Our alumni are those who embody and extend text, soul, and culture far beyond the walls of 2501 Elliott Avenue. Our hope at The Seattle School is to be led by our alumni and their stories—how they labor to live out their calling among the people and communities they serve. Leanna Ramsey-Corrales (MA in Counseling Psychology, ’14) has bi-vocationally incorporated her training as a therapist from The Seattle School as a private practitioner and a documentary photographer. In this interview, Leanna shares about the use and growth of her art from a coping skill into a form of expression, how her time at The Seattle School informed and influenced her work as a photographer, and her passion for utilizing her camera as an offering of both representation and a path toward healing.
How has your story led to your vocation?
My parents are Wycliffe missionaries, and I grew up confused about everything. My dad took a lot of pictures when we were kids and my mom treasured the family photo albums, saying that they were the one thing she would save in a fire. So I think early on I saw photography as a way to anchor the self, to help develop identity.
When I started to travel alone after college, living in Korea and London, I took a lot of pictures to remember. It’s the same reason we take a ton of pictures the baby’s first year, right? Because it’s changing so fast and it’s never coming back. When I moved to Seattle for The Seattle School, I was able to use the integration and capacity that I was growing to shift and begin to use my art as expression rather than a coping skill.
When my son was born I shifted the focus of my work to try to process what was happening to me internally rather than externally. Rather than photographing cultural details that nobody saw or selfies to remind myself I was beautiful, I began to focus my lens on connection, on realness—exploring the way that family life and attachment and motherhood were different than what I had expected and also the same.
It was because of my therapist and my training in the classroom and the practicum room that I was able to bear the truth and the messiness inside myself. That I could even start to develop a mind around it rather than refusing to see it. The pictures of what I took were about what was really happening rather than doing what so many mom photographers do, which is clean a portion of the baby and a portion of the house and then photograph that. That work turned into my first show four years ago in the second story gallery at the Seattle School.
How has your work been informed by your education at The Seattle School?
I remember so clearly—during office hours first year, I expressed to a professor, Christie Lynk, how unlovely I found myself and she noted that she could not feel my classmates finding me unlovely. There were experiences like that in the red building that really changed us in our deepest parts. Thus I began to believe, not just in my head but in my bones, that I was good-enough. My photography doesn’t seek to highlight imperfections or expose secrets—that would be mean—but I do fundamentally believe that you don’t need to work to hide your flaws or make you look younger than you are. You are good and you are beautiful and that is true because you are HUMAN.
I try to show my own humanity in the pictures I take of myself and I don’t censor out pictures of our dirty house or our sad feelings. I think it’s important that I be willing to do what I ask others to try. Today I specialize in headshots of professionals who suffer anxiety in front of the camera. I admit to them that the actual photo session may feel awkward and challenging, but I promise promise promise they will look beautiful in the final pictures.
What breaks your heart, and how is your work informed by that kind of shattering?
My experience in life is that is that I’m often valued for my privilege (cisgender, bisexual who passes as straight, white, fully-abled, middle class, etc.). I’m constantly aware of those that are not getting the same value and opened doors as I am because their outside status is considered less-than. The history of Lifestyle Photography has a real discrimination problem. The kinds of families who book photographers are able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, cisgendered, heterosexual, upper class families. Thus it becomes that those are the only kinds of families worthy of being celebrated and those are the kinds of moments that are deserving of love.
A part of my art that is really important to me is the part that gives representation to those who are living life rebelliously just by walking around as their true selves. I seek out people of color, chronically ill people, families with neurological difference or special needs, queer people, fat people, etc. That doesn’t mean that I turn away white able-bodied paying clients (ha call me!) but rather that they make it possible for my personal projects. Representation matters and every beautiful image of a minority human matters.
What vocational rhythms or practices have you implemented?
One thing I find really helpful for my creativity but not very helpful for my pocket book is that I try to practice getting lost.
America’s career theory teaches us to find something that we are good at which nobody else is doing and specialize in it. This is a capitalistic model of success. And it works as far as money is concerned but alas for me, it doesn’t work very well personally. Most photographers make good money by only photographing seniors or only births or only weddings; but I am the gal who never wants to go to the same restaurant twice and I am intrigued and excited by change and newness. So to the detriment of my business, I am always trying to get people to let me photograph new things that I’ve never tried before. Perusing newness is a practice that keeps this fresh and interesting for me. I like to try things I don’t know if I can do or not, like photographing the Ballard Boxing Gym last year.
I really want to photograph a funeral. And I have a whole group of idea-seeds I’ve planted and hope someday they will bloom to fruition—nudes and girl birth, a lady weekend vacation, baby queers, undocumented, American Muslims, single people celebrating themselves the same way families do etc.
What inspires you?
The healing power of photography inspires me. In college I had a friend who hated her body. One day a photographer friend took her out and did a photo session with her. When my friend saw the printed pictures she gasped and said, “I guess I have been wrong about myself.” I’m not saying photography is magic and it heals everything. But I believe being shown beautiful images of ourselves being loved by those we care about can change our hearts in a way that talk doesn’t always do. Pictures can get past our defenses. Our brain believes pictures differently than it believes words.
I photographed my dear friend’s son’s one-year birthday party. She wrote me after how she never felt like she was fun enough or doing enough as a mother, but looking at the pictures she finally believed that her family was enough. And she experienced it that way. Not a cognitive belief or faith but felt belief. I think that’s so magical.