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Archive for March, 2015

I have had this image in my head for about four or five years and the timing was just never quite right for it.  Thankfully, since I’ve been working with the multi-talented Travis Weinand, I had the chance to do it the way I’d been picturing it for so long!

Are you all familiar with the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989?  I’ll give you a rough summary of events.  Some of the details still remain repressed though, such as the number of people actually killed, but I’ll do my best.

In April of 1989, the death of Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party General Secretary triggered massive protests calling for political reform.  The protests began peacefully and were led mostly by university students, who gathered in Tiananmen Square to mourn and protest.  This went on for several weeks and some of the students took to hunger strikes to express their desire for reform.  Since the entire incident has been so thoroughly repressed, it’s hard to get an inside take on what was happening in the minds of the Chinese government – you can’t very well ask about an event which never officially happened.

However, after the protests went on for weeks and showed no signs of slowing, Chinese leaders decided force was called for to disperse the protesters.  Marshall law was declared, approximately 250,000 troops were sent in; given permission to use lethal force if necessary.

And, as is so often the case, once lethal force has been approved, means for using it will be found.

By June 5th, the heavily outnumbered and out-armed protesters had been largely slaughtered.  Exact numbers remain unknown; official records report 200-300 died; earlier reports fro the Chinese Red Cross on the morning of the 4th recorded 2,600 deaths, which was later retracted.  Regardless, the students stood no chance against an armed and deadly militia with orders to make them go away, whatever it took.

And then we come to June 5th.

After weeks of unrest leading to a brutally bloody and deadly fever pitch, by the 5th, one man, at least, had had enough.  As the tanks came rolling into the square to continue to get rid of the protestors, one man made his stand in a way which still shocks and awes people today.

With nothing more than a few shopping bags in his hands, he stood in the tanks’ path and forced them to stop.  The tanks tried to maneuver around him, he stepped back in front of them.  After the massacre he had surely witnessed over the past several days, this goes beyond mere heroism.  This was fearlessness.  He was angry, and no matter that the tanks could have kept rolling and ran him over, or they could have chosen to shoot him as soon as he came into view, he stood.  And for minutes, a single man stopped an entire line of tanks.

At one point he even climbs on top of the tank, bangs on it and demands to speak to the person in charge.  After a few minutes, a group of people, who seem to be protesters also, join him and hustle him out of the way, probably fearing, with good reason, for his life.

No one knows who this man is.  The world has called him Tank Man, a fitting name.  We don’t know what happened to him.  Was he arrested, was he killed, or did he simply never know the incredible impact his act of sheer bravery had on the world?  With the extend to which the massacre has been suppressed in China, it’s quite possible he never knew his act was recorded or that it became famous.  I would love to know what happened to him, but so far no one has come forward claiming to be Tank Man or knowing who he is.

One man against a line of tanks.  He knew the events of the days before and how deadly the protests had become.  He knew that he would likely be shot or run over.

But his one act of peaceful, quiet defiance stopped an army.

That is what I wanted to celebrate in my image with Travis.  I wrapped a mantle of white flowers around his shoulders, both to symbolize purity and peace, which we typically associate them with in America, and also for its association with death in the Chinese culture.  I instructed Travis to be quietly, peacefully strong, but unshakeable, and rolled up a piece of craft foam into a tube to shoot the image through, as if you were looking down the barrel of the tank at him.  I climbed a ladder to get a view where I’d be higher up than Travis (not as easy as you’d think since he’s so tall and I’m so short!) and shot away.  Travis perfectly embodied the exact emotion and look that I’d asked for.  It doesn’t get better than that.

I hope that Tank Man is alive and well.  I hope that he knows the impact his defiance had on the world.  I hope we discover some day who he is.  Until then, he will be Tank Man, the many who stopped an army.

Tank Man © Sarah Allegra

Tank Man © Sarah Allegra

Tank Man © Sarah Allegra - detail

Tank Man © Sarah Allegra – detail

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I believe I’ve mentioned before that I have a rather, uh, active dream life.  My nights are often filled with deeply archetypal storylines, heavy with symbolism and metaphor, which, I suppose, is probably part of why I’m drawn to creating images along the same lines.

Hold The Gate © Sarah Allegra - detail

Hold The Gate © Sarah Allegra – detail

Sometimes my dreams are quite silly upon waking, like the dream I had where I was aboard Star Trek’s Enterprise (the original show) and Spock and I had to beam down to an alien planet so I could find my gold bikini (ah la Leia, in Return of the Jedi) which we needed in order to defeat the attacking alien army (different aliens than the ones who lived on the planet my bikini was on) and save the world.  I don’t think I was ever clear on how my gold bikini would do this, but it made sense in the dream.

Sometimes my dreams are very serious and are clearly working through problems and fears, current or past.  I had a whopper of a dream a week or two ago which I’m going to tell you about, as it relates to my most recent image.

This dream was set in the world of The Hero And The Crown, by Robin McKinley, one of my very favorite books; one of those comfort-food books I turn to again and again, especially in times of trouble.  If you haven’t read it, go and do so.  I’ll wait.

I was Aerin, the heroine of the story.  Geoff was Tor, whom I was betrothed to.  We lived in Tor’s parent’s castle (which doesn’t make sense with the book, but never mind) and nobody in the entire kingdom liked or understood me.  My only friends were Tor and Talat, my horse, along with the rest of the castle’s horses.  They had an entire army of war horses who would fight in formation on their own, without the aid of any human riders.  I took great comfort in visiting the stables frequently to get away from the nastiness of all the people and be with creatures who loved me.

The great dragon Maur, easily as big as the castle and made of pure evil, had come back and was laying siege to the castle along with numerous other giant, pure-evil dragon friends of his.  We were hopelessly outnumbered and everyone knew there was really no chance of winning this battle, but we had to try.  The dragons could only attack us at night, but in this world it became fully dark at about 1 in the afternoon and stayed dark until the regular sunrise of 5-6 in the morning.  This meant each night was very long.

Interestingly, Tor already possessed the Hero’s Crown, which ought to have given him the ability to fight the dragons off, but it wasn’t working.  It held them off a little, just barely, but it wouldn’t survive another night.

I visited the stables after the first night, thanking the horses, some of whom had been greatly wounded or killed, for their bravery in battle.  Quite a lot of them were also pregnant and foals kept popping out every time I turned around.  We had a good talk and I felt encouraged after I left them.

I found Tor and told him that I had to travel back to my family’s castle to retrieve two magic rings.  If we both wore them, then we would be strong enough to vanquish the dragons.  The thing was, I could only tell Tor where I was going and why.  I had to keep it a secret from absolutely everyone else.  At the end of the dream, I was riding off on Talat to my castle to get the rings, knowing that everyone hated me because they thought I’d just deserted them when they were most in need.  Dusk was falling as Talat and I galloped along and I knew I had to really hurry to get the rings and return to Tor’s castle in time to help everyone survive.

A couple things I should point out right away; Tor’s family in the dream is NOTHING like Geoff’s actual family.  His family embodies that friendly, easy-going, pull-up-a-chair sort of Midwestern charm you always hear about.  They’re truly all wonderful people, so don’t think that that part of the dream had any resemblance to reality!  Also, as far as I know, there aren’t any large groups of people who hate me.  I suppose I could be wrong about this, but again, the dream is not representing real life in this way.

After mulling it over a lot, talking to my mom (who is especially gifted at dream interpretation), Geoff and my therapist, I came to a few conclusions.

The dragons = ME.  Now, to be fair, I actually like dragons, but my brain often uses them as a symbol for big, bad, evil things.  (It also often uses Calantha to represent my inner child in dreams, which is just full of Freudian symbolism.)  Fighting ME every day often really does feel like you’re besieged by dragons.  You’re trapped in your castle (house/body) while an unrelenting assault of badness attacks (all of my ME symptoms; pain, fatigue, etc).

I was confused about the nights being so long until I remembered something I’d said to Geoff a few days before the dream.  I had realized that most days I spend 11-12 hours a day in bed sleeping, or at least trying to sleep.  If I can get a solid 11 regularly, I feel much better, but since my sleep is so poor, I’m often trying to make up for the bad sleep, so the time spent in bed creeps up higher.  I was startled when I realized just how much time I spent every day just trying to sleep.  I’d been getting frustrated, feeling like my days were so short and there were never enough hours… and while I know that pretty much everyone feels like there aren’t enough hours in a day, I suddenly knew why it seemed like my days really were getting much shorter.

ME also really messes up your sleep.  And if you do find yourself up at 4 am, watching TV, taking a cocktail of pills to try and get back to sleep, as I often do, nights can feel especially long and lonely.

I think that the Hero’s Crown was all the stuff I’ve tried already to feel better, all of which promise to work and cure you, but none ever has.  The rings were a hope of future treatments or cures.  Going off to get them while things were most dire represented the typical path of trying a treatment, which usually involves over-exerting yourself in some way first (going to the doctor’s office, my several-times-a-year nerve-blocking injections).

I suspect that the crowd of people who disliked and misunderstood me is my fear of people not understanding that I actually am sick, even if I don’t look like it outwardly.  This is an extremely common worry from anyone with an “invisible illness;” any sort of sickness which does not manifest in outward signs.  I often feel the need to make sure new people in my life know that I have ME and have a basic understanding of what it is so that they don’t think I’m lazy, or that I just didn’t want to go to their party, or have dinner with them.  It’s a pretty big fear, to be honest.  Almost without exception, everyone who is in my life knows what my deal is and while they invite me to things, they’re all very understanding if I can’t make it, especially if I have to cancel last minute.  I really, really hate to cancel at the last minute, but sometimes your body leaves you no other choices.  The secrecy of my mission to get the rings was mirroring the invisibility of my case of ME.

As for the more pleasant things about the dream, Geoff as Tor believed me, and he also supported me even though the entire rest of the kingdom wished he wouldn’t.  That’s 100% Geoff.  He will love and support me, in a fantasy battle with dragons, or in the real world battling insurance companies.  He is a fearless protector and someone I can always count on.  I also liked that for the magic rings to work, we both needed to wear them.  I think that speaks to the importance of having someone caring for and supporting you through this stupid disease.  I can fight it on my own, but it’s a million times better to have an ally.

And lastly, the animals will always be with me.  I have had a special kinship with animals of all kinds, since before I can remember.  My dad likes to tell the story of how there used to be a couple of huge Great Danes in a house behind ours and how they would bark and bay and snarl ferociously through the small gap in the fence if they saw you.  One day I came inside and said, “You know those big dogs out there?  They’re really friendly!”  Alarmed, my dad checked to make sure I still had all my fingers, then came outside with me where he realized that the Danes were causing a fuss because they wanted attention, not because they were aggressive.  Then for a while I collected snails in a bucket and kept them as “pets,” which I believe led my parents to get my first dog because it was just so pathetic that I was gathering snails to be my friends.  Animals have always been a big part of my life, creatures I can trust and rely on, who are as unchanging and solid as a mountain.

As I was meditating on the dream, I kept being reminded of a few big scenes from the biggest battle in last season’s Game Of Thrones.  You don’t really need a lot of context for it, just that the good guys are trying to keep the very bad guys out, and they’re horribly outnumbered and outmatched.

(Sorry, YouTube won’t let you play the videos here, but if you click the little “YouTube” button near the bottom of the video screen, it will take you directly to the videos.)

It may seem silly to those who have never experienced ME, but this is what it feels like to me.  Like you’re outnumbered 1000 to 1, the other side has mammoths and giants and all you’ve got is a fairly useless sword to try and fight them all off.  There is no end in sight, and barely any hope that you’ll succeed.  This is also the way a lot of The Hero and the Crown goes, which is part of why it’s one of my favorite books.

It may sound silly to those who have never know chronic illness’s cruel touch, but I’m willing to bet that everyone who has dealt with it will understand at once.  It’s exhausting to fight an enemy every day, who you can’t see or touch.  And even more so when some people don’t believe the enemy exists.

So, as I do, I had to take a self portrait to work through my feelings on this dream.  What could be more DreamWorldy than an image inspired by an actual dream?  I can imagine this being a snippet of DreamWorld’s rich history, perhaps during the Yellow King’s grab for the throne.  I edited it with both The Hero and the Crown and Game of Thrones in mind, lending visual inspiration.

We sick will keep fighting.  We will hold the gate.

I’ll hold the gate.

Hold The Gate © Sarah Allegra

Hold The Gate © Sarah Allegra

My lighting setup for Hold The Gate:

Hold The Gate lighting setup

Hold The Gate lighting setup

My tripod it balanced on the mattress and the camera would shift slightly whenever Calantha, also on the mattress, moved.  There was just enough room between my bed, the closet and all the other things in that part of the bedroom to make this work.  Who needs a studio??  😉

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As so often happens with DreamWorld, the inspiration for this set of images came close to a year ago.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother series © Sarah Allegra, model: Dedeker Winston

Last summer, I had recently watched some of the BBC’s episodes of Life, their truly excellent series on all kinds of wildlife.  I was watching it while I edited other images (I rarely watch TV without doing a second activity, unless we’re talking about shows like True Detective, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Rectify, etc, which all demand my full attention) but my editing suddenly halted when this segment came on.

I remember backing it up and watching the whole piece again, mesmerized, deeply touched and saddened by such complete, beautiful devotion from any creature to another.  As I watched it a third time, I knew a photo was going to come out of it somehow… it was resonating too deeply with me for anything else to happen.

Now, as to how the medieval elements worked themselves in… I can only give you guesses since I’m not really sure how my brain made the jump myself.  I know that part of it had to do with wanting to give her eight “tentacles” of some kind (which made its way into her hair) and wanting to give her a pouch to carry her eggs in.  For some reason, I thought of a kirtle, a medieval garment which lasted for several centuries.  The kind I was picturing were from, I believe, earlier on in the medieval period and looked more like what we might think of as over-dresses or fancy aprons.

A kirtle from a modern pattern by Burda.

A red kirtle from a modern pattern by Burda.

Researching medieval garments inevitably led to medieval hair… images like these set my brain whirling.

You can see how the braided and wrapped hair, along with beautiful headdresses leaked into my character.

As usual, I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this when I started into it.

I had a longish, dark brown wig which I’d bought very cheaply quite a while ago.  When it arrived, I realized why it had been so cheap; it was already snarled and tangled before I’d even taken it out of the package.  I halfheartedly attempted to work the same wide-tooth comb I use for my own often snarled and tangly hair and quickly realized it was a futile endeavor.  I tossed the wig into the back of the closet and mostly forgot about it.

When this project came up, I remembered it though.  Even though it poofed up like a drying poodle as I combed it, that would work in this case, since I’d be wrapping it up and looping it around.  I spent most of one afternoon just combing it out – not detangling it, mind you; there was never any hope of this wig being tangle-free.  My best hope was to get it to the point where I could separate it into eight segments.  It took all the strength in my arms and they were very unhappy with me for the next few days, but I managed to do it.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

In the meantime, I had discovered arm knitting, which I found I could do without a) using much brain power, b) quickly c) without using much muscle power and d) it had very pretty and interesting results.  The resulting squares and shapes I made from the looping yarn had such a beautiful, organic look, almost like a coral reef or some other under-sea plant/creature, that it felt completely at home with an aquatic-inspired creature.

After the combing session, I put the wig away for a day or two.  I brought it out again after my arms had regained a little strength.  Of course this also meant that it had had a couple days left completely on its own without any outside help to start tangling again, so I spent a little time re-combing it to get it back to a manageable state.  I quickly arm-knit a band of yarn which would form the circlet of my headdress and made sure it would fit.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

Then I divided it into eight more-or-less equal segments and put a hair band around each one to help keep them from getting into too much trouble.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

I put the circlet of yarn back on top of the hair and began crisscrossing the yarn (which was a beautiful, slightly metallic variegated blend of soft pinks, blues,  lavenders and silvers) over the different segments, using liberal help from my glue gun to keep everything in check.  Each segment was attached back up to the main part of the circlet after its crisscrossing was done.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

The two front, face-framing sections of hair were left for last.  I added some looping pieces of yarn between the other segments to make it more headdress-like.  The front segments got crisscrossed with their own lengths of yarn and were then attached to the very back of the circlet, forming two large loops on either side of the face, with hair tentacles hanging underneath them.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

Then was the fun part: beads!  I raided my bead stash, with an eye toward pieces from a very elaborate headdress I’d made which had recently died, spilling beads all over the floor.  I knew there were some really cool pieces which I’d used for it, so I repurposed them again in this piece.  I didn’t want it to be overwhelmingly be-jeweled and sparkly, just enough bling to make the character look a bit important; perhaps some kind of royalty.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

Moving on to her dress, I had a high-necked, sleeveless, pink chiffon dress from Ebay which I’d gotten for little more than a song.  Pink isn’t a color I’m usually drawn to that much, but since the original octopus was pink, my character was going to be pink too.  I kind of eyeballed the general shape of a kirtle from ivory tulle; a lot was going to happen to it and since it was so light and transparent, it didn’t need to be perfectly symmetrical.

I free-styled a yoke for the kirtle with more arm knitting and added some cap sleeves (which are only visible in some of the images unfortunately).  One thing I was finding with the arm knitting was that is is EXTREMELY forgiving.  Arm you within an atom bomb’s range of what you were going for?  Then it will probably work!

To unify the costume and also enhance the organic, oceanic feel, I arm knitted a piece for the bottom of the kirtle, basically a large triangle, and two smaller, upside-down triangles for either side of the egg pouch.  I left several yarn strings loose from the pouch triangles which would be used to tie the kirtle behind the back of the dress, just like a regular apron.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

The eggs were leftover from a shoot I did with Paul Telfer as the Sleeper’s Sentinel.  I’d had to buy a dozen of the super-large plastic eggs so I had PLENTY to use for other shoots!  I kept these fairly simple since there would be a lot going on visually in the images; I started with spray-painting a base coat of a semi-metallic light gold color and added flecks of bronze-black to make them look more like real eggs.  Repeat until they look right.  I knew I’d only need five or six eggs, since that was as many as would fit in the pouch I’d made so I didn’t waste any time painting extra eggs.

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra - behind the scenes

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra – behind the scenes

I did do one thing to just one egg though…  I found a nail and a hammer and while the egg was still in two pieces, I hammered a hole through from the inside out.  Some sharp knives, pliers and more hammering later, I’d created what looked like a fracture in the egg from a chick inside starting to hatch.  Eggs = done!

I’d had my faithful model Dedeker Winston in mind for this character the whole time.  I usually cast characters in the same way I create them, just by what “feels right.”  I had not consciously remembered it, but it turned out there was a really wonderful real-world reason to have Dedeker play the octopus-mother caring for her eggs.  Dedeker has been an egg donor many times to couples who are unable to have children on their own.  In fact, one family has two children, both from Dedeker’s eggs, and they just requested a third!  It’s very unusual for a family to have so many children from the same donor, but I think it’s really lovely that all of their children will be linked in this extra way.  And clearly Dedeker produces really fantastic babies!  🙂  Once I remembered that, it felt truly serendipitous that we were shooting this character together.

I knew that my wig was several shades darker than Dedeker’s hair and I had a couple thoughts on how to deal with it.  I knew she had a dark brown wig of her own which we could layer under mine, or we could totally cover all of her hair with a wig cap.  In the end though, she simply twirled her hair into a low bun, I set the wig on top of her head and since there was so much going on with the hair, it looked completely natural and blended right in.  If you looked closely, you could see that some of the hairs on her forehead were a bit lighter than the rest of her head, but I matched them up in about 30 seconds in Photoshop.  Sometimes the simplest method is the best!

We set out on a morning last summer to capture these shots of the character I’ve dubbed the Pink Mother.  We got started early and the sun was already blazing; it promised to be a miserably hot day but at the moment it was still pleasant.  I started shooting Dedeker in a dryer, dustier, yellower scene and led her along a path which gradually got greener and lusher, mirroring the octopus’ journey to find the perfect environment for her eggs to be born into.  The color pallet moved from warm and vivid to cool and less saturated, especially in regards to the Pink Mother herself.  As she nears death, the paler she becomes until the last shot, where she is very white.

She sacrificed everything she had for her eggs.  She loved them, cared for them, caressed them.  She journeyed over countless miles to find a safe, green place for them to be born.  Though it cost her everything, she never hesitated.  And, it seems, her journey was worth it.  The cracks in the eggs prove her right.  They were brought forth from the deepest love there is, and that can only be the best start to these new beings.

So thank you to Dedeker for being my medieval octopus mother and letting me share your story about your own eggs!  And thank you for trusting my vision even if it seemed questionable at the time 😉  You were the perfect, purest-loving mother to those babies!

And now enjoy the full images, some detail shots and behind-the-scenes captures!

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra - detail

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra – detail

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra - detail

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra – detail

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra - detail

A Journey Into Strange Lands © Sarah Allegra – detail

 

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra - detail

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra – detail

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra - detail

The Air Of A Quest About Her © Sarah Allegra – detail

 

Migration's Imminent End © Sarah Allegra

Migration’s Imminent End © Sarah Allegra

Migration's Imminent End © Sarah Allegra - detail

Migration’s Imminent End © Sarah Allegra – detail

Migration's Imminent End © Sarah Allegra - detail

Migration’s Imminent End © Sarah Allegra – detail

 

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra - detail

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra – detail

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra - detail

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra – detail

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra - detail

Her Last Act Of Devotion © Sarah Allegra – detail

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

The Pink Mother © Sarah Allegra

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