Emily Hawkins’ Visual Bildungsroman

Romantic. That’s the first word that jumps to mind when you scroll through the photography of Emily Hawkins. Although whether or not to call it photography could be debated. Is it mixed media, or a form of nonphotography instead? Perhaps, in this brazen digital age such questions are mute. Whatever else it may be, it is certainly Romantic, with a capital R. The words are flowery and the images, in their toy-camera quality, convey an honesty that a better camera simply cannot convince you of. There is a beauty in these photos, masterfully crafted, selected, to appear off the cuff, literal snapshot of everyday life. In Hawkins’ work everything becomes usable, charged with meaning, and transformed. The photos are transformed both by the act of selecting them, and by the text with which she charges them.



Through the infliction of text upon the image, and through the image’s selection itself, the photo becomes a reflection of Emily and her life. It is out of this that these images hold the viewer within an intimacy. Yet, the experience is not voyeuristic. It feels, instead, as though a close friend has invited you to read a page of her diary. This is no mere accident, nor should it be written off as diaristic (though that form is greatly under appreciated). Like all beautiful art which appears graceful, and therefore effortless, Hawkins has put in the carefullest though, a graduate of the University of the Arts with a BFA in Photography, she has carefully crafted “all the feelings, emotions and experiences I had during the first couple of years living on my own”.


In this it is difficult to deny her overwhelming success.  The photos, like all photos, are frozen, imperfectly captured, pieces of time. Yet throughout them there is a great tension, sometimes between the text and the photo, the photo and the viewer, or within the photo itself. When asked about this, Hawkins’ replied that the photos “are examining the tension of being both an outsider and an insider in my own life, and ask questions like; what is my role in the events that I am documenting?”


In photos like the one below there is a pain that leaps from it. The clean, sterilized bathroom only makes the subject feel more alienated, yet not alien to us. Even with her face covered the emotion appears as though blasted through a loudspeaker. Her hands would have been enough to evoke among the strongest of sorrows. Here everything is on display, and it hits as hard as the best of Tracey Emin’s work, whose work it is difficult not to draw comparisons to.


“When I created these images I was simultaneously living two roles; photographer and subject. This balance of documenter and documented merge through this record of a shared experience”. Needless to say, this shows. I would not go as far as to say that these emotions, so vividly portrayed, go unprocessed, but it is difficult not to feel as though the photography was part of the processing. There is a nakedness about it. There is a literal one, and an emotional one.


The fit between the actual world, the mind, and language is imperfect, fraught with distortion, and Emily captures this distortion with clarity. When asked about this she succinctly put it, her work “contains surrealist imagery, blurry subject matter, and a grainy finish, reminiscent of the way we interact with our memories.” The manifestation of the distortion of memory has in a way become her subject matter. The figure appears as blurry, as not the perfection of the eye, but the imperfection of the lens, in a way our own lens that are our memory.


The role of the text in these photos though, deserves its own examination. It fits, at best, imperfectly with each image. According to Hawkins, it “captures a poetic lyricism that subverts or compliments each image”. This is wrings of truth, for the way she cuts, interweaves, and dances the text is expressive but never obvious; rather than just illuminating the photos, she implants another code upon them. It is tempting to write off her use of uncommon language as pretentious. The fact she uses “afar”, “faithless”, and “forthright” in relation to a modern life, her life, will undoubtedly result in accusations of empty self-indulgence from some male critic who thinks it’s “navel gazing, yet the perceptive will find the contrary true. Yes, there is potentially something embarrassing about making yourself the subject, in the fear that your little life will be of no interest to anyone but you. But Hawkins universalizes her life like the best personal essay. She is to be commended for it, within these photos she has made her life vulnerable to you. There is strength in vulnerability.


The next photo, a triptych of sorts at first appear a cliched statement, a woman scorned, torn between her love and hate of a lover, whose stand in is a set of condoms. Yet quickly the viewer will realize that the subject is not a person, but temptation itself. We are not talking about the volatility of a romantic relationship, but the relationship between joy and pain as experienced in vice. Yes, there is sex, but so too is there alcohol, cigarettes, and potentially pot. The tired outreached hand says it all, give it to me, this restless thing, I will be more tired tomorrow.


For grown adults it can be difficult to sympathize with what feels too often like overblown emotions for tasks they have long forgotten the difficulty of. The thing is though, while the first world problems of a young woman learning to live on her own can be difficult to accept as subject of great art, Hawkins realizes that the cruel and impersonal world of adults doesn’t just treat youth poorly, it kills it. She is not trying to preserve it, nor does she make any claim to its timelessness, but she refuses not to feel it, and feel it deeply. She invites us to revisit it with her, even if only in the blurry memory of a snapshot.



It is then worth mentioning that in a way we are presented with two Emilys. There is the Emily this is happening to, the one feeling all these emotions, unable to process them fully. Then there is the emily who selected these photos, who wrote the text, the one who joins us in the looking back. While the first one does not know the outcome, if the photos will be good, or even necessarily why she is is taking each one, except as document, the later Emily knows. She selects and crafts, she sends us what says it best, she decides what’s on display. Somewhere between the two Emilys the emotions begin to feel so natural in the pictures. They take on a grace.


You can see more of Emily Hawkins’ work on her Instagram, or on her website. You can also purchase her book, which contains many of the photos in this article and more.2


Kira is an avid enthusiast of photography, poetry and the arts in general. She holds a degree in Communications and English Literature at the University of Ottawa.

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