Holding Space with Kate Warren
What do a sex podcast, a photography practice, and hanging out with witches have in common? They’re all part of Kate Warren’s jam-packed schedule.
This week, we talk to the DC-based photographer, artist, and podcast host about using art to elevate conversations around race and gender, trading a 90-hour-a-week job in marketing for building her own multifaceted business, and what it’s like to immerse herself in contemporary witchcraft communities for a story… and have it change her life.
It is absolutely paramount to me that I prioritize holding space for people to share their own stories in whatever way they feel best represents them and not tell their stories on their behalf… And so when I’m going into spaces like the trans community, I am making sure that I am communicating my mission and vision and intent and I’m treating my subjects as the collaborators that they are and not just a person to stand in front of the camera and be taken advantage of.—Kate Warren, photographer and host of Insert Here
Also in this episode
- What to do when you’re doing too much
- “Less this, more that” in 2019 (check out our inspiration on The Cut, and their inspiration on Insta)
- Shedding a tear for the last season of Broad City—but fuck yeah to collaborating with your BFF
Oh, and if you do the “less this, more that” exercise we talk about? Share it with us! Email us at email@example.com, @ us on Twitter or Insta @strngfeelings, or leave us a voicemail at (267) 225–5923 and we might even play your comment on the show.
This episode of Strong Feelings is brought to you by:
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Sara Wachter-Boettcher Strong Feelings is proud to be supported by Harvest—makers of awesome web software anyone can use to track time, plan projects, and get paid. I’ve used it for my own business for years, and I love how many integrations they’ve added—so you can make Harvest work with Basecamp, Slack, Trello, and tons of other systems. Go to getharvest.com/strongfeelings to sign up for a free trial, and when you’re ready to upgrade, you’ll get 50% off your first month. That’s getharvest.com/strongfeelings. [intro music plays for 11 seconds and then fades out] Hey, everyone, I’m Sara!
Katel Ledu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Uhh, so I’m really excited about the guest we have on our show today. We’re talking to Kate Warren—she’s a photographer whose work I’ve been following for a while, and I was basically even more intrigued by her when she started a sex podcast in the last year or two called Insert Here…
SWB I love that name.
KL I know, it’s so good. So, I definitely wanted to ask her about that. And we dig into the politics of her work, which winds up involving witches—and I’m very excited about that too. So, all of that just sounds like a lot of stuff. And talking to her just really reiterated the fact that she seems to be doing so many things—commercial photography, fine art photography, photojournalism, writing, hosting a podcast…
SWB Yeah, that sounds a little bit familiar. [both laugh] I mean, not the photography part for me at least, I’m a mediocre photographer at best. [KL laughs]
SWB But running a consulting business and a podcast and a speaking career and still trying to shill copies of my book sometimes, you know? [KL laughs]
SWB And then there’s this whole other new batch of workshops and curriculum that me and you have been working on, which we are going to announce very soon. And I mentioned this last week—we were talking about our January work retreat at the beach where I was like, “is it time for me to take something off my plate? And what?” Because so far, it seems like I am mostly just adding things and that is probably catching up with me!
KL Yeah. On several occasions recently when I’ve caught up with friends or folks I haven’t talked to in a while, they’ve asked if I’m still running A Book Apart. [laughs]
SWB Because they think you’re a full time podcaster?
KL [laughing] Yeah! And I’m like, “nope, still just doing all of the things!”
SWB Yeah… people ask me this too. They’re like, “oh, you don’t really do consulting anymore though, right? Because you’re doing the speaking and the podcast and that must be your whole jam.” And I’m like… “here’s the thing about that. [KL laughs] If I made a piechart of where does Sara’s money come from, [KL sighs loudly] maybe like a quarter of it would come from speaking, but I don’t even know if you’d be able to see the tiny sliver of it [KL laughs] that says podcast. Because as anybody who has tried to work with advertising models before, we have the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful support of some companies that we really like, but mostly the money that we get for the podcast goes out the door to the people who help us make the podcast.
SWB Because we have to pay them first. And I’m not mad about that by any means and I’m not saying that I want to stop consulting necessarily, but I do definitely need to think about, “okay, is that going to change a little bit this year and what might that look like?”
KL Yeah. I mean, it can all feel really challenging because a lot of us work in new ways now because we’re not always working for a traditional company—
SWB Gig economy!
KL Exactly! You’re not just doing one thing. And it can be sort of tough to figure out what you can take on and keep doing or what you might have to step away from.
SWB Yeah and I think I’ve been pretty lucky in that a lot of the stuff that I work on is stuff that is relatively lucrative, which makes it a little bit easier.
SWB Certainly I’m not trying to string together task grab at gigs(??), which a lot of people are. A lot of people are doing that plus freelance writing or something. And I think that that makes all of these calculations way more tricky.
SWB But still, I think we’re all struggling with the same thing, which is what do we do when we take on too much or we have too many competing passions or too many competing needs. I don’t know. When was the last time you actually took something off of your plate?
KL Gosh… I mean, a couple of years into working on A Book Apart, I actually started working on a side project that was really exciting. It was a biotech startup that two close friends of mine had started and I found myself way overcommitted. And then I had to step back from it, which came with tons of feelings. But at A Book Apart, I had just gone from Managing Director to Executive Director. I was working on developing big parts of the business like negotiating licensing deals and putting a lot more processes in place—and it was the year I think we had I think close to over a dozen titles in progress, which we hadn’t done before. So, it was… just the perfect time to take on a new side project where my role was looking at operations/strategy for a company doing work I really knew nothing about! Biotech is [laughing] not something I’m familiar with!
SWB Wow. How much time were you spending on the biotech company?
KL It wasn’t like I was doing that as a full time thing along with A Book Apart, but I was spending enough time where I was realizing I was not giving my full self to either and that became very scary to me. I just started to feel terrible—like I wasn’t doing anything well—and I knew something had to change.
SWB I think the last big thing that I took off my plate in a decisive way—like sometimes things kind of eb and flow—but the real decisive thing was the end of 2015, I decided to leave A List Apart. So, that’s the magazine that people often think is the same company as yours, [both laugh] but it’s actually totally separate.
SWB But it’s this magazine for people who work in tech and design and I was the Editor in Chief there for about three and a half years. And when I started out, I was working on my first book and then that came out while I was editing there. And then I was working on my consulting business and becoming a more frequent speaker at events. And then I was actually in the middle of finishing up the draft for my second book when I decided to leave. And it was a lot of different things. One of them was just that I did have too much going on. I had a lot of different things on my plate and having a little bit of that time and space back was really important. But there was this other thing and I think for me what it was was that I was feeling like I’d already done it.
SWB And it’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it—it was really hard to decide to let go of it—but I felt like I had accomplished a lot of the things I wanted to accomplish there around building an editorial team, building up the income for the organization [laughs] to have that editorial team, figuring out how we should really run a better acquisitions process, getting a much more consistent publishing schedule, a lot higher quantity of content getting published. I felt like I had accomplished a lot, but I also felt like that had taken a lot from me.
SWB And I could continue to do that much labour of love to keep that going, but that I wasn’t learning as much from it because I had already kind of done it. And it’s not to say that I accomplished everything I wanted—I didn’t—and it’s not to say I wouldn’t have learned things if I’d kept going—I would have—but it was sort of like I wasn’t as excited about what I was going to potentially learn or I wasn’t as excited about what I might get out of it. And it started sounding really good to have a little bit of that time back.
KL Great! So, now you’ve filled that space with podcast. [laughs]
SWB Gosh, I know. I really have. But I do think that that’s actually a piece of it—I don’t think I would have been able to do this podcast or even have dreamed up the idea of it if I was still working on A List Apart. Just because I don’t think I would have had the mental space, much less the physical space in my calendar to make it work. And it wasn’t like I went directly from A List Apart to doing the podcast, but it’s more like I needed to let go of A List Apart, which had me very in the weeds in the tech and design industry in order to—I think— to write my third book, which is the first time I wrote for a more mainstream audience. I was writing about tech and design and I think that I needed to do that to get to a place where I could do something like this podcast, which is really getting into an even more mainstream area where we’re really focusing on issues around work and the issues women face at work. And that’s a bigger topic that sort of transcends industry. So, I think to sort of allow those ideas to flourish, I needed that space. So, that was really good!
KL So, it kind of sounds like you’re now looking at your plate and it’s maybe too full again. So, how are you going to potentially look at that and figure out whether that’s the case? Have you thought about how you’re going to sort out what you might need to let go of?
SWB So, I read this article in The Cut a couple of weeks ago that was all about looking at the new year and instead of making big, grand resolutions, which as you know I don’t really relate to, it was like, “okay, what if you make a simple list of more this and less that?” And so the person who wrote it—Stella Bugby—her list was things like more books, less Twitter. Which like…yeah, fair. [KL laughs] Good trade off! But also, it wasn’t just things that had a parallel. So, she had things that were just like more ocean swimming, more art projects and then less complaining. And I’m like, “okay, yeah, those all sound pretty good to me too.” But instead of copying hers, I made a list of my own. Or at least I drafted one, it’s still pretty messy. It’s not Instagrammable yet.
SWB See if I get there. [KL laughs]
KL Oh my gosh, I want to do this too. And I want to hear what your list looks like and I’m going to think about what mine are.
SWB Okay, so I’ll tell you a couple of things I have been thinking about. So, one of them is that I wrote down that I want this year to have more experiments.
SWB Yeah! And there’s kind of a less to that too. The less is a little less cleanly worded, but I feel like I want fewer things that are sort of easy answers.
SWB So, it’s not like I want everything to feel huge and risky, but I do think that there are certain types of projects I’ve done a lot of and I can continue to do them, but I don’t want that to be the bulk of my time—doing things that are like what I’ve done in the past.
KL I like that.
SWB Another one is that I really want to have more guiding and facilitating and coaching in my work. And that’s something I’ve been doing for a while, I’ve been moving in that direction. But I do want to make sure that that’s a really big focus this year.
KL I love that.
SWB And what that means is, of course, that my work has fewer big, massive projects with big deliverables. And those are fine sometimes and can be really fun to work on, but I feel like the most satisfying work I’ve done the last couple of years has had a lot of that guiding and coaching to it.
KL That’s awesome, I might steal that.
SWB So, then there’s one other thing I’ve been thinking about and it’s around travel. So, I traveled a ton last year and for the last several years. And I don’t know that I’m necessarily going to travel that much less this year, but I was thinking about how travel fit into my life and my work life. And something I wanted to have more of is cooking at home more and in a very routine, kind of boring way [KL laughs] where I’m thinking a lot about which combinations of vegetables I want to roast, you know? [KL laughs] And little things like oh you know, if you’re really on top of roasting vegetables in the winter, you can do things like buy big bags of shallots and use them all!
SWB You know, little stuff like that where I’m like, “ooh, I can put shallot in everything now!” That is not particularly exciting, but I think that those little routine things, those day to day tasks, I think that those really help keep me balanced and they can be a really good way to decompress at the end of the day instead of Happy Hour or something. So, in order for me to have more of those, that means I probably have to also think about less travel when there’s maybe an unclear reward. So, I think this is already playing out. The other day, I turned down something that at first I wanted to do, which is it was a speaking gig in Berlin and it was for an organization where I was like, “this seems important.” And I had to pause and be like, “important to whom?” [KL laughs] And I think what I realized is that the audience that they are going to reach is more kind of like policy people. It’s very academic adjacent. And… that’s cool, but I realized that that’s actually not me or maybe that part of myself is not the part of myself I am most interested in pursuing right now.
SWB And so that’s a huge trip, right? Going to Berlin is like… a lot.
SWB So, I would love to go back to Berlin—I haven’t been there in forever—but this doesn’t actually make sense. This doesn’t align with the way I want to be both spending my working time and also wanting to be spending my evenings chopping vegetables.
SWB So, I said no.
KL I think that’s so smart. And personally, I think a big bag of shallots sounds extremely exciting, so… [both laugh] I’m with you on that.
SWB All right, all right! So, what ideas do you have?
KL So, couple of mine are sort of in line with stuff that appeared on Stella’s list like I want to do more reading and listening to podcasts and like less tv—just sort of to keep that in mind for myself. I want to talk to my friends a little bit more on the phone, like ones who I haven’t caught up with in a while instead of just catching up with them on Instagram chat. Because I feel like I do that a lot and when I have picked up the phone and talked to them and heard their voices, it’s just a different experience and it feels like a completely different connection.
SWB Do you remember being a teenager and on the phone constantly?
SWB Oh my god.
KL Oh my gosh, I had a swatch phone! [SWB laughs] Do you remember those? [laughs]
SWB Umm… I didn’t. But I definitely remember doing the dragging the phone cord around the house [KL laughs] to get into the private space or whatever.
SWB Anyway, the phone! I don’t miss making a lot of phone calls—
SWB—I hate having to call a lot of places, but talking to friends on the phone is so valuable.
KL Yeah. It’s just nice. I’ve started doing it again lately and I would love to do more of it. I put generally more rest and less worry [laughs] and I think those are just states of mind I find myself in and I would like to spend more in a restful state and less in a worrying state.
SWB Yeah, I want you to worry less too!
KL Yeah. And more nature and walking in nature, I want to do more of that. I’ve been hiking a little bit more. Jon and I did some hiking on the weekends when it was not quite as cold at the beginning of the winter and I definitely want to do more of that. And less sitting in an uncomfortable position or chair like at my desk. Maybe finding ways to work a little differently so I’m not having my body in the same position all the time. So yeah!
SWB I tell you what… my knee is pretty much back at the place where I could probably start going on little bits of easier hikes.
KL Yeah, yeah!
SWB And pretty soon here, by the time we’re out of the polar vortex of winter, I should definitely be able to do some of those hikes with you. So, why don’t we set some times.
KL Awesome, I am super into that.
SWB Yes! Also, can we look back on these in six months? So in June/July or whatever in the summer and see how we’re doing?
KL I think that’s a great idea.
SWB Okay, I want to be accountable to this.
KL Okay, me too.
SWB I wonder if any of our listeners have actually done this exercise or maybe if you want to after hearing it. So, if so, we would love to hear about what you’re doing more of or less of this year. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can leave us a voicemail at (267) 225–5923. That’s 267 225–5923. And maybe we can even play some of those on the show! [short transition music plays]
KL Kate Warren is a photographer who focuses on portrait and lifestyle work and uses her art to elevate conversations around race and gender equality. She’s also the host of the Insert Here Podcast, a show we love that explores real people’s sex lives outside the heteronormative experience. Kate, I’ve been following your work for quite a while and we’re really excited to have you on the show. Welcome to Strong Feelings.
Kate Warren Thank you so much for having me, it’s great to be here.
KL So, we’d love to hear more about your path to photography. How long have you been working as a photographer and what led you to it as a career?
KW So, I had always been an artist and I’m very extroverted, so photo is a really good medium for me. But I grew up in a family where there was a right way and a wrong way to do things and where you were expected to get a quote “real job.” So, I actually went to school for business, which in retrospect was a really good idea. I majored in marketing and I got a job at health policy consulting that brought me to Washington, DC right out of undergrad. And I did that for a year. It wasn’t a great fit because I was sitting alone in rooms writing white papers for companies like Pfizer. [laughs] A little dry! And so I started moonlighting as a photographer. And I was going to galas and I became the house photographer for a large arts and culture institution called the Corcoran Gallery and a couple of different glossy magazines. And one day I got in the elevator at work and my boss held up a copy of Washingtonian, which is DC’s sort of glossy regional, and there was a full-page picture of me wearing black-tie attire holding a camera. And it said “photographer Kate Warren” but no mention of the fact that I was working 60 hours a week at health policy consulting. And she held it up and she said, “what’s this?” So, I was pushed out of that job because I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid. They didn’t want me having a side hustle.
SWB Oh, I’ve heard that so many times from people! How did that feel?
KW Mostly relief. [laughs & KL laughs] I knew that job wasn’t a fit for me. I was doing a really good job, but it wasn’t something that I was deeply and emotionally passionate in. I was intellectually engaged and I loved working on really high-level issues from a strategic standpoint, but ultimately it wasn’t a good fit for my strengths. And that actually wasn’t the last day job. My final day job was working 90 hours a week for Uber in the early days; I did marketing for them. But let me tell you, working 90 hours a week for Travis Kalanick is enough to make anyone want to become self-employed. [laughs]
KW And if I had stayed for four years, I know exactly how much my soul would be worth and it is a lot of money. [laughs]
KW But I was only there for eight months. So, you know my stock didn’t vest. I walked away clean and that was enough to drive me to become self employed. And that will have been seven years ago.
KL Wow, that’s amazing. Well, congratulations. I mean, I think that sounds like it was a great move. When you’re working with people on a project like writers and reporters, what’s sort of an essential part of the process for you to make collaboration successful? Like I often think of—particularly since being a photographer can sometimes seem like it’s a solitary role.
KW Yeah, it often is. It depends upon the kind of project. So, if I’m working with a publication, the written piece is already in draft or very close to being finished when they call in a photographer. So, for instance, I recently worked with the New Yorker on a piece about this amazing woman who was in Baltimore named Natalie Wynn who runs a really famous YouTube channel called ContraPoints. And they sent me a draft of the article in advance so I could get an idea of the tone and tenor of the article because that helps inform the creative approach that I take to making those images. So, it’s a little bit of like a baton pass when you’re working with publications. I do some of my own writing for Washington Post, so in those cases, I’m working with both a photo editor and a written editor or going back and forth and having a dialogue about a) usually how much space we have [laughs] because in newspapers that still a concern, but to also make sure that the photos and the writing are informing one another and enhancing the narrative experience for the viewer and reader. But if I’m working with, say, an advertising client or a brand, it’s a much more collaborative process. I’m really grateful that I went to school for business marketing because I use those skills every day in running my own small business and helping my clients manage their businesses strategically. So, for instance, the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian calls and says, “hey, we’re interested in developing a library of images that targets millennials more specifically. Can you come in for a meeting?” So, I bring reference images and they bring reference images and we sit around and we talk about the potential creative direction for the photographs. And we talked about their brand audience, their brand values, what they are hoping to say and accomplish with pictures. So, in a lot of ways when I’m working with agencies and brands, it’s starting at a much higher level and then trickling down to the very granular pre-production and then production of images.
KL Yeah, it’s so interesting to hear about how that all fits together. How did you build that profile and go from events to a lot more editorial stuff?
KW I think all artists experience something that Ira Glass calls “the gap.” And he has this really cute video on Vimeo that you can look up and watch, it’s only about three and a half minutes long and I definitely recommend it. And what Ira says is that we all get into creative work because we have really good taste. And because we have really good taste we realize that when we start out, what we’re making isn’t very good. That is what he calls the gap between what you know is good and what you’re able to make because of your talent—the gap between your taste and your talent. And you really have to make a huge volume of work to slog to close the gap. And that’s when most people quit. So to me, really the only difference between someone who succeeds and someone who fails is the sheer stubborn will to keep going even when you know what you’re making is mediocre. So, I had a good eye at the beginning, but I was really green and I didn’t have a lot of professional experience—I had no professional experience—and didn’t know how to run a photography business, and didn’t know how to do production, or contracts, or bookkeeping, or any of the million things you need to do to run a small business. And I learned everything on the fly myself researching and asking for help from people. I grew my business almost entirely so far through word of mouth. I have been really lucky to be able to lead my business development through relationship building with people on a more personal level. And it’s absolutely played to my advantage that DC is not a major market for what I do the way that New York or LA or the Pacific Northwest are. I’ve been definitely benefited from that as well.
SWB So, I love hearing about how you built up the photography side of things, but I would love to also add in this conversation about your podcast because that also seems like a big piece of what you’ve been working on. So, it’s called Insert Here, which is a name I really love. And I would love it if you would tell us about the show and how it came to be and how it fits into this mix that you have going on.
KW Absolutely. So, Insert Here is a sex podcast where a lust and learning mate. And each week, I have a new guest on the show who shares their experiences outside the heteronormative and vanilla boxes. And the point of the show is to make conversations around sex, pleasure, intimacy, gender, orientation, and race much more accessible. A lot of times these are things that have a lot of shame for people and we are not taught how to talk about them as a result. We live in a patriarchal Christian-based society. And that sort of moral structure for a contemporary context really restricts how—and even being able to—talk about these topics at all. And as a result, people are getting a lot of information and misinformation from places that they really shouldn’t. So, you have a lot of cisgendered straight men learning about sex through mainstream porn. Now I have nothing against any of those things! [laughs] I love men and I love porn. But a lot of times mainstream porn doesn’t do a great job of representing sex and pleasure in ways that challenge pre-existing patriarchal structures, meaning they’re very geared toward male pleasure—the phallus—and less geared toward female pleasure. And they are not particularly inclusive in their representation. And so what ends up happening is people end up in like an echo chamber. So, you talk to a straight bro who’s watching mainstream porn only and he thinks that women love to be finger-banged…like no. That’s just not true. And [laughs] everybody wants to be good in bed, including that guy, but he’s just never been taught the questions to ask, the language to use, and how to go about having those conversations in a way that feel exciting, consensual, and respectful of all parties involved. So, what Insert Here hopes to do is expose people to a whole breadth and depth of different experiences that are different from their own so they can see that there is no such thing as normal and they can then start to expand their perceptions of their own life, and their own choices, and their own identity in ways that aren’t based in judgment, but are exciting to them. So, it’s more intimate and easier for somebody to surreptitiously listen to my podcast while they are riding the subway and hear about prostate pleasure, for instance—the Holy Grail of the male orgasm [laughs]—versus googling prostate pleasure. They’re like, ‘oh my god, what if someone is checking out my search history?’ This whole Big Brother thing, right? It just feels a little bit more private and intimate to be able to listen to me. And this sort of came out of my own desire to have access to information like that. There are only a couple of organizations and media outlets in the space who are doing a really good job around this kind of sex education. Salty is one of them. They’re a newsletter out of New York who do an amazing job of queer and non binary representation. But I really had a hard time finding things to listen to and read that were good. And in the sex podcast space, you have only a couple of players, some of whom have been around for a really long time, but who didn’t feel fresh and contemporary to me. Didn’t feel like they were necessarily on the cutting edge of conversations around gender orientation. And they certainly weren’t really talking about how things like race played into the bedroom. And I found that lots of people were really eager to talk about their experiences, had lots of questions, wanted to know what the tea was. Because ultimately everybody wants to be considered to be good in bed, because having sex is just a core part of the human experience, whether you are saving it for marriage, or having it six times a day, or selling it for money consensually, or everything in between. All of those things are totally fine and there’s no such thing as normal. And it’s my hope that the show helps communicate that.
SWB I love that concept that there’s no such thing as normal. I feel like that’s something that we’ve hit on around a lot of different topics on the show because I think that that’s true in a lot of spaces and certainly with sex. And I’m curious, do you find that it’s easy to get people to come on the show and talk really openly about this stuff, or is it ever hard to find guests who are ready for it?
KW It is very easy to find a lot of people who really want to talk about sex. It is more difficult to find people who are able to communicate their personal narrative in a way that takes it up to like a more macro level. So, don’t just tell me stories about that one time you had sex with a girl in a restaurant bathroom. Let’s talk about how your perceptions of masculinity impact how you have sex with a girl in a bathroom.
SWB Yeah! How do you get them to go there? What have you found works to get people ready to have that kind of conversation and not just leave it at the sexual encounter piece of it, which is kind of interesting, could be a little bit spicy, but only goes so far. [laughs]
KW I do extensive pre-interviews with people. So, I work with an assistant producer on the show—an amazing person, Nia Abram—helps me screen people and find different subjects. We brief people over email and tell them what we’re about. I send them episodes and really ask that they listen to at least one or two that interests them topically. And then we schedule time in advance for me to have a phone interview with them that is totally off the record. And we get on the phone and we talk for an hour, hour and a half, two hours sometimes and I ask them to tell me all about their sexual history. I tell them that this is the time for you to just spew information in ninety directions. And then together we decide a short list of topics that they’re going to cover.
KL That’s really cool. I feel like that’s such a—I mean, it sounds obvious—but it’s such a good way to do that and it seems like such a critical piece of it that you are spending time together before you record this interview, so that you’re both comfortable and you’re not [laughs] opening up to each other for the first time. And I imagine it makes you feel more comfortable to as a person asking really deep questions. So, you run this podcast about sex and you’re a photographer with artistic and commercial projects. How do you split your time between those two things and what does that usually look like? Is there a quote unquote “typical week” for you? [laughs]
KW No, not at all because my schedule is very much not my own depending upon the demands of my particularly editorial clients. When I’m working on commercial stuff, that stuff has a longer lead time for photo, but editorial tends to come in pretty last minute. So, I’m constantly filling in gaps in my book with, you now, the New York Times calls and says, “okay, can you shoot this person tomorrow.” Okay, yes! I have two hours to go over there and do that, or five hours to go over there and do that. Or yes I can drive to West Virginia tomorrow, okay. [laughs] But in terms of splitting up my time, I try to… so I spend a couple hours on Thursday mornings prepping for Insert Here because we record at 1pm. I tend to do those pre-interviews in advance, usually early in the week or the week before, so it’s still pretty fresh. We always have a pipeline built out so I know who I’m going to be working with that week and I spend probably four or five hours a week corresponding with people, doing research, reaching out to potential guests. I spent a lot of time taking—especially at the beginning of being a full-time self-employed person—taking whatever came along that paid and I am now at a point where I can be a lot more discerning about how I’m spending my time. So, even though I don’t make as much money on Insert Here as I do on the advertising photography work, it is personally very important to me, it’s something I’m really passionate about, and what I found is that staying committed to projects that do fulfill those goals ultimately leads to my career expanding in directions that I feel really good about.
KW So, for instance, after 2016—and I’m sure you experienced something similar—after 2016, particularly with the “pussy grab” comments, I became really pretty seriously radicalized by the political conversation. It’s impossible to ignore living in Washington, DC. And so I wanted to find ways to integrate that commitment to moving the needle on feminist issues into every area of my life through all of my relationships, through all of my client work, through of my side projects. So, if a client wants to cast a white man as a business executive, they can hire someone else. [KL laughs]
KL Yeah, that makes a ton of sense. It actually leads me to ask this next question. I know that you like to work on projects that involve inclusivity and have that as a main priority. And last spring on your blog, you shared work that you’ve done with a reporter named Noor Tagouri and she was working on a project about the American sex trade, which is so important to illuminate for the reasons you just spoke about. Can you tell us a little bit about that project and what it was like working with Noor?
KW Yeah, Noor is really amazing. She and I originally met because Playboy commissioned me to make portraits of her for their magazine, and she was the first hijabi woman to ever be photographed for Playboy issues—obviously photographed with her clothes on. And I styled her and we hung out in DC and became close friends; she is a wonderful human. And then I photographed her henna ceremony when she got married and that’s something I would really only do for a friend. So, when she developed this new project focused on bringing light to the realities of the sex trade in America, I was super excited for her and told her I would be happy to help in whatever capacity possible. And so we sat down and like I was speaking about earlier, we had a really strategic conversation about the story she was telling and how that impacted the visuals. And she was making visuals at the time as well, so we talked about the tone and feel of those and how I might go about making portraits of her that stayed really rooted in that style as well and sort of the tone that she wanted to set for the whole body of work. And these pictures were used as the leader image on Hulu when her documentary series came out. And they were used on social and her social and kind of all over the place. And then she morphed it into a podcast, which is amazing because it has exploded on the internet and I am so excited for her. And if you haven’t heard it, Noor Tagouri’s podcast is called Sold in America and you should absolutely check it out because it’s pretty groundbreaking in its commitment to highlighting stories around what it’s actually like to live and work in the sex trade in this country.
SWB That’s so interesting. I had actually just heard about that podcast recently, so now I really have to check it out.
KW Yeah, it’s amazing.
SWB Okay, so something that I wanted to talk about a little bit that I think is maybe connected to your work with Noor and maybe some of the other more artistic projects that you’ve taken on, too, which is that I know that you’ve spent a lot of time photographing folks who are from more marginalized backgrounds. I know that you’ve done work to photograph people who are involved in sex work and also people who are gender non-conforming or trans. And I’m curious about your experience with that. I think that it’s often a little bit fraught to both want to help elevate and share the voices or the images of people who are from different groups, but also there’s that distancing of observing people in a vulnerable state, and sort of power dynamics of being the photographer with people in that state. And I’m curious how you think about that and how you go about entering communities you’re not part of.
KW Yeah, that’s a really great question and one that I am constantly thinking and talking about with other photographers and most importantly, with my subjects. I also identify as queer, so as far as that goes, I am sort of a member of that community. But it is absolutely paramount to me that I prioritize holding space for people to share their own stories in whatever way they feel best represents them and not tell their stories on their behalf.
Insert Here is absolutely one of the best ways that I think that’s achieved. I’m not sort of taking someone’s story and then parsing it out into like higher level learning. So, I’m really sort of holding space for that person to teach themselves very directly. And as far as photography goes, it’s really interesting because these questions are posed to photography in ways that they are not to other artistic mediums. If I was a painter, these questions would be less likely to arise. And that is part of what makes photography really, really fascinating. And so when I’m going into spaces like the trans community, I am making sure that I am communicating my mission and vision and intent and I’m treating my subjects as the collaborators that they are and not just a person to stand in front of the camera and be taken advantage of in that way. Because I always want people to feel that they have agency over how their story is told.
SWB Yeah, of course. That’s so important. Do you feel like there’s anything that you’ve learned in the process as you’ve gone through and worked different communities?
KW I think it is super important to recognize whose responsibility the emotional labor of “wokeness” is. It is not a trans person’s job to educate you about the trans experience. And they are also not going to be speaking about “the trans experience,” they are going to be speaking about their experience as a trans person. It’s not my job to educate you about the experience of women. It’s your job to go out if you’re a man especially and do some reading, listen to a podcast, pick up a book. I am happy to recommend them to you, but it’s not my job to do the emotional labor of educating you. And for me on the receiving end of that, if I’m working with a community, it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m educated about the topics and issues that are front of mind for that community. So, I make sure that I’m able to be as sensitive to the conversations that are pressing as possible.
KL Uhh, yes. I want to just say a big yes. I’m nodding my head very furiously. [all laugh] So, I want to switch gears just slightly and ask about a recent project. You did a photo essay about the search for spirituality in troubled times for The Washington Post and you focused on witches. So, first, can you tell us more about this project?
KW Yes, the witches are everywhere. [laughs] My editor at the Washington Post approached me during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which was a very traumatic, very triggering period of time, especially if you have a history of sexual assault, which most of us do. And so he said, “hey, we’re doing a photo issue of the magazine on spirituality and I’d like to give you six pages to do whatever you’d like. What topic would you like to cover?” And I grew up in an oppressively Catholic household in practices and rituals that I did not personally connect with or identify with at all. But I couldn’t imagine spending that much time with men or people in traditional, patriarchal, organized religion because a lot of those spaces say a woman but belongs to her husband. She has to obey. Or that queer people are sinners and are going to hell for being who they are. And so I wanted to make sure I was using that opportunity, which is really rare. As a photographer, you’re rarely approached by a publication to say “hey, what do you want to do on this particular topic?” And so I came back to them and I pitched them on photographing the diversity and intersectionality of contemporary witchcraft.
KW Which is amazing. People who actively practice magic are traditionally people who are oppressed by systems of patriarchal religion like women and queer people. So, that really landed it firmly within topics that I was already engaged on and already really personally interested in. And so I sort of set out on this spiritual quest to find healing from the witches.
KL That sounds really incredible. You noted in the essay that today some young women and LGBTQ people in particular are finding themselves drawn to witchcraft and the occult. Why do you think that is?
KW I referenced it a little bit and it’s that those are groups of people who are traditionally ostracized or marginalized by organized religion. You have a lot of people in the melting pot adopting a lot of different kinds of magic. And as a result, there are a lot of interesting conversations happening in those communities right now around spiritual appropriation and who is entitled to what kinds of practices depending upon their background and ancestral lineage. So, it really tapped into a lot of the things that I am really interested in in terms of socio-political identity work that’s focus on gender and orientation. And I told them, as we were talking about earlier, I told them that I was holding space for them to share whatever parts of their practice they wanted to share with me—from sacred objects to rituals—and that I was there to only be a steward and to help expand how witches are represented in mainstream media. Because witches are still heavily persecuted and discriminated against.
KL Yeah, and I mean I love that you’re talking about, you know, you spent time with people who actually have ancestral and cultural roots in their practices and in these practices that you’re talking about. And that’s juxtaposed against the commodification of the witch stuff that you’re seeing a lot of on the internet like you mentioned. What did you learn being in their presence and attending some of these events and witnessing some of those practices?
KW Working on the project with the witches sort of changed my perception of everything. Because you’re holding space with people and having some of the most personal conversations you can have. I’m sitting around with people talking about their spirituality and their views on death and mortality. That really starts to shape your own perceptions of those things. As I like to say, witches are kind of like the X-Men in that each witch sort of has their own specialty, their own power. And maybe you are a garden witch and you like to grow things and you are really committed to herbal medicine and herbology and making teas that you give your friends when they have anxiety. And maybe that’s your form of magic. But maybe you are someone who is in a coven and you have new moon and full moon gatherings with your coven where you talk about your goals for yourself and you check in about your intellectual, spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being twice a month. Even these practices around how to hold space for one another were sort of revolutionary. Spending time with the witches was eye-opening in that they really live what they practice on a day-to-day level. Because at its core, magic is just the acknowledgement of the internal personal power and the ability to move energy, manifest what it is that you want to achieve, and feel a connection to the natural and spiritual worlds. And it’s interesting because throughout this project, people asked, “oh well, do you believe in magic now?” Like motherfucker, I don’t have a choice [laughs] after all the things that have happened over the last couple of weeks! And ultimately it’s not a function of do I believe in magic or not. The question is more for me that do you believe in your own personal power or not?
SWB Wow, yes. That’s such an amazing story. I feel like we could talk about witches for another 45 minutes because I also have a lot of questions about that. It’s so interesting to hear how deep you go into these projects and I think that that’s one of the things that makes them so powerful. We are just about out of time though, so what I would love to hear from you is where can folks follow your work and hear about all of the different work you’re doing with witches and sex podcast and everything else?
KW You can check out my photographic work at gokateshoot.com, which is also my Instagram handle. I’m @gokateshoot. There you can follow my photo work. If you follow my Instagram Stories, you can get live, behind the scenes reporting and pre-production and sort of seeing the process of making all the stuff. I also share when new episodes of Insert Here drop there. You can listen to us on iTunes or wherever else you find your favorite podcast by searching Insert Here.
KL Awesome! Thank you so much for joining us today.
KW Thank you so much for having me on! This has been great.
Interview Clip: “When I first started doing this and I would talk about climate change, it was like another subject like geology, hydrology, meteorology. And then at some point it got politicized.”
Interview Clip:“They were putting ads in the newspaper that were contrary to the research that they were paying us to be doing.”
Interview Clip:“So, this an experiment in shifting public opinion away from urgency.”
Amy Westervelt: Climate change denial was entirely created by the oil industry. Find out why they did it and why it was so successful in the first season of Drilled—on the Critical Frequency Network. [music plays for three seconds and fades out]
Fuck Yeah of the Week
KL [sighs] I am so ready for the fuck yeah of the week. Are you? I’ve got one.
SWB I’m always ready.
KL Okay. So, the new season of Broad City starts when this episode goes live. And I was feeling kind of bummed because it’s the last season, but then I read this amazing interview that is in the latest issue of Bust Magazine, which I get the paper version of and it’s really exciting to get!
KL And so the interview is with Abbi and Ilana, who created the show. And Phoebe Robinson did the interview, so it’s incredible.
SWB Uh huh. I love her!
KL Yeah! But what I really loved was even though they’re talking about winding down and letting Broad City go, there was just something beautiful in how they were talking about Broad City as a project and as a thing that they started as a web series and that grew into this completely different version of itself. And just how much they loved working on it and working on it together. And deciding to wind it down was kind of part of loving it, which I just thought was so great. It felt like they saw that by winding it down, they were allowing each other to move forward onto something else and have a different relationship and a new evolution of that. So, my fuck yeah is to having these women collaborators to look up to. And who just have this real partnership and friendship. They’ve built something amazing and they’ve just really remained honest with each other and realistic about where they are with that big thing they started.
SWB I love that. I mean, I hate that the show is ending—
SWB —but I love that they made what was undoubtedly a really difficult choice. And coming out of that deciding, “no, this thing was wonderful and great and it can remain wonderful and great without us having to keep doing it—
SWB —and we still have this incredible relationship that is obviously strengthened by having worked together for so long, but exists on its own.” And they talked about in this article how they can just go back to being friends [KL laughs] and just talking to each other about friend stuff.
SWB So, fuck yeah to that! And I just love hearing amazing and creative women in conversations with each other and talking about their work and talking about collaborations. So, fuck yeah! I want 2019 to be my year of just fucking awesome women collaborators all the time!
KL Me too! Fuck yeah!
SWB Fuck yeah! Well, that is it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed” by Blowdryer. Check them out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Kate Warren for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked the show, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever it is that you listen to your favorite shows. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week!
KL Bye! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]