‘Let’s make visions of the world that we want to see’

Artist June T Sanders on making images that soften and complicate the concepts of community and identity.


June T Sanders’ recent photo essay for High Country News, “Recollecting: Life on the edge of the prairie,” is an intimate series of portraits and landscapes focused on the queer community in the state’s rural southeast corner, where Sanders lives. The photo essay is the product of a grant that HCN’s art department offered on the theme of “Western Communities,” which was awarded to Sanders, a trans artist, educator, writer and curator, earlier this year. HCN’s visuals editor, Bear Guerra, recently spoke with Sanders about this body of work, her approach to photography, and the ways in which where she’s from influence her artwork.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

June T Sanders with her 4x5 camera.
Angélica Becerra

High Country News: Can you share a bit about who you are as a person and an artist, and where you’re from?

June T Sanders: I am an artist and a teacher and writer and sometimes curator. I mainly identify as an image-maker, which is different than a photographer in my eyes. I like to think of myself as someone who uses art to engage community and engage identity, and to both soften and complicate those concepts. 

I live in the small prairie town of Palouse, Washington, at the moment. I’m originally from Kennewick, Washington, which is part of the Tri-Cities, a quasi-rural suburban area in south-central Washington state, really shadowed by the nuclear power plant that was put there. That’s always informed part of my identity and my work as an artist, and even a teacher — being from a place that’s so disregarded that it’s seen as a place where you would want to put a nuclear power plant.

Growing up in south-central Washington felt like growing up in the middle of nowhere, even though the population isn’t that rural or small, because it’s completely out of the cultural imagination. Places like Wyoming or Montana — those are in people’s brains. If you grow up in rural Wyoming, you grow up in that context that makes sense to people. But when you grow up in an Inland Northwest town shadowed by a nuclear power plant — nobody knows where that is, nobody knows what that means. It feels like you’re growing up in a different kind of nowhere. 

Black and white negative of “Josie off Rose Creek Road.”
June T Sanders / High Country News

HCN: What was it like growing up as a trans person in that context? And how did that shape who you are today?

JS: I didn’t grow up as a trans person, because that wasn’t something that was going to happen. Where I grew up, it wasn’t something you were allowed to think about or do or even have the language for. So I didn’t come out until way later, way after I left that upbringing in that place. But that doesn’t mean those feelings weren’t there, you know; they just got pushed down, or they got mocked or beaten out of me. What’s interesting about teaching so close to where I’m from is that I have kids that are from where I’m from come out to me. And I don’t know if I can say something profound about that cycle, but it’s — it’s something that’s buzzing in my mind. But, to answer your question: It’s something that wasn’t allowed to happen.

HCN: Can you elaborate a bit on how you think of yourself as an image-maker as opposed to a photographer?

JS: As photographers who care about art and care about our photographs in a certain way, we’re always trying to think of a language to distinguish ourselves from other types of photography that might be more commercially or influencer-oriented. That’s not to say that one is better than the other. I just would like to identify more as an artist than somebody who uses photography as a means to an end. And kudos to people that can get paid to make photographs, but I hardly ever get paid to do it. (She laughs.)

If we can say that we’re making a photograph instead of taking a photograph, (that) can maybe help us shift our mindset into what we’re actually doing as photographers, or as image-makers. That also helps me think of photography more as painting or more as community work. 

HCN: A lot of HCN’s stories and imagery deal with individual or community connections to the landscape. In your photo essay, the viewer can feel this visceral connection for everyone, even when the landscape is secondary. How has this rural landscape where you live shaped you and your community?

JS: It’s complicated. The land I’m on now has gone through a lot of different histories; there’s a history of colonization, and there’s a history of agriculture, and the history of disregarding it after all those things, too. It is Native land that’s been colonized, and it’s also natural prairie landscape that’s been “agriculturalized.” It’s gone through all these different phases, and I think now, for a large part of the population, it’s none of those things, right? It’s just sort of a place, a physical landscape, to not think about. My college students express that all the time when they say there’s nothing here: “There’s just wheat.” I never want to sound preachy, but I always just want to say, “What was before the wheat?”

I also find it really interesting, because living rurally is one thing, but living rurally where there’s no place in between the towns is something else entirely. When I drive from where I live to where I work, there’s nowhere to stop, because it’s all wheat fields; there’s no structures, there’s no gas stations, there’s no other towns. That’s all there is, and it really creates a unique sense of isolation as well.

Behind the scenes image while making a portrait.
June T Sanders / High Country News

HCN: How does that then influence your work?

JS: I could maybe say that it slowed me down. When you have nothing going on, nothing new, you spend a lot more time looking at things, a lot more time walking.

One thing that I think has influenced me is that where I live, there’s nowhere for us to go and buy things. There’s no restaurants, there’s no bars, there’s no dance clubs. So, what we do usually as a community is outside of commerce. We can go have a dinner at someone’s house, or we’re going to this tree to pick the plums, or we’re having a fire pit at so-and-so’s backyard, or we’re taking dirt bikes to the fishing pond down South River Road. Those things are all outside of commerce, and they’re slower and more picturesque because of it. I think it’s completely influenced the kind of pictures that I make, because I’ve gone into that pictorial mode because of all that. 

HCN: In the essay accompanying your photos, Abigail Hansel writes that as a viewer, it feels as if you are almost letting us in on a secret. What do you think she meant by that?

JS: I love that, because I love the idea of photography and secrets. I come from a graduate-school, contemporary-image-making background, where photography is about secrets: A lot of successful contemporary art photographers shoot that quasi-documentary style. Most of the success within that is the secret to what’s happening in that moment. Like, they will never tell you how they got into that moment or what’s happening in the moment. And that’s what makes the photos successful.

But I came back to the question of, “Well, who is this for?” Is this for our audiences? Is this for galleries?

I feel like I’ve come through that whole vortex into the opposite — of trying to let the viewer know what’s happening in the photo, letting them in on the secret with me. It’s funny that I had to go and get my MFA just to come back to the idea that, for me, photography is something that actually does something for somebody outside of being an art object. I wanted to be able to hand this portrait to someone, and I want them to cherish it for the rest of their life because they might feel like they’ll never have another chance to see themselves reflected back that way. I want the photograph to be a cherished object and not an art object. And it’s so ironic that I had to go to grad school to figure that out. 

Black and white negative of “Elijah behind the gazebo.”
June T Sanders / High Country News

HCN: So, then, who is your audience?

JS: My audience first and foremost is the people that are participating in the image-making. My secondary audience is people that might be able to get something out of those images. If we can make for each other, then we’re doing that work. And if what we’re making can be resonant with someone else outside of that making, then we’re also doing the work. If that can also appeal to art audiences, then that’s fantastic. But I don’t want to give myself the wrong intentions by prioritizing that.

HCN: I noticed that in several of the photos, the person you’re photographing is actually holding the shutter release cable. That means they decide when to make the picture. Why do you do it that way?

JS: It affects the portrait that’s being made. If you are having someone release the shutter and make the portrait, and they choose that decisive moment, then that is drastically going to affect what image is being made, right? It’s an emotional way of making images, because you’re telling that person, “You are in charge of this image. I am the technical person here, but I want you to be a part of what we’re making. I’m setting up the gear and I’m allowing you to choose the moment.”

It’s nice that you picked up on that. I don’t know if everyone does, but it’s there because it makes something more emotionally resonant, I think, and it makes it more collaborative.

Behind the scenes image of June processing the negative of “Sarah with folded hands” in her home darkroom.
June T Sanders / High Country News

HCN: There was a sentence in your proposal that really stuck with the HCN editors who reviewed the grant proposals: “These photographs not only serve as evidence of existence, but as speculative photographs that speak to a queer futurity.” Can you speak a bit about that?

JS: As a photographer who is trans and queer, I often fall into the trap of representation. I think photography in general falls into the trap of representation. A photograph is a document of “truth.” A photograph is documenting what is right in front of you — and it’s not, right? Photography is fantasy, photography is truth-bending, photography is literally framing and cropping out everything you don’t want to see.

So if we can move beyond photography as an idea of representation, then we might get into the realm of futurity: The idea that if we recognize that photography is fantasy, then let’s just make fantasy, right? Let’s make visions of the world that we want to see.

Bear Guerra is HCN’s visuals editor. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.

We welcome reader letters. Email Bear at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor See our letters to the editor policy.

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