“We all have a story to tell, and our stories matter,” asserted Roxanne Valladao, executive director of Plumas Arts. She said that a new project sponsored by Plumas Arts showcases the “People of Plumas,” which aims to empower “a wide range of townsfolk to capture who they are,” and express “our affection for the rural mountain lifestyle we all enjoy in words and images.”
With that idea in mind, People of Plumas was recently launched with a series of free workshops, centered on writing, photography and audio recording, held around the county in March and April.
The program is made possible by a California Arts Council grant, which Valladao authored. “It was one of a very few grants awarded by the Council in the North State,” she said with a note of pride.
“The purpose of the program is for people to dig a little deeper with their photography or writing,” she said, while encouraging those who wish to participate in the workshops to create a “people and place based project,” designed to produce personalized accounts of living in a rural community through short profiles and personal essays composed of 300 to 500 words.
With inspiration drawn from the online and print publication of “Humans of New York” by famed New York photographer Brandon Stanton, People of Plumas exchanges the urban view for our small town perspective, Valladao said.
The program begins with workshops featuring three artists: writer Will Lombardi, local photographer Kim James and audio recording compilations by Zach Revene.
Workshop products are collected into a website with an online gallery of images and words, on a Facebook page and at gallery shows and traveling exhibitions.
Culminating works include audio and video recordings that will be featured on radio and on-screen at the Town Hall Theatre in Quincy and online.
“The whole purpose is to provide a creative outlet for anybody who wants to be a part of the project, regardless of whether or not they think of themselves as artists,” said Valladao.
As part of the People of Plumas project, Kim James, a Northern Californian fine art wedding and portrait photographer for the past decade, hosted a workshop March 25 in her Chester home, inviting 10 people to participate.
A seasoned professional photographer with a fashion background, James specializes in honest, emotional connections with her subjects. James photographs real people having real moments that are more than skin-deep snapshots, she said, adding that with years of photography experience, she knows how to effortlessly guide her subjects, capturing their best selves for the camera.
During the three-hour photography workshop, James touched on the keys to connecting with people as an integral part of her work, a skill she partly attributes to Brené Brown, an internationally renowned researcher/storyteller and author with several online lectures on the website TED.
Brown’s concepts on bonding with others have deeply influenced James’ thinking, she said, ideas that she applies to her own work as a professional photographer.
James explained during the workshop that her photography was as much about “intuitive emotional direction” (waiting for her subjects to reveal themselves, rather than accepting what they might initially bring to a photo session) as it was about taking pictures — perhaps even more so.
She said that psychology plays an important role in forming a connection with her clients in order to capture their personality, drawing them out as individuals and not merely posing them in front of the camera. If she wants people to be “present in the moment,” not posed or artificial, then James said she must impart that same authenticity during a shoot.
The workshop also involved having everyone share something about themselves; followed afterwards by showing a couple of Brown’s lectures on YouTube, to expose the group to Brown’s thesis on how to establish a connection with people in order to form a closer relationship with them.
While participants watched the videos, James invited each person in the group to accompany her one after another for a brief photo shoot in and around her home.
As part of the exercise, attendees did the same thing, choosing someone from the group to pose for a picture, until all the participants who were willing had a chance to have their pictures taken.
In her work, James explained to the group that before setting up a shot, she just “hangs out” until the person she’s planning to photograph is comfortable opening up to her. While James and her client dialogue, she said she studies their “micro-expressions,” and “body language,” which can say more to her about their internal state of mind than mere words alone.
James exhibits the same openness that she wants her clients to exhibit, to be at ease before clicking away with her camera. In other words, only when someone is relaxed and has removed their “armor,” can a photo reveal his or her real character.
“It’s not just about taking an image,” James insisted, “but listening deeply to find out as much about the person as they are willing to share with you. … It all boils down to an inviting connection with people through dialogue and also using my own body language to create mutual trust.”
James continued, “The difficulty in any photo shoot is that people may feel self-conscious about their bodies or their smiles,” for instance, and that “shame leads to disconnection,” because that psychological shell creates a wall of protection and isolation.
Being vulnerable can be emotionally risky, James recognized. “The hardest shoots are the one-on-one portraits because people have been trained by society to appear a certain way; it can be uncomfortable to be seen and recorded.”
To overcome the tendency for many people to hide behind a persona, she said it’s essential for her to establish a rapport with the client, designed to create a friendly, harmonious relationship before a session gets underway.
James said she applies the four elements of empathy in her work as well as in her life as espoused by Brown, those being: perspective taking; staying out of judgment; recognizing emotion in others; and reflecting that emotion back in a non-threatening environment.
“People hire me all the time to photograph them, and yet they’ve never met me, so I have to make a connection with them first before I can capture the essence of their personality, and that means they have to be willing to remove their ‘mask’ in order to be comfortable with themselves,” which for some can be excruciating, James acknowledged, “until I show them they have nothing to fear.”
James said she never attempts to force clients to expose the real person underneath, but instead uses the art of conversation and taking as long as it takes to know someone without being judgmental. “Only then will they ultimately show their true selves.”
By the end of the workshop, everyone had images of each other that they could submit to Plumas Arts’ People of Plumas webpage or a future art show if they so chose, which may include a short snippet on that person using their own words on the topic of how it feels to be living in a rural community such as ours.
The subject of connection is esoteric, difficult or impossible to measure, James remarked, “but it is in our nature to feel; it’s how we are built.”
Turning philosophical, James said, “To live without the expectation of perfection is to accept flaw as beauty — by surrendering to vulnerability — despite the normal struggle we may sometimes have being open and honest with those around us.”
Kim James, [email protected], will be offering another workshop in Quincy on Saturday, April 21.
It is not too late to get involved in the People of Plumas project, Valladao noted.
Based on community interest, more writing, photography and audio recording workshops will be schedule in other county locations in the future, she said.
Check out the “People of Plumas” web pages at plumasarts.org/people-of-plumas.
Valladao can be contacted by email at [email protected] or at 283-3402. Visit Plumas Arts during normal business hours: Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.