The Human Side of the Marginalized: Interview with Jenn Terrell
Jenn Terrell is a portrait and documentary photographer. Jenn’s work showcases a wide range of topics and individuals, ranging from portrait sessions to sharing the stories of sexual assault survivors, all presented with a raw, honest aesthetic. She lives in Bentonville, Arkansas.
I want to use the power of the photograph to create connections and bring people together. I aim to do that by showing the very human side of the marginalized. I want people to feel the tears of trauma, the scars of abuse and the pain that relates us all.
What is your favorite part about working with photography?
I have a passion for people, from all walks of life. With my camera, I feel I have the power to tell stories; stories of the oppressed and marginalized in society. I feel it is my responsibility to use my privilege to address social issues, educate, and effect change.
How has your style evolved into what it is today?
My style has evolved from bright compositions to creating darker, more moody scenes. I find it more authentic to show how things actually were. In addition, a documentary style is much more indicative of the style of my work these days.
Does the way that you create photographs change depending on your subject?
Working with different subjects changes the way I photograph, specifically the reasoning for the shoot. Family shoots, couple shoots, and styled shoots are much more laid back and relaxed. My biggest goal with those is to make sure the subjects feel comfortable with me so that I am photographing them as who they really are. Photographing to try and inspire change is different. When I photographed victims of sexual assault for the Hidden Reality Project, it was very raw and difficult. These women were pouring out their souls to me and many of them still had not completely dealt with the trauma they had experienced, particularly ones that received no justice. I tried to be extremely sensitive to what they were going through and I paused the photographing as many times as needed to help them get through telling me their stories. I think the photoshoots were a bit of a resolution for some of the women. I believe most women have been through some kind of sexual assault or harassment and sadly we can all relate and connect through those horrific experiences. So I think for some of the women they were able to talk to me about this and I could respond with some knowledge of where they are coming from and why they felt certain things.
What are you currently working on?
Right now I am working on finishing up the design of a poetry book by a Haitian American woman that I did photographs for as well. I am also designing my own photobook that includes stories from sexual assault survivors that I have collected over the years. I also have a few more versions of my project called "Femina" which explores femininity in the modern day.
Do you prefer working on styled shoots and more controlled projects or events where the environment is less controlled?
I really enjoy both controlled shoots and documentary style. The most rewarding, though, is always photographing to tell the stories of the marginalized that have the potential to inspire change or just to inspire people. That can come from either a styled shoot or a documentary style shoot.
You have three projects on view on your website, Hidden Reality project, The depression Project, and Femina project. Can you tell us a little about those projects and how they originated?
The Depression Project (jennterrell.com/the-depression-project) was the first full series that I ever completed. I started it because I was very close to someone who had pretty severe depression. I didn't know much about it so I researched and researched. I couldn't believe all of the information I was finding. I thought more people should know about this to understand what others are going through. I wanted more people to have the epiphany that I had. I thought a great way to get that information out is to have it come firsthand from a variety of people living with depression. I got a variety of firsthand accounts as well as stories of spouses and family members of those dealing with depression. The project became a sort of therapy for me too.
The Hidden Reality Project (jennterrell.com/hiddenrealityproject) came next. I kept thinking back to a night in 2008 when I hosted a girls’ night at my apartment in college. Nine women from various parts of Arkansas who all moved there to go to college came to my apartment that night. We were sitting in a circle talking and one girl starting talking about her son. We were all a little baffled that she had a son. We started showering her with questions. “How old is he? Is the dad in your life? How difficult is it to have a child in school?” She answered the first question with “He is 9.” We were all shocked. She was our age (19-24) and she had a nine-year-old!?! Is this possible? At this point, she decided to share with us the horrific story of how she lost her virginity by being raped while she was passed out at a party. She didn’t even know she wasn’t a virgin until her doctor told her she was pregnant. This story sparked stories from other girls in the circle about their own rape experiences. At one point I looked around the room and asked who all had been raped. I was the only person who did not raise their hand. Little did I know by the time I turned 24, I would be able to raise my hand too. This gathering was where I realized sexual assault was a much bigger problem than I had ever imagined. Young women from all different cities of the same state shared a similar fate when it came to rape. What a horrible thing to have in common. I never forgot that night and still think about it often. It was the inspiration for the Hidden Reality project where I also shared my own story.
Femina (jennterrell.com/femina) is my current ongoing project. It started with a group boudoir photo shoot that I did to showcase a variety of women. The photo shoot ended up being so much more than that. On the day of the shoot, all of the women came together and problem solved as soon as tiny setbacks happened. Each time we did individual shots of one woman from the group, the others would gather around and encourage her and tell her how beautiful she was. This type of love and togetherness fostered the perfect environment for this photoshoot. I never would have dreamed up this day the way it happened. It was amazing and inspiring for me to see how this group of women, who were mostly strangers, interacted and helped to produce a raw and beautiful set of photographs. This spurred an ongoing project about exploring femininity. I just finished up the second installment of the series with a diverse group of 3-7-year-old girls. They wore black dresses, leggings, pants, and jackets to foster a look of togetherness. They held hands, sang twinkle, twinkle, little star and laughed and played together throughout the photoshoot.
What advice would you like to give to people who want to start their photography careers?
Work, work, work. Work pretty much every day. If you truly love it, it will feel natural. Focus on your craft and create. A mentor of mine, painter Hubert Neal, Jr., once said that even if he was making no money at painting and was poor he would still be a painter. This made me realize that no matter what I do, I have to be all in. Photography is my passion and I am all in no matter if that means no money or lots of money.
Photographer: Jenn Terrell Photography
Hair: Giovanna Barboza
Make up: Brushed By Shae
Planner & Creator of the amazing crowns: Sonnet Weddings
Models: Destiny LaNeé, Tylr DeShae Mustin,J'Aaron Merchant, Monique Beilby, Cynthia Hernandez, Jasmine Hudson, Jessie Wagner