Sarah is a MakeART collaborator. Read Tom Kerr's article in the Asheville Mountain Express and look at some of her documentary photography from western North Carolina.
One doesn’t meet a person like Sarah Harnden — one experiences her. She’s the poster child for a realm where the supermodels include migrant workers, homeless children and weathered men leaning on weathered barns, striking their best James Dean-meets-Merle Haggard poses.
Gesticulating into the air, as if creating a life-size mural with imaginary finger paints, she requires lots of elbow room just to carry on a conversation.
“I’ve always naturally been a pretty happy person,” she reports, “but it’s taken me a while to find my niche. How am I supposed to express myself? And I’ve finally found [it] — photography. I can finally get out some of the things I want to get out. It feels good. It’s exciting, and it’s scary, too.” (It’s especially scary when you realize she’s drinking a double mocha latte that hasn’t even begun to kick in yet!)
“The more you get comfortable with expressing yourself, it just rolls!” she exclaims in her photo-metaphoric way, then continues, rapid-fire: “It’s natural, and that’s when you know you’ve found your place. You think, ‘Wow! This is so much fun, I’ll probably get in trouble for it!’ We all have a place — there’s a place for each person to express themselves, and when you’re in that place, that’s when you feel good. That’s when you feel alive!”
Ask Harnden a question about her current photo exhibit at UNCA’s Ramsey Library, though, and she slows way down — as if checking the shutter speed in her zoom-lens brain.
“I started taking photography class at UNCA,” she explains. “I’ve always spent time looking at pictures. I like looking at other people’s pictures, so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try taking some.'”
Take some she did. The results are impressive, especially considering that this is her debut. Some of the photos are actually from her first roll of film — shot with a defective camera she bought on a student’s budget to enroll in Photography 101 at UNCA.
“The camera had a hole in [it] which created this misty, kind of foggy effect … surreal weirdness,” she says. “Then I would be driving down the road and see things happening, things I never saw in suburbia, like the hog butchering in this particular photo. And I’d jump out of the car, take a few pictures, and then say, ‘Oops, I gotta go to photo class!'”
Somehow, though, she managed to work things out, and word got around: This woman is onto something. Even before the official opening, dozens of people per day came by to admire the work. Within the first week after its installation, the university asked Harnden to extend the show from one month to two, and now she’s convinced university staff to leave the exhibit in the expansive Ramsey Library, instead of moving it to a smaller space after Jan. 1, as originally planned. As usual, she’s on a roll.
Her collection of black-and-white photos is titled “Postmodern Hyperspace,” an anthropological term used to describe the frontier created when modern social boundaries evaporate due to the rapid transformation of existing cultures, leaving a wild, untested terrain of human interaction.
Put another way, this fancy academic jargon loosely translates into “Where Sarah’s Parents Live.”
They live in Leicester — a quiet, rural community near Asheville characterized by lush farmland, panoramic vistas and rolling hills — where the work day begins before dawn and seems never to end. “I read an article, ‘Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,'” she explains (making a person wonder exactly what magazines she’s been sampling in an attempt to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes), “and I thought, ‘Wow! This is kinda how I felt when I moved out to Leicester!'”
There, observes Harnden, hyperspace is booming — incognito. She delicately removed its disguise with the wide-angle lens of her own artistic curiosity, and now she’s ready to share her revelations with the rest of us.
“There’s all this stuff going on, and the only way to understand it is by looking at the details of people’s lives. That’s how we know where we are at anymore,” explains Harnden, whose photographic images are tapestries of minimalist detail.
“In communities like that, there are no social boundaries, because everything is in flux,” she continues. “There are people living [in Leicester] who’ve lived there their whole lives. And then migrant workers live there from right outside Mexico City, working with the local farmers and sending money back to Mexico City, and then there’s even people who have permanently relocated from Mexico City and are gonna live in this community. The whole community is changing. There’s a blending of cultures. There’s no coherent language.”
You’ve got people speaking Spanish next to these local farmers who don’t know any Spanish. Yet they’re still communicating, working and living together. It’s really fascinating to me how all these people melt together into this one new community and coexist, with completely different backgrounds, and yet it works.
On the surface, some of Harnden’s photographs appear as simple as a piece of weathered oak. Upon closer inspection, though, they reveal a galaxy of human interaction, dispersing prisms across a social spectrum limited only by our perceptions of reality.
The freedom and responsibility for interpreting what the pictures mean are left to the observer’s imagination. Harnden is an artist who insists on sharing her gifts with no strings attached.
“I had all my pictures in a crusty old box with masking tape on it,” she says, “and then I sat down and put them into groupings — you know, into bodies of work — and … hung them on the wall, with the correct lighting and all that kind of stuff, and the pictures have this certain meaning to me.