between humanity. Why create a representation when you can capture it in reality? I realized that documentary work is all about having the ability to notice those moments, and a better tool for pointing them out to the world.
Christina: How do you bring your experiences as an artist to the work — do you think your own life experiences affect how your document and present others’?
Vanessa: Oh absolutely. I don’t think any photographer can necessarily remove their own perspectives and experiences from the things that call to them. There’s a reason why I NEED to photograph. Part of my development over the last few years has been to try and figure out exactly what that voice is inside of me. What is it I am trying to say? What am I trying to point out to the world? And is it for me, or for you, or both? These are all things that every artist needs to sit with themselves and figure out as they go. Eventually things pour out of you and you realize what your most sincere voice is. All I know is that while others feel like they are missing the moment by focusing on taking photos, I come alive.
Christina: So, that really ties into my next question and half answers it already — Have you learned anything substantial about yourself and your work since graduating?
Vanessa: Studying studio art was a very overwhelming experience. I’m not sure if everyone would agree with that, but to me it was challenging in so many ways. I still feel like I left without really understanding why I wanted to make art. In a lot of ways I have gone back to the original callings I had before I went to school to study art, which to me is a much better way to understand myself. School left me rather confused and far too much of an over thinker about the world and how I wanted to capture it. I don’t know if it’s because it was a time in my life where I was very heavily influenced by everything around me, inspired by every single little thing or person who came my way, or that I allowed myself to be affected by my professors or peers in ways I wish now I hadn’t cared about. I graduated a painter working in a gallery and considering a career as a curator. I’m being much more true to myself now as a photographer. At the end of the day, school played a significant role in helping me realize that.
Christina: I’m sure you take a ton of photos that never see the light of day; how do you end up choosing which ones you show?
Vanessa: Ah yes, hard drives full of unseen photos. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll all be discovered like Vivian Maier’s work hahaha No. Most shoots I do will be released either as a series or a single shot I liked, or a shoot I did for a client to give a sneak peak of what I can do for local businesses or events. Examples of concert photography, head shots, etc. I try to show the public a wide range of material that I have.
My website is specific to a documentary focus, which I’m always wanting to improve. I’m still working every day at getting better at editing, which also includes how many photos and in which order to place them in order to tell the strongest story. That’s a huge part of it, and the most difficult.
Having been in the situation yourself, it’s hard to edit a series together to tell the story the clearest. It might not be your most in-focus photo, but it’s the most captivating. It may be better to place it at the beginning or the end of the series. In this case, many images that I would deem to be good and strong photos, would never get used in the final series. I’m slowly getting better at learning how to talk to the general public using visual storytelling, which means I often cut good images because viewer doesn’t need it or the story doesn’t require it
Christina: So do you put them away for a while, and then try to look at them with fresh eyes? Or do you have people that help you decide?
Vanessa: That’s a good question!
Part of returning to school in September is to help gain a network of eyes that I can trust to help edit and push me to get better at that skill. Most professional documentary photographers have editors to narrow down their final series because it’s important to get an outside opinion. As I said, it’s hard to remove yourself when you were in the situation and already have attachments to it.
Over the last three years that I’ve been doing photography, I’ve been editing everything myself. I research photographers I admire; I look at their websites every day and continue to train myself to think like a documentary photographer while I’m shooting. Some series have taken me up to 6 months (if not more) to edit and solidify into a strong narrative.
It’s important to have fresh eyes going in, though there is also the risk of over-editing! I appreciate documentary photography because it’s meant to be very candid and requires little post-editing. What you get in-camera in the moment should already be strong. The magic already needs to be there, otherwise your photo will fall flat no matter how many tricks you know on Photoshop. The time spent editing is more in choosing the right photographs and the right way to present them. Whatever little image editing I do is concentrated on bringing the life back into the RAW file.
Christina: What about editing in terms of what photos to include or exclude in the series?
For example, in Dublin to Dingle you have — what seems to me to be 3 core elements to the series; there are the shots of religious iconography, the countryside, and (what I consider strongest) the shots of people engaged in everyday activities. How did you decide which and how many of what kind of shot to include?
Vanessa: So that is a perfect example of what not to do!
Dublin to Dingle is still a series that I really need to break down into three separate stories.
Christina: I’m so glad you said that because I totally agree.
Vanessa: I presented it on my website as more of a travel photography series rather than documentary. The truth is, I was there just to travel around and document, so it felt most sincere to be upfront about that. What is important for a documentary photographer, is to hopefully know and understand the situation and what story they want to tell prior to taking the photographs. If you know what story you’re aiming to tell, your photographs will better reflect that while you’re in the moment.
That’s why Dublin to Dingle feels like a mess of things, because it was; I had no plan. But, I do feel connected to the photos and am trying to figure out how best to present them. The same thing is happening now with a series I haven’t released yet.
Christina: Interesting I always thought that having a specific story you want to tell could lead to a biased series.
Vanessa: There is a difference between staying open to whatever new perspectives or approaches may come your way. I don’t mean that preplanning your story means projecting your opinions. There are still things to discover once you arrive, and the best photographers will be fluid in that sense.
Christina: I think there is a lot of strength in the photos that show the connection of people to the religious iconography — but the ones where the photo seems to just be of a church seems more “this is what I saw on my vacation” as opposed to “this is a part of life here”.
Vanessa: Yes, you’re absolutely right; diting Dublin to Dingle is on my list of things to do so I’m happy to hear others recognize the need for it!
Christina: You have a couple really exciting projects lined up in the next year — can you tell me a bit about them and how they came to be?
Vanessa: Up until recently, I had the romanticized understanding that my documentary projects would not be seen as important unless I ventured somewhere dramatic. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of speaking with some National Geographic, Vice, and Globe and Mail photographers about these projects I am pursuing. In speaking with them, I’ve realized the importance of telling stories that I understand more directly — stories that I am more connected to.
Though following a story on the kathoey community in Thailand still interests me greatly (and is dependent on a grant that I have applied for), I am now also pursuing opportunities that would be much more helpful to me and my practice than those that require me to fly somewhere far removed from everything I understand. In all honesty I have no real purpose being there but want to go simply because it fascinates me. The whole world fascinates me, but I’ve realized that a photographer can’t just pick some exotic locale or curious folks to make it their business to capture the mystery of it. I’m not saying not to take risks and travel, but I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
There is a program called the Missouri Photo Workshop that I am applying to partake in. The workshop focuses on the importance of practicing strong storytelling in places you wouldn’t think to look. I thought I had to fly to Thailand to capture something special; the workshop brings aspiring photographers to a small town where it seems nothing ever happens and says “look in your backyard and tell these touching stories first.” I learned a lot reading about their mission and talking to photographers who have been a part of the workshop. Their work is so much stronger; Because of this lesson, they are confident in their abilities to capture a good story anywhere.
Christina: That is fantastic!
I love that you’ve brought that up, because in a way it’s part of what I’m trying to do with this series — find interesting stories and things to share that are here in my own metaphorical backyard.
Vanessa: Exactly! We are so prone to put certain things up on a pedestal. It’s easy to get carried away in the idea that “My story won’t make the front page unless I’m on the front lines overseas.” which really isn’t true. There are cases of real moments of humanity, pain, acceptance, celebration, absolutely everywhere and the best documentary photographers will be able to present them just as powerfully.
That lesson is also why i’m excited to go to Belleville where I was accepted into the Photojournalism program at Loyalist College. A common reaction I get is ‘really? Belleville? Huh.” But while it’s not the most romantic location, I’m excited for the challenge that is very closely mirroring what they accomplish in the Missouri Workshop. As well, Belleville is a small town that has spit out some amazing alumni!
Christina: What role does community play in your pursuit of learning to become a better photographer?
Vanessa: I think you said it really well in your introduction to this series, as did the lovely Monica Tap. It’s so hard to grow your work on your own. Although you can pursue internal realizations, and push yourself to make your thoughts and yearnings to create more authentic or sincere, at the end of the day, there is a reason why you are trying to pull that all out and present it to others.
It’s important to find clarity in your work, to become a better communicator, otherwise there is no point in making art. You can sit with your own thoughts and never share them. But artists have an undying need to share something. If you don’t have trusted peers to help guide you in this task, then it’s very hard to know whether or not you’re getting any points across.
Christina: Is there a particular group of people that you depend on for that?
Vanessa: I’ve been lucky to connect via Skype with photographers I admire. I’m comfortable reaching out and I’ve made great bonds with some heroes of mine. Those are the ones I turn to. Of course, they’re working on their careers and are light-years ahead of me in terms of experience, so though they are available as mentors in a sense, I would also like to have a more closely related community to grow with.
Christina: Are there any that you can identify as directly influencing you and your work?
Vanessa: Kitra Cahana was the youngest National Geographic staff photographer and focuses on some similar themes that I’ve been working on surrounding the concept of escapism. Christian Borys writes for VICE News and recently returned from the front lines in Ukraine. Michelle Siu is an alumni of Loyalist and the Missouri Photo Workshop and has been winning awards and doing very well. Erika Larson is a National Geographic photographer who’s made the cover a few times and is the best Skype date you’ll ever have! Cory Richards is the most badass human being; we were connected through a mutual friend studying in Africa.
Christina: Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary photographers?
Vanessa: Research and speak to the amazing people who have found great success in it. Shoot every day. Discover what it is that calls you to tell stories, or gravitate towards certain situations. Don’t over-edit your photographs, try and find the true essence of what they are portraying instead. Don’t reach for a story; rather, be genuine and honest about what you have captured. If you feel compelled to document your surroundings, and the camera gives you the access that you crave, the permission to disappear into your focus, and the ability to really see people, then you are a documentary photographer. You are allowed to feel captivated, curious, and frightened about this world.
Our understanding of life, as it is today and yesterday, would not be the same without those willing to devote their lives to the importance of quietly presenting it to others in the most real way possible. Photography will allow you to leave something behind, removed from self-importance and based in appreciation for all that we experience together in this life. I can’t think of a more noble, passionate or beautiful vocation.