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2010 Creative Careers Interviews : Cynthia Staples Interview

Photo by Cynthia Staples

Creative Careers in the Arts Interviews

Writer and Photographer Cynthia Staples

By Molly Anderson-Childers

Writer and photographer Cynthia Staples grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She credits her love of the color blue to many hours spent gazing at those peaks from her family's back porch. Her love of nature and travel informs her work as a writer and photographer, and she spent a lot of time outdoors as a child, gardening, bird-watching, and playing with her brothers. After the loss of her parents, Cynthia took an amazing leap of faith to focus on her creative work. She says, "I wanted to express myself and…to share the stories of those who were gone with the people who were still living…I always imagined becoming a writer but the photography snuck up on me."

Q: How does your love of travel inform and inspire your work?

A: Travel makes me happy. The scale of the journey doesn't matter. A trek through my neighborhood or down to the river near my house can feel as liberating and awe-inspiring as a trip around the world. The seeds were planted early. I grew up watching Wild World of Animals, and Jacques Cousteau, and flipping through old National Geographics my dad brought home. When I travel I am reminded of the beauty of diversity. I notice how the light strikes the earth at different angles casting unique shadows. People use the same words with different meaning and inflection. I feel free, without boundaries, yet more connected than ever to the world. What I see on my journeys, I want to share with others so that they can experience what I have experienced. How they react to what I share, I have no expectation of or control over. In the end, I always learn from their responses, about myself, about them, and about the world.

Q: What are the seminal experiences that shaped your journey as a fledgling writer and photographer?

A: I come from the South and know firsthand that Southerners love language and love telling stories. Throughout my life, in one way or another, family has always said to me, "Tell me a story." For a shy child with a slight speech impediment, those words were magic. I would just put my hands on my hips and start rambling. Over time, I became much more concise in my reporting. My mother loved books and instilled a deep love of reading. My father loved old movies. At his feet, I watched westerns, war movies, and even love stories. So in all ways stories filled my life. How could I not want to become a writer?

I tinkered with the idea in my spare time for years throughout college and into my professional life working with nonprofits. But somehow I was never confident enough nor disciplined enough to take that leap to pursue writing as a career. Then my mother passed away when I was 28 years old. I felt everything and nothing all at the same time and thought I might explode with grief until a good friend gave me a blank journal. She explained that after her own deep personal loss, writing in a journal helped her. On those blank pages I found myself writing not fiction but the truth of what I felt, memories of the past and hopes for the future. And as the grief eased, I found myself wanting to tell stories again but this time of my family. I wanted people to see my mother through my eyes. From that desire two published pieces of writing resulted, one a short story about a little brown girl chasing blue butterflies through the woods, and a vignette about an older brown woman sitting on the edge of bed staring into a mirror at herself and into the past. The responses of the editors, and most importantly, the support and encouragement of family, friends and co-workers shored up my confidence to take the leap into the world of professional writing. Photography as a creative outlet is still relatively new to me but is incredibly satisfying. If I dig deep into the box of journals I have collected, I might find the pivotal moment when I decided to explore photography. Mostly I remember spending a lot of money on disposable cameras. And then one Christmas my brother Keith gave me a digital camera. There was no turning back!

Q: What early influences still impact your work today?

A: My childhood certainly influences my work today. I had a wonderful time growing up with my brothers in Lynchburg, Virginia. As the only girl, I was both protected and empowered. I was encouraged to excel in academics but not to the exclusion of enjoying my childhood. My parents were not wealthy nor were they well-educated, yet they set high standards for me. As my father once told me after I whined about having to go to work at a fast food restaurant in high school, "I don't care if you're a CEO or a janitor cleaning toilets. Whatever you do, you give it your best or you don't bother doing it at all." I try to live and work by those words.

Photo by Cynthia Staples

Q: Could you name some of the artists, writers, musicians, and photographers that inspire you today?

A: Composers and performers from Philip Glass to Moby, Dave Matthews to U2, inspire me with the way they tell stories through music. Over the past few years I have been introduced to sacred music. From Gregorian chants to wailing women, the music makes me pause. In terms of nature photography, photographers Art Wolfe and Jim Brandenburg are my idols. Their photography, like the sacred music, reminds me to be still in the midst of wonder. Good writing in general inspires me. Currently I am in love with illustrated books for children.

Q: Can you discuss the role of nature in your writing and photography?

A: Though I am a writer, I am not sure that I have the words to describe the role of nature in my creative life. If I had to choose between photographing light striking a diamond or sunlight shining through a blade of grass, ninety-nine percent of the time I would choose the blade of grass. Rose clouds have stopped me in my tracks as well as sunlight dancing on still waters. My affinity toward the natural world is especially reflected in my choice of photographic subjects. I love visiting urban parks and wild reserves. With each visit, there is always something new to experience and photograph. In my writing to date, nature is not always as present unless you're speaking of human nature. In my writing I have the opportunity to capture and to explore peoples' perceptions of me, of themselves and of the world around them.

Q: What's your favorite place to go play outside with your camera?

A: By the water. In the woods. Along the shore. In a garden. Any place with a bit of green underfoot and blue sky overhead.

Q: What's something random our readers don't know about you?

A: In my travels, I've ridden water buffaloes in Arkansas and elephants in Thailand, but I have yet to sit upon a horse.

Q: After a hard day on the trail — or in the studio — what's the best way to relax?

A: In spring and summer, gardening comes to mind. Also, listening to music and spending time with loved ones over a good meal.

Photo by Cynthia Staples

Q: You took a leap of faith to focus your energy on creative pursuits — what prompted this bold move? Do you have any words of advice for others considering a similar jump into juiciness?

A: I was moved to make a change at some deep place within myself. I could not have made the leap, nor continued to walk this path, if it were not for my friends and family. When I have both succeeded and when I have mis-stepped, they have been there to applaud or to pick me up, depending on what I needed in the moment. So if I were to give advice to others it would be to reach out to the people in your life. Share with them your hopes and your dreams and your challenges. Not everyone will respond in the same way, nor should they. But each can be a vital resource to carry one forward in exploring and living a creative life.

Q: What prompted your interest in photography, after years of expressing yourself through writing?

A: I'm not completely sure. Access to cameras is fairly ubiquitous these days. But I think there was this summer where I felt incapable of fully expressing myself through writing alone. There were things I was seeing that I did not want to break down into words in order to share their beauty or their mystery with others. Since I prefer to do little or no alteration of my photos once they are taken, there's an immediacy to photography that is exciting.

Q: What role does your family play in your work? Seems like they're a real source of inspiration…

A: My family is my anchor. As I mine childhood experiences as fodder for articles and essays, my brothers have especially become my fact checkers. They keep me honest. When they are emotionally moved by a story I've written, then I know I have done a good job. They buoy me up with encouragement no matter how many rejection notices I receive.

Q: Looking back on your career so far, what was the most pivotal moment of your creative journey? How does that moment still impact your life today?

A: A few years ago after traveling to Thailand, I wrote an essay about peoples' positive and negative perceptions of me as an African American woman traveling solo in an Asian country. For me it was cathartic to write such an article. When I shared it with other people, I was surprised and humbled by the response of readers who read my personal story and then told me their stories in return of prejudice and misperception based on skin color, religion and even height. I was reminded of the power of writing to stimulate dialogue between disparate groups of people. Since then I have learned that photography too can stimulate dialogue, and dialogue is something that the world surely needs! •

Photo by Cynthia Staples

Connect with Cynthia Staples

Connect with Cynthia at her blog and sample her amazing writing and photographs online at the following sites:

Short Essays and Family Vignettes:

© 2010 Molly J. Anderson-Childers. All rights reserved.

Rain GoddessMolly Anderson is a a highly creative writer and artist from Durango, Colorado.