One doesn’t meet a person like Sarah Harnden — one experiences her. She’s the poster child for a realm where the supermodels include migrant workers, homeless children and weathered men leaning on weathered barns, striking their best James Dean-meets-Merle Haggard poses.
Gesticulating into the air, as if creating a life-size mural with imaginary finger paints, she requires lots of elbow room just to carry on a conversation.
“I’ve always naturally been a pretty happy person,” she reports, “but it’s taken me a while to find my niche. How am I supposed to express myself? And I’ve finally found [it] — photography. I can finally get out some of the things I want to get out. It feels good. It’s exciting, and it’s scary, too.” (It’s especially scary when you realize she’s drinking a double mocha latte that hasn’t even begun to kick in yet!)
“The more you get comfortable with expressing yourself, it just rolls!” she exclaims in her photo-metaphoric way, then continues, rapid-fire: “It’s natural, and that’s when you know you’ve found your place. You think, ‘Wow! This is so much fun, I’ll probably get in trouble for it!’ We all have a place — there’s a place for each person to express themselves, and when you’re in that place, that’s when you feel good. That’s when you feel alive!”
Ask Harnden a question about her current photo exhibit at UNCA’s Ramsey Library, though, and she slows way down — as if checking the shutter speed in her zoom-lens brain.
“I started taking photography class at UNCA,” she explains. “I’ve always spent time looking at pictures. I like looking at other people’s pictures, so I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll try taking some.'”
Take some she did. The results are impressive, especially considering that this is her debut. Some of the photos are actually from her first roll of film — shot with a defective camera she bought on a student’s budget to enroll in Photography 101 at UNCA.
“The camera had a hole in [it] which created this misty, kind of foggy effect … surreal weirdness,” she says. “Then I would be driving down the road and see things happening, things I never saw in suburbia, like the hog butchering in this particular photo. And I’d jump out of the car, take a few pictures, and then say, ‘Oops, I gotta go to photo class!'”
Somehow, though, she managed to work things out, and word got around: This woman is onto something. Even before the official opening, dozens of people per day came by to admire the work. Within the first week after its installation, the university asked Harnden to extend the show from one month to two, and now she’s convinced university staff to leave the exhibit in the expansive Ramsey Library, instead of moving it to a smaller space after Jan. 1, as originally planned. As usual, she’s on a roll.
Her collection of black-and-white photos is titled “Postmodern Hyperspace,” an anthropological term used to describe the frontier created when modern social boundaries evaporate due to the rapid transformation of existing cultures, leaving a wild, untested terrain of human interaction.
Put another way, this fancy academic jargon loosely translates into “Where Sarah’s Parents Live.”
They live in Leicester — a quiet, rural community near Asheville characterized by lush farmland, panoramic vistas and rolling hills — where the work day begins before dawn and seems never to end. “I read an article, ‘Mexican Migration and the Social Space of Postmodernism,'” she explains (making a person wonder exactly what magazines she’s been sampling in an attempt to win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes), “and I thought, ‘Wow! This is kinda how I felt when I moved out to Leicester!'”
There, observes Harnden, hyperspace is booming — incognito. She delicately removed its disguise with the wide-angle lens of her own artistic curiosity, and now she’s ready to share her revelations with the rest of us.
“There’s all this stuff going on, and the only way to understand it is by looking at the details of people’s lives. That’s how we know where we are at anymore,” explains Harnden, whose photographic images are tapestries of minimalist detail.
“In communities like that, there are no social boundaries, because everything is in flux,” she continues. “There are people living [in Leicester] who’ve lived there their whole lives. And then migrant workers live there from right outside Mexico City, working with the local farmers and sending money back to Mexico City, and then there’s even people who have permanently relocated from Mexico City and are gonna live in this community. The whole community is changing. There’s a blending of cultures. There’s no coherent language. … You’ve got people speaking Spanish next to these local farmers who don’t know any Spanish. Yet they’re still communicating, working and living together. It’s really fascinating to me how all these people melt together into this one new community and coexist, with completely different backgrounds, and yet it works.”
On the surface, some of Harnden’s photographs appear as simple as a piece of weathered oak. Upon closer inspection, though, they reveal a galaxy of human interaction, dispersing prisms across a social spectrum limited only by our perceptions of reality.
The freedom and responsibility for interpreting what the pictures mean are left to the observer’s imagination. Harnden is an artist who insists on sharing her gifts with no strings attached.
“I had all my pictures in a crusty old box with masking tape on it,” she says, “and then I sat down and put them into groupings — you know, into bodies of work — and … hung them on the wall, with the correct lighting and all that kind of stuff, and the pictures have this certain meaning to me.
“But what I realized after I hung them up,” she continues, “is that every person who comes and views them is coming with all of what they’ve seen in life … their perceptions, beliefs and experiences. That’s fun, you know. I don’t think I’d want to explain or tell someone how to feel about [my photos], because you can never tell someone else how to feel or what they’re gonna feel when they look at something.”
Yet she’s not detached from her creations. “I had a little tiny sense of loss after I put ’em out there,” she remembers. “I was tired that night, after hanging the show, and I cried. You know, [it’s] like your [children are] walking out into the horizon, out into the mist, and they’re gonna … go all these different places, and we really don’t have any control anymore over where they’re going or what they’re gonna say, what people are gonna think, and it’s the same thing with the [photographic] images. I think, now, they’ve dissipated into another reality.”
Harnden’s sensitivity is reflected in her philosophy of life, a spiritual perspective she nurtures with a passion. After enrolling in the University of South Florida’s pre-med program, she dropped out to backpack across New Zealand and Australia for a year-and-a-half. “Then I tried selling real estate to a community of retired carnival workers and sideshow entertainers who were fascinating. They were trippy, but I knew that wasn’t what I was gonna do for the rest of my life,” she explains.
Meanwhile, her parents had moved to a farm in Leicester with a vacant cabin nearby. The next time the spirit moved Harnden, it was to a log shack with a tin roof on 80 acres of unadulterated hyperspace.
Inspired by getting fired from a dead-end waitressing job in Atlanta, she decided, “I’m going to go out in the country and just completely drop out [of society] for a while — you know, live in the cabin, cut wood, go to the outhouse” and, as one does in latrine-esque situations, “figure out what to do with my life: What does it all mean? What do I want to become?
“I moved from the big city, and I’m living in this 100-year-old log cabin with no shower, a woodstove for cooking, no technology at all, where someone down the road once lived with, like, 12 brothers and sisters,” she continues. “All of their names started with ‘D’ — Doris, Dan, Daisy — they all grew up in the cabin I moved into.”
Harnden has nothing but admiration for the Dorises, Dans and Daisies of the world.
“[They’re] growing their own food. To me, that’s taking responsibility,” she emphasizes. “That’s what that is. It’s social responsibility. … You plant the seed, it grows, you pick it. You don’t depend on outside forces to give you the things you need. And I think there’s a lot of truth in that.”
Harnden discovered truths about herself, as well. “I was going to be a hermit,” she points out, “but that’s not my natural disposition. But I knew I needed some kind of spiritual food; I needed to step back and refuel. All of my energy had dissipated.”