Bargaining as Overachieving

When something bad happens to someone, they go through the Five Stages of Grief. The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, and we all experience these stages, and not necessarily in the above order. But I want to talk about just one, and that stage is Bargaining.

I experienced trauma when I was little, and I went through the stages. I didn’t know it at the time. But I’ve been working on this body of work about childhood trauma, and I’ve been exploring it on a personal level and looking at it with my own history. It’s been really freaking hard.

I’ve been photographing objects as signifiers for a traumatic event. I was challenged by a professor to talk more about myself as a person instead of someone who was traumatized. I interpreted this as photographing objects that said something about me, so when I was visiting home for the Thanksgiving holiday, I photographed some things. Actually, I photographed a lot of things. About 100 things. Things that had everything to do with my achievements growing up. Trophies, medals, pins, cords, tassels… Basically any form of accolade imaginable, I had earned in high school or college.

As I was photographing these things, I grew sad. Which may seem weird, because these objects are celebrations of my accomplishments. But they were covered in dust. The feeling I had towards them wasn’t pride, but shame, because I finally understood why I had all of these things and why they felt so empty to me.

They were my way of bargaining. The better I did at school, the more sports I played, the harder I worked, the more I could ignore what had happened to me. By working myself so hard, I could ignore– no, I could deny– what had happened to  me. The logic was how could someone who had something so terrible happen to them be capable of all of these wonderful things?

*You can click on the image to see it larger.

Some of my classmates asked me how I did all of this. The answer is, I honestly don’t know. What I do know what that I was hurting myself.

Trauma is a complicated thing. Healing is even more complicated.

I’m still working through this project, and there will be more updates to come. I have a lot of ideas to execute over winter break, and I’m spending three weeks in Ireland for a studio intensive course. Then there’s the whole thing about having three semesters left of graduate school… So this work is going to change. I’m looking forward to what is next.

Happy Shooting!

So, You Want to Go to Grad School: Pt. 2– Where to Apply?

So, You Want to Go to Grad School

Pt. 2– Where to Apply?

Choosing where to apply requires a lot of thought and research. But, you obviously know this, since you probably found my blog through an internet search, to help ease your panic. You can’t apply to 20 schools (I mean, you totally could, but the application fees would kill you,) and just go to the school that is ranked highest on internet lists.

When I was thinking about the grad school thing, I wanted to go one place. I thought it was my dream program, in the best possible location, with funding and unicorns and rainbows and ice cream mountains. But, upon further review, it wasn’t my kind of program.

There are a few things to ask yourself when looking at programs:

Who are the faculty, what is their work like, do I want to work with them?

This was really important for me. Some schools have 5-star faculty, like UCLA has Catherine Opie, Yale has Gregory Crewdson, and MassArt has Abelardo Morell. Having these artists as a part of the faculty definitely brings in the applications.

But more schools have faculty that aren’t as famous. Look at their work, their CVs, and see if they are someone you want to learn from. Creepin’ is important at this stage of the process.

And, most importantly, do you want to work with these people? You will be at the mercy of your professors for 2-3 years, and you’re going to want those 2-3 years feel worthwhile and not completely miserable. The biggest turn off for my “dream school” was the way I was treated by their faculty.

Go out of your way to meet faculty– I will talk about this more on my post about Graduate Portfolio Day and on Visiting Campus.

What does the work from the current MFA students look like?

Do some digging and find out who is currently in the program. Most school websites have a tab devoted to their grad student’s portfolios and/or websites. Check them out– please, really, do this. Pay attention to what you are seeing– does everyone’s work look similar? Are they all practicing the same concepts, or similar ones? Is there any experimentation? How about cross-media exploration?

Some schools have a very specific way of teaching photography. I was told numerous times on my journey that everyone that comes from Yale makes work like everyone from Yale does. “Cookie-cutter,” if you will. But, if Yale is the school you want to go to, and you feel their program will improve your photographic voice, awesome.

You could also want to be in a program that pushes the boundaries of contemporary art, or a program that is more interdisciplinary. It really, really matters to see what students are up to, because you can figure out the school’s philosophy and also gauge what kinds of resources they may have access to.

Do they offer funding?

I’m going to lay down some heavy truths here.


If you’re considering an MFA in Visual Art (or Photography, or whatever,) you need to realize there is no guarantee you will become a well received artist, an associate or even tenure professor, or anything else. The field is highly competitive, and everyone is good. So, if you take out $70K in loans and end up working at a job that makes $30K a year, I have sad news for you.

Do not start your art career off in debt. You will be too busy paying off those school bills and won’t have the time or monetary resources to produce work. Please, please, please don’t do this. It isn’t worth it.

So, do your research. State schools and universities typically offer nice scholarships, even full rides with additional stipends. There are some great opportunities, but these spots are also highly competitive.

Private schools and universities typically cost more, and they also don’t give as much money as public institutions. So, you could get into Pratt Institute, but get a $15K a year scholarship and end up having to take out $60K+ for the rest of your tuition. If funding is a huge priority for you, look into the sorts of funding schools offer.

A lot of advisors from these schools will tell you that they “will find you aid,” but that just means they will help you get loans. Yikes.

So, research the hell out of this. I wish I knew more about the lack of funding from private institutions, because I wouldn’t have applied to them if I did my research more thoroughly.

How about Graduate Assistantships? Can I teach?

Graduate Assistantships are hard to come by. I’m not delusional, or lying to you– they really, really are. Some schools, everyone that gets in gets a GA, but that may be because the program admits 2-4 people a year. Other schools you don’t get a GA your first year, and you have to apply for it/compete for it your second year. And, there are schools that don’t have any at all, since they “want their students to focus on their art.” Yeah, okay.

In some instances, you would get the opportunity to teach a beginners level course. This is actually pretty rare, and you will most likely find this kind of set up at universities, not small schools. If teaching is really, really important to you, look into it (well, obviously,) you may find that you may not be able to teach a class, but maybe you’d be willing to settle on assisting a professor in their class, if the other pros of the school outweigh the teaching factor.

Some assistantships range from administrative work, office work, gallery work, and archival work. If the school you are interested doesn’t specify what they have, ask directly.

Is it in a place that I can see myself living in for 2-3 years?

So, you get a full ride and a stipend, and you can’t wait to get started. At your new school. In Alaska.

Or, you’re a landscape photographer, you love wide open spaces, but you landed yourself in NYC for graduate school.

Yeah, maybe that’s a problem?

Figuring out if your school is in a place you want to live may seem shallow at first glance, but you must remember that the work you create will be affected by your surroundings. Some people won’t admit they would rather pay more tuition but live in NYC or wherever than have a full ride and live in Montana, where the most exciting thing outside the school is the gas station down the road.

Montana School of Art Institute

Take into consideration how expensive the location would be (for example, I wanted to apply to UCLA, but I knew I could not afford living in the LA area,) if you want to or need to be by your family, and, if you have a family of your own. Are you willing to relocate? Or are you happy with going to a nearby school?

Do I agree with their philosophy?

Last, but not least, look into what the school is teaching. Are they all about traditional processes? Or are they more into pushing contemporary boundaries through critical discourse? Are they open to all concepts, or are they only interested in sociopolitical ones? You will also need to know their philosophy better than they do, when it comes time to write statements and do interviews (but more on that later.)

So, there’s a lot to think about when choosing where to apply. One rule of thumb for a lot of people is to apply to 3 schools that are “dream schools,” 3 that you would go to, and 3 that are your safety net schools– but you also want to keep in mind that your safety schools should also be places you want to go, because they very well may be your choice 8 months down the road.

If you’re not sure where to start looking at programs, check out U.S. News Best Grad School List.  I urge that you START here, and not use this as your only platform for checking out schools. If you are still in undergrad, talk to your professors about good programs. Heck, even if you are out of undergrad, email them– they would be more than happy to help a former student. And, do your own digging. See if your favorite photographers/artists went to school, and if they did, maybe check that one out. The internet is your oyster.

Good luck, and see you next week for our next installment!

Happy Shooting!