'Longing' Is The Photo Book That's Telling a Story of Recovery

What does the feeling of longing look like? In her latest photography book, titled Longing, 22-year-old emerging photographer Kiele Twarowski set out to discover just that. Her pastel tinged film photographs capture simple yet intimate moments exploring mental illness, love, loss, and light as she has used the camera to document the last few years of her life. The Chicago-native and art student at the Savannah College of Art and Design believes her camera is an extension of herself, helping her heal during treatment for mental illness and showing her the value of genuine love.

Here, Milk spoke with Twarowski about her new book, her creative process, and how we can use art to break down stigmas surrounding mental illness.

Was there a specific moment growing up when you realized you were an artist or wanted to be an artist?

Just this past winter I was looking through old documents from my childhood with my mom, and we found one from when I was 6 titled “What I Want to Be” and number 1 was singer and 2 was artist. It turns out I have an awful voice, so the whole singer thing didn’t work out, but the artist thing definitely did. I’ve always been creative in everything that I’ve done. I think it stems from the fact that I’m such an emotional person that I desperately need an outlet to express those emotions, otherwise I’d explode.

When did you first start practicing photography?

I didn’t seriously get into photography until I was 14 or 15 when I took my first photography class in high school, but I’ve always been obsessed with cameras. I used to always take the family cameras and take photos and videos of everything, but my favorite subject has always been myself. I think being the second to youngest child in a family with 4 kids, I learned early on that more often than not, I would not be seen. Having a camera in my hands and turning it back at myself allowed me to be seen. It was liberating to say the least.

Having a camera in my hands and turning it back at myself allowed me to be seen. It was liberating to say the least.

What do you like most about this medium and how has your relationship with it evolved overtime? Have you always shot on film?

There are so many things I love about photography, but I think my favorite is the fact that it allows you to hold onto things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. As someone who’s dealt with trauma, loss, and as a result, dissociation and repression – I can say that the way I photograph is almost obsessive. I know that my mind is capable of obliterating things that I want to or should be able to remember, so taking photographs is sort of my desperate attempt to not lose anything else.

I remember going through countless disposable film cameras when I was younger. I loved not knowing what you’d get when you got them developed. Then when I was first getting into photography, I had silly little point and shoots and eventually moved up to a Nikon DSLR with the shitty starter kit lens. It wasn’t until I took my first photography class my sophomore year of high school that was solely shooting and developing black and white film that I realized that it was something I needed to do.

What kind of photographs do you like to take the most? Why?

If something catches my eye, I almost always have to take a picture of it. At this point, it’s completely compulsive. When I’m photographing, it’s a lot less thinking and almost completely feeling. I love making commercial work and collaborating with other creatives to make a collective vision come to life, but nothing beats the satisfaction I get from shooting a visual-diary style of personal work. People will always be my thing though. I can’t believe I’m actually tearing up while writing this right now, but I know I have a tendency to romanticize the hell out of people, and in photographing them, it’s like I get to create this perfect fantasy world where my view of them lives separate from reality.

How did your photobook, Longing, come about? What does the word longing mean to you?

It was really organic actually. I didn’t take the photos with any sort of intention of turning them into a book, but here we are! Longing is a collection of photos taken during the past two years that ended up bound together because it just felt right. It’s this desperate attempt to reach the intangible, which I think accurately sums up my life too. Longing is a never ending search to find something you might never reach, or get back to something that’s since passed. Longing for me is the desire to be anywhere else but the present. I’ve been practicing yoga and mindfulness a lot recently, and a mantra I’ve come up with is “Be Here Now,” but it never seems to get any easier. I can never get myself to be in the present because I always feel terrified of good moments ending, and I’m afraid that bad moments will last forever. I guess that’s why they call it a practice though.

I think the poem I open the book with pretty accurately captures it:

i’ve been thinking a lot less about you and more about death. sometimes the two go hand in hand. just because you’re not doing anything doesn’t mean life isn’t happening. one thing happens after the next, and before you know it, this is your life. bright and shiny and right in front of your face. so close you can almost reach out and touch it, but not quite. something inside you holds you back, keeps you pressed to the mattress. eyes plastered on the ceiling, unable to move. eventually it stops hurting so badly, but the longing never goes away.”

What narratives and messages did you attempt to capture in these intimate portraits?

That’s tricky to answer because they quite literally follow the narrative of my life over the past couple years, but I think there are a lot of themes going on in Longing. In the book description I wrote that it’s about love, loss, and light, but it’s so much more. It’s a navigation through female friendships, romantic love, doing things you’re scared of, sexual trauma, good things coming to an end, coping with loss and letting go. Most importantly, Longing is a story of recovery. Recovery is the most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’m still struggling with it, but documenting it visually and being able to share my experience has made it feel manageable.

Most importantly, ‘Longing’ is a story of recovery.

In a time when mental illness is still largely stigmatized, you’ve made a point to be open and honest about your own struggles online. How has photography helped you heal and grow more comfortable being vulnerable with your art and online?

I’ve always found a lot of solace in sharing (maybe even sometimes oversharing) the difficult parts of myself online. Growing up, no one ever had conversations with me about mental illness. All I knew about mental illness was what I read or saw in the media or what I heard by word of mouth from others. I became aware very early on that struggling meant you were weak, not presenting as happy was unfavorable, and anything outside of the norm meant you were crazy. Crazy was the absolute last thing I wanted to be, so I became conditioned to hide everything. It got to the point where I was so good at masking and concealing that no one around me could help me because I didn’t even know that I had a problem. Any suffering I experienced was very private and internalized. Once I finally admitted to myself that I needed help, I knew that I had to start being open. The thought of anyone else suffering the way I had broke my heart. It motivated me to be an advocate both in my own recovery and for anyone else who might be struggling.

Have you noticed your photography shift since you began receiving treatment?

Definitely. When I first had Longing printed, I brought in a copy to my therapist, and we talked about the differences in the way I photograph different subjects. The biggest difference we saw was the way I photograph myself versus how I photograph others. You can see how drastic the difference is.

In photographing others, I paint them in this beautiful light – literally and metaphorically! I think I have a much easier time expressing compassion for others, rather than myself. Through treatment, I’ve gotten significantly better about practicing self compassion and self love, but I think it’s necessary to show myself in an honest way because I’ve spent my whole life covering that side of me up and just showing people what they want to see.

Do you believe the camera has the power to capture us in our rawest form?

Yes and no. I think the camera acts as a tool to help us discover ourselves in our rawest form, but I once had a film professor who told me “film is a lie,” and it stuck with me. I think photography is a lie too, and I think it’s important to be aware of that when you’re viewing photographs of any sort. That being said, obviously I’m not deliberately lying to viewers because honesty is something that I value tremendously, but it is worth noting how many conscious decisions go into taking a picture – the type of film you using, whether you use flash or not, what you choose to have in the frame, how you scan the negatives. I could go on and on, but I think the biggest takeaway should be that cameras have the ability to simultaneously tell the truth and lie, and I love that about them.

What do you hope viewers will take away from these portraits?

I hope they feel at least a quarter of what I do when I look at them. I think the beauty lies in the fact that I purposely left any sort of explanation out. The thought of every viewer bringing their own baggage and their own feelings and experiences to how they see my photos is really touching. I could have put something along the lines of, “This is a picture of this, and I was feeling this,” but I think that would take so much away, at least in the context of these photos. I love knowing that someone could see a photo I took while I was really upset and feel warmth or happiness looking at it, or vice versa. Mostly I just want people to feel something, anything more would be icing on the cake.

Who are some of the photographers that inspire you most and why?

Nan Goldin, Noorann Matties, Olivia Bee, Petra Collins, Ryan McGinley, Andrew Lyman, Chad Moore, and so many more. I think these artists have such a candid and honest approach to the way they photograph. I relate the most with Nan Goldin due to our similar pasts. If you haven’t flipped through her book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, you have to!

Back in 2016, The New Yorker published an article about Nan Goldin written by Hilton Als (that I actually didn’t read until now, but the similarity in the way that I think and talk about my work to the way that Nan and others talk about her work is uncanny.

Als wrote, “Perhaps Goldin’s desire to document her life and the lives around her, to hold on to these moments forever, was a way of offsetting what had happened to her sister. “I don’t really remember my sister,” she writes in the introduction to “The Ballad.” “In the process of leaving my family, in re-creating myself, I lost the real memory of my sister. I remember my version of her, of the things she said, of the things she meant to me. But I don’t remember the tangible sense of who she was . . . what her eyes looked like, what her voice sounded like. . . . I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.” That need is as much the subject of Goldin’s photographs as the person being shot; taking pictures is, for her, an exchange that’s filled with longing, even as the moment disappears in real time.

Nan is referring to losing her older sister to suicide when she was 11: the same age that I lost my older brother to an overdose. My brother didn’t die, but he’s severely brain damaged and is now in a wheelchair without the ability to speak. I believe losing someone so close to me at such a young age is the force that drives me to capture things around me so obsessively.

How do you hope to evolve your creative practice moving forward?

I just want to keep creating forever and ever and see what comes of that. Right now I think my dreams are too big to condense into words, but I do know that I just want to share the work I make and create connections with others by doing so. I don’t necessarily know what form that will take, but I just know it’s something that I need to do.

All images courtesy of Kiele Twarowski

Stay tuned to Milk for more artful visuals.

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