Marshall Photographer Heals From Trauma Through the Forest—and Her Camera Lens

Nov 14, 2018

Susan Patrice can trace generations of violence and trauma against the women in her family. So in photographing people of the South, Patrice had to scale her own hurdles stemming from trauma.

“Documentary photography is a deep relationship, and part of what makes my work so successful was the quality of connection with the place and the people,” Patrice said. “One of the outcomes of trauma is it isolates you, it separates you.”

Susan Patrice in the woods around Bent Creek.
Credit Caity Fares

Patrice spent much of her adult life in Savannah, Ga., but has lived in Marshall off and on about 10 years. She’s the founding director of Makers Circle, a residency, retreat and workshop center for photographers, activists and creatives. Dysfunctional relationships in and out of family through the years led to a psychological and emotional fallout that, in 2015, pulled Patrice out of photography altogether.

As part of her healing, she spent at least two hours each day doing somatic exercises in the forests around Bent Creek. Patrice found a quick connection between those exercises and documentary photography.

“They share this long, loving look, this slow steady and thoughtful engagement with the world,” she said. “I would drive to Bent Creek forest and do a series of what I now refer to as ‘gestural prayers,’ and use my camera as a divining rod and let it lead me through the forest.”

Patrice’s new series of landscape photos are unusual in form and content—for one, they’re round—but the most peculiar element is the process leading to them. Patrice talked with scientists, forestry specialists and indigenous elders and read the work of others, and that led her to build a camera that both expanded and better reflected her peripheral vision.

More than a dozen of the resulting photos are in an exhibition Patrice shares with photographer Benjamin Dimmitt, on view through Dec. 9 at Dot Editions Gallery, inside the RAMP Space in Asheville. The exhibition opened as part of the week of Photo+Sphere events in Asheville.

“I was going into the woods, I was doing these meditations and my vision literally changed. So now I see in this very wide, spherical way,” she said. “This feeling of belonging would just wash over me. I was no longer on the outside looking in. I was in the center of this enveloping landscape that included me.”

Patrice hopes her photos contribute to a longer conversation about environmental stewardship.

“The trauma to the land and the trauma to the bodies of the women in my family are one and the same thing,” she said. “It’s no mistake that my work, to heal myself, had to return me to the land of my people, because the land of my people is as traumatized as the bodies of my people.”

Through her intimate vantage within the woods, Patrice developed what she regards as the deepest and most profound relationship she’s ever experienced.

“It radically changed my life,” she said. “Not only did I fall in love with the natural world, I felt loved by the natural world. If somebody were to threaten the Pisgah National Forest, I would protect it like one of my family members. Like, I dare!”