Kelsey Sucena (they/them) is a New York based photographer, writer, and park ranger currently residing on Long Island. Their work rests at the intersection of photography and text, often within the bodies of performative slideshows and photo-text-books. Through poetry, prose and photography they probe identity, community, and language. Kelsey is a fellow and MFA candidate at Image Text Ithaca (2020), a contributing writer at Float Photo Magazine and a former Editorial work scholar at Aperture Foundation.
BEFORE I GO
Part love letter, part confessional, Before I Go documents a transitional moment in my life. Created during the unstable moment between graduation and the beginning of an extended trip west, I used poetry and photography to investigate my external and internal realities, keying into the environment to explore romance, family, body, home, identity, gender, queerness and anxiety. Created over the summer of 2016, Before I Go was completed before beginning my graduate studies at Image Text Ithaca.
Q&A: ITHACA COLLEGE
Why Image Text Ithaca?
I discovered iTi just a few years before finishing my undergraduate studies at SUNY Purchase. In junior year I had managed to finagle my way into a senior-year photobook class taught by Kristine Potter. I was, and still am, obsessed with photobooks, but I had yet to consider the importance of the written word. One day Kristine introduced me to an essay written by iTi’s co-director Nicholas Muellner, No Such Place, which was tipped into Ron Judes Lick Creek Line. It was the first time I understood the tenuous, and fertile relationship between image and text. At the time there was no Image Text Ithaca MFA program, but the symposium and press were receiving a lot of attention.
In 2017 I began assisting a Purchase professor, Jo Ann Walters, who was preparing photographs for a new book, Wood River/Blue Pool. I was struggling with my work, and with my post-undergraduate life. Jo Ann sat me down and convinced me to apply to Ithaca. I was excited, and surprised when I was accepted to the program.
As a low-residency program, Ithaca has allowed me to continue working at home and traveling to complete my thesis project. The program is relatively small, and tied to the excellent facilities available through Ithaca College's Park School of Communications. Ultimately, it was my interest in image and text that drew me here, but the diverse and ever changing faculty has expanded my range of interests tremendously. I've been lucky enough to study with some of my favorite photographers, (Justine Kurland, Whitney Hubbs, Matthew Connors) as well as some inspiring writers and designers.
How has your experience at your school informed or shaped your work?
iTi has shaped my work in profound ways. Before I Go was actually the project I submitted as part of my application to iTi, and while I'm not ready to share my thesis work, I am excited about where it's taking me. As I entered the program I had no formal education in writing. I was interested in the rough brand of poetry I had been working on for years, but had difficulty making its messages clear without revealing some uncomfortable feelings. I was lucky enough to learn with incredible writers in my first summer. Catherine Taylor (the programs co-director), Tonya Foster, Stephanie Barber and Tisa Bryant challenged me to write more actively, and to really consider what it meant to put words to paper, and to relate those words to images. I moved away from poetry and towards the kind of diaristic prose which I'm working on now.
My photographs have also changed, though in many ways they retain their aesthetics. The biggest difference here has been a reshaping of the ways in which I think about my photographic process. I am more confident and less rigid, able to accept flawed compositions or damaged negatives for what they are, without the harsh judgements I used to level upon myself. Photography has always been a process of discovery, self-making, and self-care. I am allowing myself to explore and live within my own subjectivity, using these photographs to better understand my identity and desires as they relates to the world. iTi has provided me with the space explore this comfortably. My professors and classmates have been wildly compassionate.
What kind of exhibition or arts-related job opportunities exist in the area for current students and recent graduates?
Image Text Ithaca is a low-residency program, so students spend most of their time within their respective cities. Many of us live in or around New York City, but there are students in Seoul, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Columbus, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Because of this, we’re afforded a lot of freedom and flexibility. Many of us are able to work throughout the year. There are students and recent graduates who have worked at the International Center of Photography, others who exhibit, teach, and write wherever they find themselves. I was lucky enough to intern with Aperture Foundation during one of our spring semesters at home.
Ithaca itself is a beautiful town in upstate New York. The five weeks we study there are often filled with hiking, bonding and indulging in wild artistic pursuits. The program is new, and our network is modest, but we are tightly knit and care very much for each other. The press has also embedded us deeply within the world of art book publishing and fairs. Several alumni run their own presses.
What’s the most memorable piece of advice you've received from a mentor?
During my first summer at iTi I was struggling to find my voice. My writing was rapidly evolving, and often failing to say what I needed it to say. I was feeling uncertain, and frustrated by my lack of certainty. The photographs and the text felt incongruous, and the dissonance between them had yet to produce any meaningful effect.
I was taking a class with a poet named Tonya Foster who was encouraging us to think deeply and fluidly about our work. She offered us many profound bites of wisdom during this time. I remember her saying “we kill because we are certain”, and that stopped me in my tracks. I now try hard to make work with uncertainty in mind. I’d like for my creative process to be exploratory, and unpredictable. While this lacks the stability of a certain mind, it works well to generate new and exciting ideas.
What advice do you have for prospective students looking to attend your school?
The students and educators at iTi are open minded and happy to talk. Prospective students are welcome to reach out to us if they have any questions or need advice. I’m happy to talk and my DMs are open.
I think the most important thing for prospective students to consider is whether or not a low-residency program is right for them. For photographers, the low-residency model offers us the chance to travel and to make work away from campus. I’ll be road tripping this November in order to complete my thesis project.
For some, the lack of year-round classes on campus can be freeing, for others it may be a challenge. I consider myself to be self-motivated, and have an easy time keeping busy between my seasonal job, my work writing for various online publishers, and my thesis studies. If you don’t work well without the constant structure of year-round classes, it can be easy to fall behind. Everybody has different needs when it comes to their education. It’s important to know yours.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?
Both the press and the MFA program are on instagram at @imagetextithaca. Check us out!