In the last article of this series, the focus is on reconnecting with ourselves, relearning and above all, healing. The highlighted artist is Alex King (@alexkingphotography), a Polynesian and Māori self-taught photographer specialising in portrait photography, photo documentary, storytelling and wedding photography.
Reconnecting and healing. It is interesting to look at these two words together. Is it possible that by reconnecting - re-establishing a connection or bond with ourselves-, we start healing? Some of the questions that anteceded this article were, firstly, why we reconnect with ourselves, how we can do it, and whether it is an individual or collective task. During the conversation with Alex, it became clear that there was more to healing than just reconnecting with ourselves. It was a whole world of learning (and re-learning) or constructing (and de-constructing) knowledge. Within these processes, identity is once again reassessed, critically looked at, and storytelling appears as a way to make connections between one's own stories, other people's, and, of course, visual creations that reflect about culture, community and individuality.
"Growing up, there were some parts of myself I was disconnected from. For the last decade, photography has been a tool to help me heal and reclaim a lot of parts of myself."
Alex King was born and raised in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands. Her family descends from the islands of Mangaia and Rarotonga, and she and her family's tribe is Uritaua, historically descendant of Hawai'i. Having moved to Samoa and New Zealand for schooling, Alex returned to Rarotonga, where she currently lives and raises her eight-year-old daughter, one of her "biggest sources of inspiration" and a "driving force to her work". As an indigenous woman, visual storytelling came naturally to Alex and has played a role in her healing journey. Some of the recurrent themes in her work are nature and the feminine essence, and one of Alex's main goals is to create impactful and meaningful changes in her communities. Likewise, she aims to challenge the worldview of who indigenous and Polynesian people are within their cultural identities and traditional practices.
The processes of healing and reconnecting happen first and foremost on the individual level. While it is perhaps more challenging to provide and allow healing for everyone else, the individual may find that within themselves, there are parts they are more disconnected from. For Alex, leaving the Cook Islands to go to school, growing and learning in New Zealand, in a more Westernised society, meant that while she appreciates having had the opportunity to get others perspectives on the world, she also got more disconnected from her indigenous roots, and especially from being connected to nature:
"Indigenous people are very connected to nature and to the ground. For me, the journey with photography and storytelling for the last ten years has been about bringing it to myself to reconnect with my communities, our culture, our languages, and especially the environment we live in, which is something I feel in overall society, we are still very disconnected from."
The presence of nature as a ground element to create a personal healing process is seen in how Alex lives her life in deep connection to nature. As such, in her photography, elements of nature are emphasised not only in closeness with the individuality of human existence (through editorial and artistic portraits), in adoration for the planet through real life portraits of Earth, but also in the human mistreatments of the planet.
Additionally, although primarily individual, healing can also happen on a communal level and be influenced by the human connections around us. Two ways of looking at this are: as social beings, we usually create relationships with those around us. Additionally, we also learn from them. Be it through family relations, friendships, or even casual interactions with someone we vaguely know, people change our lives and, therefore, for better or worse, how we see and understand ourselves. A learning process is inherent to sharing thoughts and ideas. This can happen through empathising with someone or finding our experiences to be similar to other people's, for example.
"Through reconnecting with my communities, I have met new people on a personal level. I got to resonate with them and learn more about who we are as Cook Islanders: the meaning of our arts, practices and languages. I love working with people, and especially learning from and with them."
For Alex, reconnecting with her communities, talking, and understanding how they were treated (and mistreated) allowed her to learn, find her own voice, use photography and storytelling to start uncomfortable conversations and attempt to shift narratives. Photography had always appeared to her as exploitative, overshadowing real stories and identities and changing contexts to share inaccurate and problematic portrayals. Ever since childhood, Alex was always passionate about telling stories, usually fiction. Today, she wants to tell real stories, photograph people from around the globe, and make stories emotional but primarily accurate.
As a healing tool, photography showed up primarily as a way for Alex to find where her communities were being unfairly affected by exploitative uses of photography and inaccurate storytelling; and secondly, as a way for her to learn more about herself and use her art and work to influence narratives, always focusing on a shared responsibility that we, as humans, have in shaping the world around us:
"What we do impacts the world. I feel photography allows me to emphasise people's voices in our community. This is one of my main goals in my work since there are always voices that are overshadowed, that are not seen as valuable, so I want to highlight them and remind the viewers that we are so unique in our own way, and we all collectively add up value to life."
During this series of three articles, storytelling and identity were explored in varied ways, and through the words and imagery of storytellers. Each storyteller had their perspective, relationship with themselves, and relationship with the art of telling stories. Ultimately, storytelling happens in many different ways: it can be written, visual, or a mixture of both; it can use various techniques such as collage or video; and it can be personal, familiar, tell individual, collective, past, present or even future stories. It can exist as a way of connecting people, as a research tool, and as a healing tool.
Storytelling opens up possibilities; at the same time, it opens up to vulnerability. The work of storytellers is primarily intimate. Portraying identity (or identities) means that we need to be conscious of our own roles in the world, we need to understand context, and that stories have been thoroughly researched and thought about before they were told. As viewers, we try to understand the stories being told and critically engage with what we know about ourselves, how we see, and what we are yet to learn.
Overall, in the same way storytelling is so unique, and identities are all ever-changing, imperfect, and inherently different, healing also takes on different meanings for each person. Alex showed us that for her, connecting with her communities, culture and nature was important in the process of creating. She showed that within this process - that sometimes is not linear- there is space for vulnerability and learning. There will be people who will not agree with you, will challenge you (positively and negatively). Still, Alex also found that in vulnerability, there were some of the most important lessons to learn: to allow yourself to be transparent, honest, and provide context; to learn how to question yourself, your intentions, and to reflect on yourself critically.
It is common to think that we need more in life than we actually do. Upon reflection, it is possible that we understand the opposite, and we may be able to find comfort with ourselves, our identity, our surroundings, our people. Perhaps we are healing.
This article is the third and last of a series of articles called Connecting Worlds and Identities Through Storytelling. This series aimed to approach the art of storytelling through different lenses, featuring three different photographers and storytellers. Each of these articles had two topics in common: storytelling and identity; however, they all differed in perspectives and themes. Storytelling can be done in many different ways, and identity can be explored and approached in several ways too. This series explored the issues, the difficulties, and the freedom of telling stories. Whatever the story being told is.