Photography with a social consciousness: ‘The Bully Rag’ a labor of love for Causey

I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them. — Diane Arbus

If there’s one artist who’s influenced Jacqui Causey’s style, it’s legendary photographer Diane Arbus.

“I like to pretend to be one of her children,” Causey said. “She never made fun of anybody but she took photos of the people that nobody else felt were worthy of a photograph.”

Arbus’s “love of the freaks” and her prodigious talents catapulted her into the stratosphere of 20th century American photographers. Forty years after her death, Arbus’s work remains simultaneously influential and controversial. Like Arbus, Causey strives to capture storytelling moments that extend well beyond the frame.

“I do think I take the photographs of a storyteller instead of the photographs of a photographer,” Causey said. “That’s the objective for me and it always has been.”

The depth and breadth of Causey’s work spans photos that were captured in a perfect moment as well as posed shots that were planned frames in advance.

“It’s the most exciting thing in the world when I look at a photo after I’ve taken it and it moves me — that whatever moment I caught is moving to me,” she said. “That is the thing that makes it something I can’t stop doing. What an incredible thing to find something that actually moves [me]. So many people don’t ever get to know what that feels like.”

During last month’s Winston-Salem PRIDE 2011 event — the first gay and lesbian pride parade in the Twin City in 15 years — Causey experienced the sheer joy of her art.

Causey participated in the parade with a contingent from Wake Forest Baptist Church. While snapping photos of members of the church, people on parade floats, and people just milling around, Causey stumbled onto a beautiful moment that eloquently expressed the greater truth of the PRIDE event.

“It was a very organic shot,” Causey recalled. “I was just taking a picture of a little girl standing with her mom and noticed after the fact her T-shirt that said, ‘I [heart] my moms.’”

The black and white photo captures the beauty of a child’s innocence. It’s difficult to tell if she’s aware of the camera’s presence. She’s either averting her eyes or simply in a contemplative state.

“The truth it told me was a family story — something that took the sex out of the PRIDE parade,” she continued. “There’s this idea that gay pride is about people having the freedom to have sex with whoever they want to, and it’s really not that at all. It’s a story about love and when you see a little girl clinging to her mom’s legs, I don’t know how you don’t see family there.”

A Greensboro native, Causey began her artistic career working in the world of music videos and commercials. She once dreamed of becoming a great writer until she moved to south Florida in her late 20’s to try her hand at filmmaking. That experience offered a valuable insight that would forever alter Causey’s life’s path.

“I was struck by the fact that most of these people were spending millions of dollars to tell stories and millions of frames that I could tell in one frame if I did it well,” she said.

Causey returned to the Piedmont Triad eight years ago and was immediately embraced by the Winston-Salem arts community. During that time, Causey has embarked on a number of photography projects, including working for the nonprofit Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods to dispel stereotypes involving race and socioeconomic status.

With her latest project, an anti-bullying campaign, Causey brings to bear the wealth of a lifetime of personal experiences as an artist and as a member of the gay and lesbian community.

It all started with an idea to create a video for the It Gets Better Project. Created by Dan Savage to give hope to LGBT youth facing harassment, It Gets Better encourages young people to submit videos telling their own personal stories of how they’ve been subjected to bullying because of their sexual orientation. Causey began researching the highly-publicized cases of young gay people who had been bullied that had committed suicide.

“I was sort of moved by the fact that, the gay kids are getting all of the attention but any kid that is bullied is at equal risk of dying,” Causey said. “So I decided to make myself an expert on the subject and talk to people — find out what their stories were and try to really understand the phenomenon.”

So Causey began sitting down with families whose children had been subjected to bullying. The extensive one-on-one interviews led to a photography project and a wealth of insights about the true nature of the phenomenon.

“What I’ve really begun to understand is it’s about power on both sides,” Causey said. “A child who feels powerless will take his power wherever [they] can get it, so they take somebody else’s power and you’ve got two powerless children.”
Causey began shooting video of young people and their parents and “sort of got hooked.”

Now, she’s planning a photography exhibition of her interview subjects. A set of triptychs will be a key element in the exhibition.

“The first [photo] would be is sort of a dysmorphic look of how they see themselves in the world, why they get picked on, and the reasons for that are so vast it’s endless photographic opportunities, “Causey said. “The second photograph is what they think they would have to look like to in order to not be bullied. We’ll do that through use light, costumes, digital enhancements.”

The last photo will come from interviews with friends and family about how the real world sees them and it will not be dysmorphic, a simple photo of a beautiful child.

“The idea behind that is to show adults how much damage it really does,” Causey said.

Causey plans on creating an exhibition of enlarged photos from her anti-bullying project and placing them on the edifices of buildings in downtown Winston-Salem during a Gallery Hop event next spring.

Mary Haglund, owner of Breakfast of Course restaurant, will hold a fundraiser for The Bully Rag Project on Dec. 7. In the meantime, Causey is beginning to edit hours and hours of videotaped interviews with young people on her website:

Causey encourages young people to post their own videos on YouTube and Vimeo and post the link on her website.

“The idea is this project will be a voice for anyone who needs one,” Causey said. “Those stories have to be heard and that’s going to be the driving force that’s going to make it bigger.”

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