Jen Kiaba Photography: Blog en-us (C) Jen Kiaba Photography (Jen Kiaba Photography) Sun, 10 Apr 2016 14:50:00 GMT Sun, 10 Apr 2016 14:50:00 GMT Jen Kiaba Photography: Blog 80 120 New Fine Art Work: Exploring the Abyss The story:

The doctor looked at me with increasing alarm as I felt the tears creeping their way out of the lockdown I normally keep them under. She reached for the box of tissues without breaking eye contact. Delivery came just in time to catch those first couple of strays.

"Do you need a minute?" She asked, not unkindly.
I nodded and she quietly left the room to let me bury my head in my hands.
This had been happening with increased frequency. Out of nowhere something would strike a nerve and my grief would come welling up like a wave that could tumble me right over.
Just a few days before it had come while I was deleting old text messages to free up space on my phone. After excavating back in time, suddenly there was one from my mother, 10 days before she died. It was an inside joke of ours; the  pain of missing her was so sharp that I had to sit down and steady myself.
Now I found myself in a similar posture, head between my knees as though trying to recover from nausea. The doctor had said I was brave. Truthful I felt more scared that I had ever been.
I was there to get blood drawn for genetic tests that would look for DNA mutations that could lead to a higher risk of breast and ovarian cancer. The doctors had highly recommended it after my mother passed away from breast cancer last year. It had taken me months before I could even consider it.
It was as the doctor had gone over the quarterly screening that would be required if my tests came back with indications of high risk that I had cried. I had nodded at the mention of more blood tests and MRIs. Then she mentioned a young patient of hers who had opted for the radical double mastectomy. That's when I cried.
If the fear and overwhelm of facing the mere possibility of all of that was this hard, I thought, I could not even imagine what facing an actual diagnosis would have been like.
My heart went to my mother and how she must have felt both times she had received that awful news. Now I finally understood why she had put off getting checked for so long, and how facing that information and possibility must have felt.  I wished that I could hold her and comfort her again, with a deeper empathy.

After leaving the doctor's I didn't know what to do with my fear and discomfort. So I grabbed my camera, a costume, and I climbed the ridge behind my house. The doctor had said I was brave to be facing the possibilities. I didn't feel brave. I felt like I was staring into an abyss.

But maybe there is a kind of bravery in facing that darkness after all: 
A woman in a black gown stares down from the top of a cliff in the middle of a dark forest.Exploring the Abyss " Good luck exploring the infinite abyss." Fine Art Print by Jen Kiaba. For pricing visit my "Purchase" page.
There is an abyss for each of us. It is fear and the unknown. But it's something we all come to face at one point or another. Who knows, there might be incredible gems to discover within. So, good luck to us all in exploring the abyss.]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) creativity fear fine art Sun, 10 Apr 2016 14:50:25 GMT
Wishes for 2016 Well my dears, 2015 was one heckuva ride.

It had some incredible ups and downs, some of the darkest days I've seen and some of the most blissful moments of my life thus far.

It was a year in which I had to say goodbye to my mother after her eight year battle with cancer. But even those days of grief carried the silver lining of knowing that she was no longer suffering.

I think you also come to know yourself a little more in that darkness. What is the Leonard Cohen line?

"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

The light has been that I've deepened my enjoyment of the little moments, and of the joy that everyday brings. I've learned to trust myself and let my voice ring strong and clear, even when I struggle with fear and doubt.

That's led me to be able to share my work with more confidence, even in the face of rejection. And there has been (and always will be) rejection. But has that diminished the value of what I experienced creating the work? Absolutely not.

So here are my wishes for all of us in 2016:

May we weather the ups and downs of the year with grace and resilience.

May those dark places of grief not lead us into despair, but instead let us know our own strength and the contents of our own hearts.

In those places where we crack and break, may we let the light in to fill us up.

May we become aware of the beauty that surrounds us each day, and may we allow ourselves to take a moment to experience joy and gratitude for those things.

And more than anything, may we allow our voices to be heard in our own lives. May we learn to listen to that deep inner voice and hear its needs, its joys and its wisdoms. May we allow ourselves to commune with that voice and create the work that we were meant to create.

Thank you so much for being with me on the journey of this past year. Here's to another 365 glorious opportunities in 2016!

What are some of the highlights of your 2015, and hopes that you have for the coming year? Let me know in the comments below!
]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) inspiration Fri, 01 Jan 2016 20:08:38 GMT
Things that come in the Mail: The Power of Your Voice It was the end of another summer scorcher, and I took the long way home to stop by my studio and pick up equipment.

When I arrived at the door a FedEx package was waiting for me.

"Strange," I thought. There was nothing that I'd ordered recently. "What in the world could this be?"

Unlocking the door, I pick it up and then settle into one of the studio's couches. Tearing open the envelop reveals a letter, followed by nearly ten pages of stories.

It took me a few moments to process what I was reading, but as it dawned on me my breathing became shallow and the room seemed to tilt at a funny angle.

Someone who had made it out of the cult had found my blog, this blog,  and had reached out to me.

Truth be told, I'm usually very circumspect in my writing about my religious upbringing here specifically because I haven't wanted to draw attention to my work from that corner.

Growing up I learned not to trust others in the church, especially "first generation." Many that I met in my youth tended to be unstable, others were outrightly abusive. More importantly, they were proponents of Rev. Moon's doctrine and members of his "heavenly army." As someone who consistently struggled with the ideology I was being raised in, I learned that they were not to be trusted.

So, did I read this letter? Would it be written to hurt me, to try pull me back in? Or would I find an abusive or unstable soul at the root of the letter?

Curiosity pulled me onward and I chose to trust and read. I sat, transfixed by the pages as the sun set a fiery red outside.

The author wrote:

"Is my story of any value? [...] All I know is that my creative voice - however muted, damaged, crushed, devastated, mocked, and compromised - it's still there. Incredibly it's simply not to be extinguished. It speaks to me now and I cannot ignore it."

I read the letter again several times; it detailed a young man's initial meeting with the Unification Church in the 1970's and the decades that elapsed before he was finally able to walk away.

As I read a business card dropped from between the pages. Scrawled on the back was a personal email address. 

When I got home from the studio I examined my issue with trust again. If I reached out, who would I find on the other side? Checking my intuition, I decided that this was simply another vulnerable person who had ultimately had the strength to go through the journey of leaving this controlling group; I decided to email the author.

First I thanked him for writing to me, and trusting me with his story. Then I asked permission to share it with a wider audience, especially with the personal blog that I share with my sister that details our own stories from growing up in the Unification Church.

He wrote back, initially unsure. I understood and told him that it was ok to say no, and shared my own fears around bringing my work, both written and photographic, to an audience.

Eventually he wrote again, saying that he had felt compelled to share his story with me and that if it had the power to help others as well then he wanted it to be out there for them as well.

So I'm posting the letter on the blog I share with my sister, Summer of Cheesecake, as it is written specifically to share stories that will hopefully help others in their own journey in processing their experiences with the cult and in leaving.

I invite you to take a read other there, because perhaps this author has wisdom for you as well, even if your journey has nothing to do with religious trauma and abuse.

Take a read here:

More than anything, I hope that your takeaway is that your story has value. Even if it has been dormant inside of you for decades, it has value and it has power. 

Sharing your voice can be incredibly healing for you and for others. So I want to invite you to share, whether it's here in the comments, on my Facebook page, or in an email. I'm here and I'm listening.


]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Thu, 10 Sep 2015 23:21:00 GMT
A Step in the Journey - Critical Mass 2015 Yesterday an email arrived in my inbox, announcing the Critical Mass Finalists for 2015.

Several years ago only dreamed of having work that I felt was worthy to even enter into the event, but that seemed like a far off dream. I was convinced that I wasn't good enough and wasn't creative enough to ever have work meaningful enough to enter.

Last year I finally had the beginnings of a portfolio that I thought might be competition worthy, but I didn't make the cut.

This year I hesitated about entering. "Why would you want to enter the same portfolio that got rejected last year?" That cruel voice in my head mocked me.

You could enter 10 images, but only three could have been entered before. The cruel voice stepped in again, "You sure as hell didn't create enough to make it worth your time to enter again. You'll just be rejected all over."

But I powered through the application process, that voice mocking me the whole way.

So when the email arrived yesterday with a list of finalists, the voice was there again: "Don't even bother reading it. Your name isn't on it."

Then a kinder voice in my head thought, "Well, ok. Even if your name isn't there let's read the list anyway. You'll get joy out of seeing familiar names."

So I began.

Towards the top of the list I saw a friend's name. Grabbing my phone I sent her quick a congratulations, grateful for someone to celebrate and a quick reprieve from what I thought was certain rejection.

Back to the scrolling. I began to slow when I got towards the "K"s, emotionally readying myself for what I was sure would be a let down.

And then there it was. Relaxing back into my sofa, I realized that I had been holding my breath the entire time. 

Then I sat back up again, and read it a few more times just to make sure I hadn't imagined it and it wasn't a type.

I didn't cry like last time. This time I was just stunned.

Critical Mass 2015 Finalist Jen KiabaCritical Mass 2015 Finalist Jen Kiaba

It wasn't a disbelief kind of stunned, but a "does not compute" kind of stunned.

For years I had wrapped myself in a blanket of perceived unworthiness, as though it were a shield against outside rejection. "You don't have to be bothered showing me your disapproval, I've already beaten you to the punch!"

While I know that this is a defense mechanism from growing up in a cult that used fear of disapproval as a method of control, it still bothers me to see how it follows me around.

When good things happen it takes me a long time to process and accept them. Though I'm getting better, my acceptance is still hesitant. It used to be that I was full of outright rejection. Hence, the crying last time.

But here is the moral of my small story: no amount of outward validation and acceptance can heal the wound. It takes self-acceptance and self-validation first; otherwise we reject all of the good we are given and offered.

It may be a long journey, but it's worth every step.

So create what heals you and release what destroys you. Celebrate the small steps and celebrate the big accomplishments. I'm here to celebrate with you.

I'll be rooting for you, and I hope that sharing my story and journey helps you in yours.

So here's to the journey!

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) fine art self-love Wed, 09 Sep 2015 12:04:40 GMT
New Work: Where the Nightmares Sleep I've been having some intense nightmares lately. The kind where I have to journal about them when I wake, in order to close the pages on them afterwards. I've been dreaming a lot of death lately since my mom died, but these have been of a completely different variety.

A surreal nightmarish photograph of a woman's face by Jen KiabaWhere the Nightmares SleepSurreal Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba

You see, last weekend I spent about an hour on the phone with a reporter sharing my story. I still tip toe around it occasionally. But things have happened that made it clear that others that grew up like I did need to speak up, in order to help others.

And it still terrifies me every time. I feel unsafe and exposed every time I share. I never wanted to be labeled as "the artist who grew up in a cult." But now I have to say, why not?

Because every time I write something new, I get an email from someone who says that the story helped them.

Even if it's one person who's able to escape abuse and is free to live and love as they choose, then I have to say "bring on the nightmares."

I'll share the piece when it's published.

In the meantime, if you want to know the overview of my story, checkout my article on The Hairpin from a few years back:

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) fine art Fri, 14 Aug 2015 23:11:04 GMT
Photoshop Tutorial: Creating Grunge & Texture Receipes I have a confession to make:

Do you know what my biggest difficulty in editing used to be? 


I was all over the place with my editing. In fact I could have probably won an award for "Most Actions & Presets Used."

Unfortunately for both me and my portrait clients, that meant that my style was never cohesive AND it took me forever to edit a session.

Seriously, I would start form scratch every single time I started a new image, like I was reinventing the wheel.

Plus I had no signature "look." No one would have looked at my work and said "Ah, that looks like Jen Kiaba took that photograph."

And that's what we all want, right? 

Having our work recognized as uniquely ours is what brings us clients and artistic recognition.

Whether it's a wedding client or a gallery looking at your portfolio, you Need to Have Consistency!

So when I first sat down to begin my newest body of work, I literally wrote down all of the steps that I took to create the image.

Almost a year and half later I am still using that same recipe.

Say What?? A Recipe?

Yup. I have an actual recipe that I will be sharing in an upcoming tutorial.

But for now I'm going to teach you how to create your very own recipe using the textures I've given you, plus a peek at the texture recipe that I've been using the last 18 months or so.

So here it is, take a watch:

I hope that this tip help you save a ton of time, AND helps you communicate a consistent style to your clients.

As always happy creating!
]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) grunge how-to photoshop textures tutorial workflow Tue, 04 Aug 2015 23:25:45 GMT
Photoshop Tutorial: Removing Textures Using Photoshop Layer Masks & Custom Healing Brushes (Part 2) As promised, here is Part Two of my "Using Textures to Enhance Your Portrait and Fine Art" tutorial series!

If you missed Part One, check it out here: Photoshop Tutorial: Using Textures to Enhance Your Portraits and Fine Art (Part 1)

One of my biggest pet peeves when I began using textures was that I didn't always want to see the texture on the skin. There are times where it definitely enhances the image: think of cracks overlaid on skin and what a cool effect it could make.

But there are other times, say with a bridal portrait, where the texture doesn't exactly make it look like the bride has the greatest skin.

When I began creating my most recent series, "Burdens of a White Dress," it was really important to me to be specific about how and where the textures were applied.

For the most part I only wanted the texture to be applied to the background.

In this video I show you a couple of different ways you can achieve that result.

The first way is to use Layer Masks. This method can work great if your textures aren't changing the overall exposure of your image. But if you have multiple textures on various blending mode, especially soft light, multiply or overlay, you'll likely end up having a few textures that are effecting the brightness or contrast of your photograph.

So, in order to remove textures without affecting exposure I like to use a custom healing brush.

Take a watch and see how I use both methods, and how to create that custom brush:

If you'd like to get more of the tutorial videos in this series delivered straight to your inbox, along with the free Photoshop Grunge Textures that I use, click here to sign up for my newsletter

As always, take a watch and let me know if you have any questions.

The next video will be talking about how to create Texture Recipes that you can use over and over again on your images to create consistency within a series.

So stay tuned and happy creating!



]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) photoshop tutorial Sun, 12 Jul 2015 16:54:33 GMT
Photoshop Tutorial: Using Textures to Enhance Your Portraits and Fine Art (Part 1) If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I've had a Photoshop Tutorial in the works for a bit to accompany the free Photoshop grunge textures that I'm gifting. 

And, as promised, I've created the tutorial, especially for those who are wondering how to incorporate textures into the portrait and fine art workflow. It ended up being pretty long, so I've broken it up into bite-sized chunks.
You know, for easy digestion and what have ya.

This savory morsel kicks things off with some basics. If you've never used textures before, then this is for you!

I show you how to apply textures, change their blending mode, change the opacity, how to remove the color cast that they can create, and how to apply multiple textures to an image.

The next video will be talking about a couple of different ways that you can edit your textures so that they don't show up subject's skin.

If you'd like to get the rest of the videos in this series delivered straight to your inbox, along with the free Photoshop Grunge Textures that I use, click here.

For now, take a watch and let me know if you have any questions.

I'll be back again soon with Part Two of this tutorial! Until then, happy creating!
]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) photoshop tutorial Sun, 05 Jul 2015 10:15:00 GMT
A Gift: Free High-Res Grunge Textures for Photoshop As an artist, I'm a bit of a Maker by nature. I love creating my own tools and recipes in Photoshop that I can turn to again and again as I create my fine art photographs.

On any given day you might find me, with camera in hand, photographing things that I think will make great textures. Or, just the other weekend, I was on the hunt for the perfect cobweb in order to make a new Brush in Photoshop.

As you can imagine, I've created quite the collection over time.

So now I've decided to start a newsletter that will focus on tutorials and sharing the Photoshop goodies that I create.

When you join you'll get my first Photoshop Texture pack as a thank you gift! (And if you don't know how to use textures yet, don't worry. I'll be sending out a video soon!) 

I'm hoping that it will be a place where I can share some of my insights on Photoshop, what I've learned about the fine art & creative processes over the years, as well as hear back from you about what you'd most like to learn.

Plus I'm already queueing up those cobweb brushes as my next goodie. So hop on to the list, grab your textures, and feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you're on the hunt for in the wide world of Fine Art & Photoshop!

Click here to signup:

Download Five High Resolution Grunge Textures for Photoshop in a Free Pack from Jen Kiaba Photography.Five High Resolution Grunge Textures in a Free Pack from Jen Kiaba Photography.Click to sign up for Jen Kiaba's newsletter and download your free Photoshop Grunge Texture Pack!

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) photoshop tutorials Thu, 25 Jun 2015 20:33:03 GMT
Crack Me Open: Vulnerability & the Creative Process Several years ago, during a look-book shoot for an up-and-coming fashion designer, I took a several photographs that didn't end up making it into the final product. But those images inspired me for many years, and I kept wanting to revisit them in an art-related project somehow:

DELIQUESCE Collection Preview

But, as often happens, the inspiration was a quick blip on the radar and it faded just as quickly. (Which is why I always recommend having some sort of sketch pad available. It's important to honor your inspiration. Use a napkin or post-it note if need be!)

The inspiration sat dormant for years until just a few weeks ago when Jess, the model that I work with often, texted me one of the above photos, reminding me that I had told her that I wanted to do something with it.

I sat there looking at my phone, drawing a complete blank. "I have no idea what I was originally thinking about," I confessed to her.

Knowing the theme and palette of my current project, Jess made some suggestions for how to alter the pose and intention and listed some costume choices that she had available. 

Let me just say that as an artist it is such a great gift to have friends that I can be vulnerable with, who understands my vision AND who are willing to do some of the crazy things that are required to model for me.

Luckily this was one of the most simple shoots I've done, and we were able to nail the shot in less than four takes:

A graceful woman in a white tutu pulls at a giant red wound on her bare back."Crack Me Open" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase a Limited Edition Fine Art Print.

This image ended up being titled "Crack Me Open" because, sometimes, things have to break wide open in order to heal again properly. To me it is about the vulnerability needed to even get this photograph in the first place.

Just like in the creation of this image, if we never allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to be seen, we'll never be able to let others in. There is a power in the creative process when you involve others (I'm talking select, trust worthy others here. Remember, I'm a big believer in the healing power of sharing in safe spaces).

One one hand there is the pain and shame we can sometimes associate with being vulnerable. I had to open up and say, "Hey I want to create something beautiful and meaningful out of my pain. Can I trust you enough to see all of this and not judge me?"

But when we find those safe spaces, we can let go of the shame and revel in the deep beauty and creative energy that being vulnerable allows.

Because in the end, we're all a little bit broken. But I believe that there is deep new strength to be found within the process of healing. 

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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Tue, 09 Jun 2015 22:39:50 GMT
Redemption Recently I was having a conversation with someone about the concepts of Grace and Redemption. In the faith that I was raised in, those concepts existed for those who joined and chose to leave the "sinful" world behind. Grace was that threshold that you crossed into becoming a member and believer.

But once you were in, there were only extremes: there was Perfection or there was irredeemable damnation. For those of us who were born or raised within that faith, it became this pendulum that would swing between elation and toxic shame. We strove for perfection, and when we felt that we were on the path, we felt accepted and loved. But when we strayed or showed signs of weakness, we were overcome with feelings of worthlessness or shame.

In later years, after I had left the faith, the church introduced "restoration workshops" where you could pay to have grace bestowed upon you and your soul would not be confined to the lowest realms of hell. 

I criticized the practice as being akin to selling indulgences, but it has only been recently that I've really begun to examine how important the concept of Grace is. Whether you experience it in a faith, or within personal relationship a different concept of the divine, or just in your understanding and love for yourself, it is such an important part of our growth. Loving ourselves, forgiving our past mistaking, and understanding that we have worth despite our missteps are all crucial.

So originally I wanted to create an image that spoke to the irredeemable state of being that my childhood faith taught of. But the more I worked the image, the less it became about an outside authority withholding redemption and the more it became about finding your own personal definition and qualities of Grace within. A woman in a long red dress sit on a rock in the heavens above the clouds, looking down upon the earth."Redemption" Fine Art by Jen KiabaClick to Purchase a Limited Edition Fine Art Print.

I struggled with this image because it's very different than what I've been doing lately. It doesn't fit comfortably into my current body of work. (It's certainly not as dark and angsty as I'm used to.)
But Jessalyn, my model, pointed out that it may in fact simply be a new chapter in my work. Either way I wanted to share it with you today in hopes that it reminds you just how wonderful you are, and how much you deserve love - especially your own.

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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Mon, 01 Jun 2015 12:23:22 GMT
Resiliency A story:

The rain beat down on the motel parking lot, while street lamps above provided refuge from the inky darkness that had descended with the storm. My sixteen year old self stood, hugging my body against the chill, wishing for nothing more than to be swept away into oblivion. Fighting within, I longed for the quiet and peace of nonexistence, while a force inside urged me to fighting and breathe against the drowning sensation.

It was the night that would mark the end of six-month months of homelessness: of living on couches, in dark mountain cabins and the occasional dive motels. For those aching months I had lived with my possessions in a pillow case tucked under the seat of a van. Many days my sister and I tried to comfort our three younger brothers in the chaos that our lives had become, while we eyed our mother in the driver's seat, steering our lives further into oblivion. 

She had left our father, and found many backs turned and many doors in her faith community shut to her as a result. It's a story that I still have not had the strength to write about in full. It has left deep scars. But during that time, even though our mother knew that the journey was breaking us, she spoke of the resiliency of the human spirit. 

That word became a beacon for me. More than any god, or religion, that was what I began to invest my faith in: we were resilient. 

It's a word that has become important for me once again, having now lost her. The loss of a loved one, in many ways, is irrevocable. We can never regain the presence of that loved one in our lives. And yet we heal, we grow, and we move on.

In thinking about that, I've been drawn to this idea of the Phoenix, and what we can create out of the ashes of pain and loss. So I wanted to try and make an image that spoke to the cyclical nature of loss and renewal. 

A woman sits with red wings fluttering from her back, like a Phoenix rising from ashes."Resilience" Fine Art Photograph by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase a Limited Edition Signed Print.

Healing can a transformative process, and I am hoping to be able to honor the beauty that can rise from the ashes.

While creating this image, I originally tried to create the impression of wings with fabric. Unfortunately it simply didn't create that sense of movement and resonance that I was hoping for, so I ended up painting the wings instead. 

(Model is the wonderful Jessalyn.)

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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Fri, 22 May 2015 22:19:25 GMT
From Emptiness Yesterday was Mother's Day. I spent the morning at the cemetery, visiting my mother's grave. That still feels weird to say.

She passed in February, and the headstone still hasn't been installed yet. There's a barren patch of earth with a few tenacious blades of grass fighting their way to cover the nakedness.

The day promised to be a scorcher; already at sun was beginning to blister on the back of my neck. It was disorienting to stand there and realize that what physically remained of her was buried beneath me. The thought sapped the energy from my bones.

On the way home I was lost in thought, asking myself, "What do I believe about death?" Having rejected the belief system of my parents, there are still areas in which I have no comforting ideology to deal with things like loss and possible life after death.

In the short drive home I didn't come up with any philosophy to comfort me through my grief. But I did arrive at something almost as good: gratitude.

My mother and I had a contentious relationship from the moment I stepped in to adolescence. Despite a childhood promise that I would never rebel, I rose up in forceful retaliation against my mother as soon as I was a teenager. While perhaps some of it was the natural course many of us take, much of it came from a primal need inside of me to self-identify outside of the confines of my parents' world.

It has taken me years of distance and forgiveness to be able to begin to have clarity on our relationship, but I have begun to realize that each weapon I wielded to free myself was given to me by my mother. Knowingly or not, she gave me the tools that I needed to free my mind and begin to forge my own life outside of the control of the cult she had brought me up within.

Though when I was young, many of our conversations turned into her sermonizing, there were often hidden little gems that I would pluck out and cherish, polishing them until they gleamed like beacons:

I would hear stories of how the leadership in the church would try to assign her a "mission," but her gut told her that something else was more important. She would fight until she had her own way and that, she would say, was how she ended up getting her undergraduate degree in Hawaii while many other members had given up their education to fundraise for the church.

"Trust your gut," she would say.

"Choose your own beliefs, or someone else will," she warned.

Once she even ventured to say that, as long as I was happy, she would support me even if I joined another faith.

I've often wondered how that strength and independence of mind got lost in her. Were these moments little insights into a suppressed inner-wise self that was fighting to get out within her?

Though she gave me the tools for self-direction and thought freedom, she fought when I finally chose to act upon those things. And while there is so much healing to do in that aftermath, I have to maintain a deep and profound gratitude that through all of the control and the noise that her faith created to try to drown out thought, she was able to whisper to me, "Go, and be free."

For that, even in the dark emptiness of loss, I am profoundly grateful. From that gift, I have been able to create all of the beauty in my life.

The rest of Mother's Day I spent creating this photograph for her. While I was thinking of what to name it, the word "womb" kept coming up. I researched the definition of womb and saw that it was assigned synonyms like "void," "nothingness" and "emptiness."

A woman hangs in a red silk cocoon, like a newborn child."From Emptiness" Fine Art Photograph by Jen Kiaba.Click to purchase a limited edition fine art print.

In death we fear the potential void. The unknown stretches out before us like a yawning chasm. But we are told that in birth we faced those same fears as we were welcomed into this world.

From emptiness we came into being. That gives me hope for all of the beauty we can create, even from the darkest of places.

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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Mon, 11 May 2015 12:07:34 GMT
Creativity and Constraints: Overcoming Creative Blocks As I've begun to emerge from the darkness that the winter and my mom's passing has brought on, I wanted to also begin to use this space to talk a bit about creative practice. It's one thing to talk about the inspiration that a work comes from, but I think it's equally as helpful to talk about the practice of being creative. 

Having a regular creative practice is a tough one for a lot of us. I used to believe that I wasn't creative. I could creatively come up with every excuse under the sun as to why I couldn't be creative: I didn't have the access I needed to cool locations, I didn't have the right gear, I didn't have the necessary wardrobe, et al. ad nauseam.

The problem was that when I would finally sit down to create, I would begin chasing my tail with that excuse spiral and end up with nothing to show for my efforts.

This went on for years, and my creative output was spastic and all over the map. I had no idea how to express myself, harness my voice as an artist, or to have any kind of regular artistic practice. The result was a lot of effort with no real body of work to show for it.

Then several years ago I happened to catch Brooke Shaden's Fine Art Portraits on CreativeLive. In the kindest way possible, she shattered all of my notions on creativity and made me realize that my excuses we all, well, bullshit. She creates amazing images on next-to-no budget by being imaginative, tenacious and constantly exercising her imagination like a muscle.

Without my excuses I was left with very little to explain away my lack of creative output. Interestingly, I found that fear is often at the root of all of our excuses. And it has some very important things to tell you. But that is, quite literally, another blog post (which you can find here.)

Fear will throw all kinds of hurdles in your way. It will tell you that you don't have what you need or what it takes to create what you want. Or worse: maybe it tells you that you don't have a right to create what you want to. That's a tough one. But when fear flies in your face like that, it's time to answer fear and say "Maybe you're right. But I'm going to try anyway."

So when I came up against a creative block that said I didn't have any cool locations to shoot in, I said, "Maybe that's true. But I'm going to shoot against a blank wall and see what I can create."

When another block told me my costume wardrobe wasn't what it needed to be I simply answered, "That might be a valid concern. But I have a single white dress that I can use over and over again."

I didn't have a large kit with fancy lights? Well, I can use a window.

The toughest one was around feeling like I had no right to really express myself. So I quietly created in secret; and despite near-panic at times, I very timidly began to share my work in a few safe spaces.

Each time you push through a block, it becomes easier to get through it the next time.

Then a funny thing began to happen. After a while, the constraints were no longer reasons not to create. Suddenly they became vast spaces within which to explore.

Let me explain: when I decided to use a single white dress as a costume, suddenly it was one less thing to worry about. The white dress has so many levels of symbology to play with, that the possibilities became immense. Eventually I began to throw a few more into the mix.

When I chose to use a blank wall as my setting, I realized that I could create an entire emotional world through the use of a prop or two, a pose and an expression.

I even decided to limit my color palette to see what I could do with black, white, red and flesh tone.

The fear that my voice wasn't valid became a reason for me to continue to create and share - so it could be a beacon to others who begin to feeland find their own permission to speak, share and create.

Eventually an entire body of work emerged.

As contrary as it may seem, I was actually able to turn the limitations into freedom. (Every now and then I go wild and use a red dress instead of white. Woo!)

Create an endless number of innovative fine art images, even with limited resources.

All it takes is a tiny space and a dress to make photographic magic happen.

Now it's much easier to invite ideas in because I don't shut them down immediately, or have to traverse as many hurdles. It also makes a regular artistic practice less stressful because I have a basic creative workflow (yes, I'm a bit of a systems person), and I usually know exactly how I will accomplish each shot before I even set up my camera.

So I'd be curious to hear from you: have you found that you get in your own way creatively? What are some of the excuses or fears that come up for you, and are there any ways that you've been able to eliminate them?

Tell me in the comments below!

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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Wed, 06 May 2015 23:29:10 GMT
Insulation and its Connotations A fine art photograph by Jen Kiaba of a woman in a white dress hiding her face, while kneeling in a dark insulated attic space."Insulated" Fine Art Print by Jen Kiaba.Click to Purchase a Limited Edition Print.

This is an image that I originally shot back in 2011, but was never fully satisfied with before. Sadly, reshooting was never an option, and so the image lay dormant for many years. But something came up for me recently that brought this image to mind, and I felt that it was time to revisit it.

"Insulation" is a word that can have both positive and negative connotations. When I'm going through a period of healing, I like to insulate myself - often I refer to it as cocooning.

But there is also a darker side to insulation, where it blurs with isolation and alienation. Whether it's within abusive interpersonal relationships, or in high demand religious groups/cults, isolation is a debilitating and can compound the trauma of the experience.

It's been ten years since I left the insular religion that I grew up in, and yet there are still times where I experience the residual effects of that childhood trauma. Much of my work is now dedicated to helping others discover their way out, and then finding outlets for their healing.

This week a chilling report came across my news feed in a support group that I help admin, and I haven't been able to shake the anger and sadness that it brings up for me (trigger warning - sexual violence).

My first thought upon reading this was "please don't let this be true."

Sadly, I well aware of what the organization involved would do in order to cover up an incident like this. During my teens, we witnessed the political circus that occurred when a young woman was victimized and killed, and the church's leadership tried to paint a picture of a saintly martyr while also subtly shaming her.

Still, this time, a naive part of me hoped that this new incident didn't occur at all, and that no one had to endure that kind of trauma. Add to that the compounding pain of having an entire institution shame, silence and isolate you in a way that forbids you from sharing your experience and there is no way to really heal.

My heart breaks because this kind of horrible victim treatment happens all of the time. Families stay silents out of fear of judgement; universities and religious institutions silence victims in order to preserve reputations. And the people who are most in need are isolated, alienated, and insulated in their pain.

At the end of the day, I don't know if this report is true. Until those involved step forward and share their stories, we may never know. But if even a portion of it true, I hope that the victims are allowed to speak and seek the healing that they probably desperately need.

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Thu, 23 Apr 2015 13:15:40 GMT
The Curtain Comes Down Last month my mother passed away after a long and hard battle with cancer.
Everything since has felt surreal, but heavy, as though something that was holding me up has suddenly let go.
I am not yet sure how to pick up and carry on so here I sit, surprised by the weight of my own limbs - and heart.

A  fine art photograph by Jen Kiaba of a marionette woman in a white wedding dress sitting down in the snow.The Curtain Comes DownFine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba
A few days ago my father emailed me to let me know it's been 40 days since my mother passed, and he went to go visit her grave site to mark the occasion.
The passing of time has felt almost meaningless to measure. I'd given myself external checkpoints, hoping to feel a release or relief after passing each: getting through the first day after her death, surviving her funeral and facing people I had hoped never to see again, writing the last check to pay the expenses of putting her to rest. 
Though external pressures and deadlines have subsided, I've found that measuring grief and expecting it to have a linear timeline is foolhardy, and isn't the best way to allow myself to heal.
Now it seems like a delicate balance between keeping my chin up to continue moving forward in life, and allowing myself the time and space to fall apart. 

A fine art photograph by Jen Kiaba where a woman in a red dress is being dragged down into the snow by disembodied hands.We're Helping HandsFine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba
Some days it feels like the grief and accompanying anxiety threaten to pull me under.
Those are usually the times that I dream of her. 
In my dreams she doesn't understand death; when I awaken I realize that neither do I.
]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Thu, 26 Mar 2015 02:20:47 GMT
Everything All At Once, or: A Short History of Some Very Painful Things Things have been out of balance in my world for the last few months and I've been quiet as I process and seek equilibrium.

Photography and writing are part of the way I understand my experiences in the world, but sometimes they need to be put on hold just to feel what's going on in the moment. And there have been a lot of moments lately where I've needed to ground myself in what's been going on.

The problem is that I often run into overload and then shutdown. One of the few ways that I have found to prevent myself from grinding to a complete internal standstill is to share.

Sharing, for me, is difficult and completely unintuitive.

But I've found a lot of healing in it over the years, and I've also found that it helps to foster community. It gives others the opportunity to recognize something in themselves, share their own experiences, and let them begin heal something within.

So, in the hopes that my sharing can help others on their healing journey I give you:

A Short History of Some Very Painful Things

Back in the early '00s my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer right after a particularly difficult (and third) bout of Lyme Disease. I had previously given up my apartment in NYC and moved back home to help, and to give my mom the twice-daily injections she would need to fight off the Lyme; with the cancer diagnosis my sister and I were helping run the home, and take care of our three younger brothers while my mom was going through treatment.

Around this same time I was fighting for a church-granted divorce from an arranged marriage that I had been pressured into a year prior. As I pressed my case, my parents often threatened to kick me out of the house.

Logical? No. Let's just say that things were often ugly at home, and as soon as my mom was through her treatment I moved back out and put most of my family on a strict no-contact diet.

Once I was feeling healthy enough to be in a new romantic relationship, and one of my own choosing, it took me two years before I even told my parents about it. That was how much I felt that I needed to protect my relationship from my family. For years afterwards I had reoccurring nightmares that my parents would break into my home at night to pull me out of bed, screaming at me.

(I share this not to shock or appall, but to connect with those of you who have had trauma-based experiences with family members and to say "I understand. It's ok. You can find what you need to heal.")

After several years I began to try and keep the lines of communication open. And to their credit, my parents also tried the same. It was often strained, and sometimes combative. But my parents never excommunicated me out of their lives like so many other parents did with children who chose to leave their faith.

In 2012 Rev. Moon passed away, the Unification Church began to fall apart and I fell apart - not from sadness but from relief. I finally felt like an era of fear and repression had passed and could no longer hurt me. But that fear had kept me contained. Without it I felt as though my pieces were drifting apart from each other at a rapidly accelerating rate. 

(For those of you who have asked: yes I sought out a therapist right around this time and highly recommend that anyone who is recovering from trauma, abuse, cults, or all of the above, seek out help as well. The International Cultic Studies Association is a good place to start

It was because of this internal tectonic shifting that I felt an urgent need to write out my stories, one of which was published on The Hairpin. A burst of creativity in my photography came shortly thereafter, and soon I was writing essays to accompany many of my photos.

As you may well imagine, my work did not go over well in the church community that I grew up in. I had begun in naivety, underestimating the power of the internet, never thinking that it would be shared amongst church members or with my parents. Of course, I was wrong, and this didn't do much to ease my relations with my parents and we began to slip back into that place of no contact.

Then just as Christmas 2012 rolled around I got a call from my mom, asking me to come over right away. I dropped everything and rushed to my parents' house.

My heart felt weighed down with fear as I drove, hoping that the worst case scenarios that my mind was playing out were just the over-active nature of my imagination.

I let myself into my parents' house, and tip toed into their bedroom. My mom, sitting cross-legged on her bed, reached out both of her hands to beckon me over. I held her hands, sat down across from her and readied myself.

"They found cancer again," she said. Then my head began to swim and the words got fuzzy. I heard "metastasized", "bones" and "incurable" before I collapsed in my mother's lap and we cried.

Fast forward to September 2014. Despite the return of her cancer, my mom hadn't had to do chemo for nearly 18 months. Things had been kept at bay with a hormone treatment. But, as the doctor warned us it might, her body stopped responding to the treatment after a little over a year and a half. The only other option for her, they said, was chemo.

Perhaps time softens our memories of suffering, but I didn't remember things being this bad seven years ago. Her decline was almost immediate. I wasn't sure that she would make it to see my 30th birthday in October. But she powered through.

Then right before Christmas we had to rush her to the hospital due to an infection. The eldest of my younger brothers, who hadn't spoken to me in years, helped me practically carry my mom into the car.

Then right before I jumped into the car to head down to the hospital, he and I hugged. (Cue sobbing.)

We weren't sure if she would make it home for Christmas, or at all.

But she did. And she made it through to see her 60th birthday last month. Yesterday, as a family, we discussed transitioning her into hospice.

A woman in a white dress, with her head covered by a red cloth, is pulled off balance."Torn" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click to purchase a Limited Edition Print.

The above image, "Torn" I created as a demo for students that I taught last semester. I think it speaks pretty well to the dynamics we can be faced with in difficult situations, in crises of the spirit as well as crises of the body.

Sometimes you're off balance, sometimes you cannot see. But you have to keep going, seeking balance and breathing.

Right now that's what I'm doing. Trying to find the quiet space within to recharge, to find balance and keep going. I am still chin-deep, not necessarily trying to make sense of things but letting myself feel and experience it as it happens.

Dealing with family through illness is never easy. Life isn't like a movie where everyone always pulls together and old grievances are set aside to support each other through crisis. 

Sometimes crisis can bring out the worst in us. I, myself, am not exempt. Throw in family that has been abusive in the past (and, pardon the expression, but let's just say that old habits can die hard), stir in fundamentalist-type adherence to faith, and you've got yourself a very messy stew.

With everything going on, I am trying to be very careful not to sacrifice myself at the altar of Family.  Despite our huge differences, and despite what I am finally learning to admit was abuse on the part of my parents, I love my family fiercely; my old wiring tells me that I should give up everything in my life again, move back in, and cook and clean for my parents and three adult brothers who live at home (yup).

As a recovering co-dependent caretaker, it would be very easy for me to go there. But it's not sustainable, nor is it healthy.

So I say this to anyone who is dealing with any kind of similar difficulty: be kind to yourself. Breathe. And excuse my French, but set some fucking boundaries. Even if that means the no-contact diet.

Believe me, there have been times I have wanted to go back to that place of not interacting. Even though it triggers guilt in me, I've had to take breaks from my family. Especially when the nightmares come back, as they always do when I deal with my family on a long-term basis.

Also: talk it out. Thank all of the gods, ever, for all of the people who have let me cry, verbally vomit and fall apart in front of them. Once I finally began sharing, they let me take up as much space as I needed and made lots and lots of tea. (Thank you to any of them that might be reading. You're amazing!)

Friends and surrogate family can make the world go round, especially when the world looks like its falling apart.

And to you, wonderful readers, thanks so much for sticking it out here while things have been quiet. Hopefully I won't drop off the radar again. But if I do, you know why and that I am still thinking of you all!

Much love,


]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) art crisis dysfunction family healing Sun, 01 Feb 2015 19:15:31 GMT
New Year, New Words. "Your Stories are Key" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba/"Your Stories are Key"Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba

I've been quiet in the world of the internet for a few months now. There's been a lot of tough stuff going on that I haven't yet found the strength to share about.

And while I don't think that we're out of the woods yet, I know that there is reciprocal healing that can occur when we share. So in honor of the new year I am gathering the words and images that I need to share the story of the past few months.

More to come soon. Promise.

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) 2015 fine art self-love Sat, 03 Jan 2015 22:43:22 GMT
Taking Ownership of Your Creative Domain Sometimes it just feels easier to let others take responsibility for things in our lives, doesn't it?

Whether it's the white knight fantasy that some hunk in a sports car will pay off our student loans, or that suddenly our creative genius will be discovered without our having to hustle and do the work, it can be easy to let go of ownership of parts of our lives.

I'm afraid to admit I learned that the hard way last week.

A few friends and wonderful readers emailed me to let me know what my website was down, and the notice said that my domain name had expired.

You can imagine my little spark of panic when I went to go check on the state of things.

Unfortunately, this wasn't the first time that this had happened.

Last year, right around this time, my hosting company forgot to renew my domain even though I had already paid all of my invoices.

I also learned that they were actually hosting my site in a way that meant that I wasn't listed as the owner and had no control of what happened to my domain name.

Crazy right?

You'd think that I would put on my big girl heels and my best corporate negotiating face and take care of the problem then and there.

Well, as I'm sure you know by now: I didn't.

Because I didn't choose to take ownership of the situation then and there, the same problem has manifested itself again this year.

Yes I could go on about the unreliability of the host, etc.

But instead of letting things slide, I'm taking control and going through the process of taking full ownership of the situation AND my domain.

It's an interesting metaphor for life in general, as well as our personal creative practices.

So this week I encourage you to reflect on the areas in your creative process where you're giving away your power and ownership.

Are there ways that you can lovingly but firmly negotiate those things back into your realm?

Woman with red lips and red nails holding her throat, with text stating "Take Control of Your Creative Domain."Take Control of Your Creative Domain by Jen Kiaba

I encourage you to begin that process, even if it feels icky and easier to just let slide.

Own your creativity, own your voice and own your domain (both literally and figuratively)!

Here's hoping you have a wonderful week of owning your potential and creativity!


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]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) Thu, 25 Sep 2014 16:48:37 GMT
Unchained at Last: A Silent Auction Fundraiser to Support Women About a month ago I had written about creating a new piece called "Emergence" to support an organization that I'm working to support called Unchained at Last.

They provide legal and financial services for women who are leaving forced and/or arranged marriages.

Many of these women are domestic abuse survivors as well, or are coming from backgrounds full of religious and emotional trauma.

It's something I saw my own mother unable to escape, and it was a potential future I had to free myself from.

So for me there is a lot of love for this organization's work, and a big desire to help women work towards their freedom.

Being able to create work to be a part of their annual fundraiser is a huge honor for me, and a way for me to contribute towards a greater freedom for the women that Unchained at Last supports.

Their online silent auction has gone live, which will be a part of their annual fundraiser taking place in October.

I got the link this morning and saw that there has already been a bid on my print. Not going to lie - I cried some tears of joy at that,

So if you connect to Unchained at Last's work or with my print, please consider being a part of this auction.

Click here to go to the auction and bid on my work.

"Emergence" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba. Click here to bid on a Limited Edition Print."Emergence" Fine Art Photography by Jen Kiaba.Click here to bid on a Limited Edition Print.

]]> (Jen Kiaba Photography) advocacy auction domestic abuse fine art fundraising marriage relationships women Wed, 24 Sep 2014 15:10:10 GMT