So, this intense thing happened to me 4 years ago, and I took snapshots and scribbled things (as I often do) in hopes that the memory of those few days would not reduce to a simmer and eventually fade away into oblivion. I didn’t want to ever forget this very peculiar, frightening, and grandiose thing that I experienced, and so I tried to remember it the only way I knew how - through writing and pictures. This journal entry was written crudely, in the moment, and just recently deciphered from an almost illegible scribble in a crinkled Moleskin notebook. These obscure hieroglyphics of mine were perpetuated by the fact that I wrote this story in the passenger seat of my car, head in a fog, while blazing across the rolling highways of the American South West.
This is a story (accompanied with blurry photos) that I reluctantly but freely want to share because it’s a real thing that happened and something that I think about quite often. Special shoutout to Darby Mae for sprucing up this unseasoned writing of mine, and to Kristen and Andrew for sharing the weight of the waves with me that frigid April morning.
Hastily written / scribbled sometime in April 2013
Edited and revised with help from Darby Mae Wagner, July 2017
4/6/13 (Two days prior to cliff jumping)
I am writing this while still pretty bugged out. I just had the wildest drive to Santa Cruz. I thought that I was flying. Or dying. My entire body felt as if it were burning, on fire. I just woke up, lost in a daze at the Jungle House.
The story starts in Los Angeles, or a few days before we left for a road trip to Santa Cruz. Kristen and I were released early from work - it was the last and final day of our 4-month internship. We were ecstatic. We said our goodbyes, swiped a whole case of sugar-free Redbull from the basement, and prepared ourselves to soon take off along the California coast. Free, liberated, and ready for a change of scenery. We take a photo in the alley by the trash cans that we no longer would be pulling out onto the street every week.
I hastily moved myself out of my Craigslist sublet in Santa Monica. My friend Charlotte who lives in a one-bedroom flat in Little Armenia was letting me crash there for a few nights. We had a great little dinner at this French café. She had mussels and cassis; I ate her French fries and had a lavender gin martini. Afterwards, I met Mike for beers at Barney’s Beanery. He was flirty, and professing his real estate prospects. I was exhausted and not attuned. I told him about my plan to jump off a cliff in Santa Cruz, and asked him to sign my advice book.
The next morning Kristen and I began our 6-hour drive to Santa Cruz, and my eagerness and desire to escape got the best of me. I stared at a bar of chocolate with wide eyes and wonder. It innocently laid in my lap and stared back at me, and without thinking once or even twice, I took a big ol’ bite.
The thing was that it hit me all at once. I was waiting to get slowly filled up, like when you leave a hose running on in the summertime to fill up a plastic pool. Nope. After an hour of slow trickling, I was full to brim in a matter of a few seconds, and began to rapidly overflow. I started feeling lighter and lighter, closing my eyes as I soared through the sky.
I should have waved my white flag right then and there. This foolish overzealousness was just a preview to an unforgettable weekend.
It started off as an ordinary morning, or as ordinary a morning can be when you wake up on a floral couch in the Church House. I had been talking about cliff jumping for nearly a month now, and had psyched myself up to doing it. Kristen’s warnings of icy cold northern California waters were of no concern to me. I was unwavering in my decision. I was going to jump off a cliff.
And so early that morning, just a couple hours after the sun had risen, Kristen, Alyssa, Andrew, and I piled into Alyssa’s car, our swim trunks and towels in hand. I shoved a piece of dry toast in my mouth, and it makes my mouth even drier. Eventually we found ourselves hovering over the Santa Cruz coastline, scoping out the scene below us...so far, we could already tell the conditions were a bit questionable. 58-ish degrees. Maybe 60. My hair was whipping across my face through strong gusts the moment we stepped onto the cliffs. The ocean didn’t necessarily reflect the wrath of the wind, but it wasn’t looking very calm either, just a bit wavy from afar.
We climbed down the rocks to the beach to set our stuff down and test the water. We had already committed at this point, no matter how frigid the water proved to be. And yes, the water was indeed frigid, stinging my feet as an electric shock soared through my interior. But I was so oblivious - so silly happy running up and down the coast to psyche myself up and keep warm. My arm hairs stood up straight, still feeling the shockwave of the waters I recently dabbled, and there were goosebumps on my legs. I remember looking down and noticing a bright bruise atop my bad knee that looked particularly purple; ah yes, I thought...trampoline, Kristen and I going berserk, Jungle House - it was all coming back to me.
Kristen, Andrew, and I met eyes as we contemplated the icy Pacific water, but oddly never the wind and wave conditions.
I laid my towel out on a rock and changed from my underwear to my swim trunks. I think I was completely naked at some point; none of this seemed to matter much in Santa Cruz. Or to me at least. Alyssa got comfy on the rocks with a book- she is a lit major after all. She wished us good luck as we set off towards the cliffs.
I was bouncing shivering and shaking all over the place, as we climbed to the alleged jumping off point. The cliff apparently hung over a ‘toilet bowl’ of water. It was U- shaped, and waves were crashing onto the outer rocks. We hung our heads skeptically over the edge, as we observed our jumping off point. All of us raised our eyebrows, likely feeling the same polarities of fear and excitement, but no one dared to verbalize anything resembling skepticism. A young couple in Patagonia windbreakers (more appropriately dressed for the weather conditions) walked over to us. We chatted hastily only to discover that the husband jumps all the time! He suddenly recommended, as if we had no idea what we were doing, that we jump after a wave has crashed, and not before, so that we don’t get tumbled into the toilet bowl. So basically, the idea was to jump after a wave has crashed, hope you timed it right, then swim past the giant bowl over to shore.
I became so apprehensive.
But it wasn’t long before I heard the man saying, “If you’re gonna jump, go NOW!!!” Right after the wave had crashed. And then I turned my head and saw Andrew was full-speed bolting, and off the cliff he went, splashing into the water.
As I write and recall these events, my chest still hurts from it all and begins to tighten. After all, it’s only been five days.
...So Andrew is in the icy Pacific, head bobbing out of the water, laughing and screaming. Kristen immediately follows and plunges off the cliff. And I just might throw up, knees shaking all over, but I quickly come to realize that I’m all alone on this cliff and my friends are in the water. I’m still over here dawdling. OK Jo, just do it. Whatever, I thought, for one split second. But in that split second ‘whatever’, my feet detach from my brain and start going pat-pat. That’s the sound they make when they smack a flat rock. Three big, baby steps. Three ‘pat-pat-pats’ and I feebly lunge off. Definitely not nearly far enough for comfort. That was strike one. I realized how ridiculously close I was to skimming rocks, but that thought evaporates as soon as my pat-pat feet hit the Pacific water. Ahhh. Breathe is GONE. Fuck, it was freezing… just like sucking in a mouthful of icy air, or after being punched in the stomach, or how I think it should feel after eating a tube of Mentos.
I’m nauseous writing this.
So, I’m thinking, the idea now is to start swimming past the toilet bowl, away from cliffs and around towards the coast to get back to the shore. But realization and reality quickly comes down hard, and the current pulling me BACK towards the jumping cliffs is really fucking strong, and I kind of can’t breathe because the cold water is constricting my chest. I start with a simple breaststroke. I can see Kristen not too far away doing the same, while Andrew is much further out in the sea.
I’m starting to get tired.
I shout to Kristen. HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET BACK. My voice sounds inaudible under the winds and waves, but she hears me. YOU SWIM.
I switch to froggy style. Then I get tired again and switch to my backside. Belly up, like a goldfish afloat in a toilet bowl, and I’m kicking and breathing heavy. The thought briefly occurs to me that maybe I should feel a bit self-conscious and embarrassed. I can see people-dots from the corners of my salty eyes standing on top of the overhanging cliffs. Their thoughts seem to penetrate my skull... Crazy dipshits.
I feel immeasurably small in that moment.
But I didn’t even have enough time to process that feeling because a wave is suddenly crashing over my head, and the tide is pulling me away from the coast. Landfall never seemed further away.
And now it’s been five days since THIS day, so I can’t remember exactly how many more of these waves choked me before the ultimate one came crashing down. My head was barely bobbing above water, and I was gasping for air when I saw a white avalanche through my stinging eyes -- a wave that had already broke and was rolling full speed and force ahead. I was scared before but now I am terrified.
And this monster sends me straight down through the cavernous black ocean, swirling in a whirlpool of salt and sand. And the top is probably 20 to 30 feet above me but how the hell do I even know. I can’t see or think a damn thing right now, and then I’m viciously smacked across the face with reality. This is drowning, Jo. You are drowning. You cannot fucking breathe because you are swallowing gulps of seawater and stuck under the sea where there is no air.
STUPID GIRL STUPID GIRL STUPID GIRL.
I think of washing up onto the shore, or slowly drifting to the bottom like a limp anchor. I think of family finding out that they have to fly to California to retrieve my body. I think of friends finding out that I died cliff jumping in Santa Cruz. I think of Jack and Rose jumping off the butt of the Titanic and being sucked down to the ocean floor. (Quite a strange thought, in retrospect.) I think of how people would think of me. Would they think I was suicidal or maybe just a daredevil? I’m not particularly either, just rash and impulsive and stubborn and stupid and twenty-one fucking years old.
And then, I think, I possibly hit the ocean floor, kick myself up with all of my might and just pray that the water will dissolve and disappear. Eventually, it does. At this point I have no more qualms regarding the reality of my situation.
HELP HELP HELP ME HELP HELP, I’m screaming over wind and water and distance. No one moves or musters.
A few more waves maybe - I can’t remember it anymore. My memory has been floating in some kind of purgatory since this day, and writing about this clouded experience will never do it justice. The raw emotions get diluted with each passing moment that goes by.
Why is no one saving me?
Then I see a glimmer of hope. As I struggle to keep breathing and afloat, I see Kristen standing not too far ahead of me. Still in the water, but on solid ground. KRISTEN HELP ME, I scream out.
She screams back something, but it’s inaudible. My feet hit something soft and solid, as they start to drag into sand, but I keep on flapping in distrust and disbelief as my limp, lanky, utterly frozen, hung, hanging, not dead body emerges from the icy Pacific, once and for all.
GIRL FINALLY GOT BAPTIZED.
Catching breath, catching breath, catching breath. Chest heaving. Where is Alyssa? Where is Andrew?The fact that we couldn’t even be concerned with his whereabouts when we emerged from the water shows exactly how fogged we were...still mentally trapped in the haze of the waves.
We run and hungrily snatch out towels and cocoon ourselves, while still shocked and shaking. I see Andrew bobbing, finally closer to shore and felt the potential tragedy of everything so deeply in that moment. This was my stupid idea. I run into the water and reach out to him with a towel. He takes it, but doesn’t say a single word.
We walk to our distant spot on the rocks, where Alyssa is still sitting and reading. It’s finally apparent that no one saw or took notice of anything that had just happened but ourselves. How is that even possible?
I lay my body belly-down on top of a slab of rock. Like road kill that you’ve just treaded your tires over. Or like a gingerbread cookie that you’ve just flattened out with a rolling pin. I just lay there, breathing deep breaths into the rock.
Minutes go by in total silence.
We all start making eyes at each other, as if we all starting feeling a bit more human again. We slowly break into smiles and start laughing. What else is there to do at that point? We accept the fate of what nearly just happened and I have been vigorously thinking about it ever since this day.
My chest hurts for the next two days when I breathe. A humble reminder. Sea water runs from our nostrils every time we hang our heads low. That was also a humble reminder. Later, I made paper survivor medals clipped from an old Nat Geo, and strung them onto silver yarn. Those serve as a reminder; I refuse to take mine off of my neck for the next few days.
We chat quickly with our Patagonia friends who came down later to say hi. They met in East Asia. He is from Santa Cruz and she is from Canada. They had no idea of our struggle. After we calmed down, I hastily snap photos - thoughtlessly as if I was on autopilot. I have to remember, I say to myself.
I immediately make Andrew and Alyssa sign my advice book, and we all sit on the rocks as we slowly come down from all the adrenaline spikes and surges.
The rush doesn’t fully go down for the next two days or so, and I constantly feel afloat.
We drop Andrew off at the bus stop and say our quick, sheepish goodbyes. Kristen, Alyssa, and I go for a hike at Wilder Ranch after casually proceeding to get Fro Yo, as if nothing remotely remarkable had happened that day.
I feel so awkward all day long, my head still swimming in deep, clouded thoughts. Kristen and I go to a coffee shop that is unkempt, mismatchy, and only takes cash. I meet Daniel and we share stories. I photograph him, and he also signs my advice book.
Kristen and I meet Marley and Gregoria at the pier. We ride the Fireball, and I really just want to vomit at that point.
Hey friends -- Happy July. My seven-month delay in making a blog post is inexcusable but not really all that surprising. (Been “busy”?, scattered-brained, something like that?) Oops. Mostly this is due to the fact that I have been cutting some time away from my personal film photography projects and pushing towards developing a stronger base of freelance clients. I used to scoff at this idea (dunno why) and was pretty narrow-minded as far as what I thought I could accomplish as a photographer. Or more importantly, what I wanted to accomplish. I would say things like, “I will never be a wedding photographer.” I guess I thought it was something I wasn’t capable of doing, didn’t want to do, or would absolutely hate doing. This was so ridiculous of me, because it turns out none of that is true. I started working for some wedding photographers and realized that shooting weddings was just an extension of what I already do when I shoot my large-format portraits. Wait - I somehow magically translated my skillset that involves approaching naked strangers in the river and applied it towards my bright future as a wedding photographer? Well, it turns out all the same components are there, just delivered and executed in a different format. They both are dealing with humans and emotions and capturing these fleeting moments. Both embrace the awkward and the unexpected. Both have been challenging me in different ways and helping me evolve (is that a stretch?) as photographer and individual.
Anyway, not going to flood this post with wedding photos but here is a link to my new sister-site, Joanna Kulesza Weddings . I am going to flood this post with some medium-format film I shot while in Nicaragua back in March! Below you will find my narrow document of San Juan del Sur. Nothing remarkable in here - Most common photos taken were of dogs and cemeteries. You’ve been warned.
Fortunately, I have just recently been able to bring a lot of my energy and focus back to my Creek series. I have been challenging myself to make more work than ever before for this project. In the past it was difficult for me to give it merit, since the story I am telling here isn’t linear or easy to define. I decided to quit stressin’ so much, and just go out and shoot. This *revolutionary* technique is proving to (mostly) work in my favor. I still constantly manage to fuck up film, no matter how many times I have done this before, or how meticulous or prudent I am.
Much more to come with this ongoing body of work. If you want to see some behind the scenes or process work with the Creek project, you should follow the Instagram account, I Love Texas Photo. I will be taking over the account for a few days sometime this week and posting iPhone snaps as I make portraits of strangers while lurking along the Austin Greenbelt.
Aaaaaand last but not least, the documentary film Jackson that I was so lucky to play a minor role in as a Production Assistant will be screening at Babes Fest on July 28th. I have some all-day guest passes to give away, so please get in touch if you are interested. First hi or hello will be the lucky recipient of a guest pass - don't start message me all at once now! This is a FREE pass to see comedy, film, and music by badass babes. AND an after party. Just sayin'.
Talk to you soon, friends -- new and exciting photo things always on the horizon.
“Why do you only photograph in film?”
This succinct, but super relevant question is one that I encounter frequently but have an unusually difficult time answering. I recently found myself in this predicament once again after I told a photo-friend that I was heading out to East Texas for a few days to photograph small towns over the holiday. Their response was an underwhelming one, after I told them I’d be shooting exclusively in film -- “Oh, that’s right. You only shoot film.”
To set the record straight, I don’t only shoot my photographs in film, but it has been my unwavering medium of choice by far, since all the way back to my junior high school days. With all things film, vinyl, & vintage at an unprecedented high in popularity, people are curious and skeptical of the avid film photographer’s motives in an age where digital is cheap and instantly gratifying.
So why then? Is it because shooting film is hip? Is it because it’s trendy?
Instinctively I want to go with a cop-out answer. Something like, “Well, I did it first, way before it was cool,” which is a total bullshit answer - completely unremarkable at best. No one should exceptionally care that I learned to shoot pictures on film, and that my current projects are all made using a 4x5 view camera. In all honesty, it took me years to actualize a truthful answer to “Why film?” Beyond discovering the technical and artistic advantages of shooting medium and large-format film over digital, I finally landed on the one-word, million dollar answer to shut up all the skeptics, the scrutinizers, & the haters - it’s ritual.
It’s a weighty, loaded word that means something entirely differently for every person under the burning sun. We dunk our babies in holy water, pop corks and say cheers. We hold hands before eating meals, and bring food during times of grief and suffering.
The ritual of shooting film is tedious and often unpragmatic. It’s risky and expensive, delicate and finicky. But most importantly, above all that jumble, it is romantic, nostalgic, and extremely tangible. It’s the whole thing.
You buy the film, and you load the film. You take care in each shot because you are limited to a roll rather than the endless abyss of a memory card. You listen, engage, and interact, rather than fire rapidly and move on. You are left with the allure and mystery of the images to come. Your film sits undeveloped for sometimes weeks at a time, until - ahh yeah, that’s right! That little roll, perfectly sealed, shot, and corked up. It comes back to the forefront of your focus, and it’s finally time to develop that little unassuming nugget, filled with the images of I can’t even remember exactly what now, but I know it must be something great otherwise I would not have made it a point to take a picture.
And then there is the anticipation of picking up the film, and then scanning the film. And after that it’s sitting in a coffee shop for endless hours, tweaking colors and cleaning thick coats of dust and debris in Photoshop as the negatives finally start coming to life.
And this lil’ rant wasn’t meant to sound as full of cheese or drama as it might come across to some. This is my slightly sugarcoated love affair with the ritual of shooting film. It is a very lengthy and intensely personal experience for me, and I just love it all.
That's Liz, on Christmas Eve.
So that being said, how strange it is that a person with such an apparent respect for ritual should find themselves disregarding it almost entirely on Christmas Day - one of the most celebrated, ritualistic, & holy days of the year.
This year on Christmas morning, I found myself in a very peculiar and unexpected place. I was walking through a small cemetery in Athens, Texas with my good friend Liz Moskowitz - a place where we have no friends or relatives buried, or any connection to the city at all really. We were driving around the deserted Athens town square when we passed by this grassy patch of earth, speckled with tombstones and several limply waving confederate flags pressed into the dirt. At the beginning of this trip, I made a half-hearted request to stop at small-town cemeteries but I didn’t expect us to actually drive up to one so conveniently. I guess when you’re visiting a town with a population of less than 13,000, the possibilities of coming across things are inevitable - not if, but rather when.
We started to wander around the mostly empty gravesites, and I came across an older woman who was knee-deep in dirt kneeling beside a grave. She was digging holes and planting a bounty of artificial flowers in every bright hue and shade imaginable. I said hello to her. “No english,” she hastily replied. And then I made a picture-taking motion because the bird’s eye image of her surrounded by artificial flora was just screaming to be photographed. But she shook her head vigorously and I quickly walked away, embarrassed and ashamed that I had bothered her during a time of intense grief.
I started to scold myself for seeping my insensitive voyeurism into the energy of this memorial site - and on top of that, on Christmas Day. I never visit cemeteries mainly because my immediate family is buried in Poland, and because for the most part, no one very close to me has died yet. But Christmas just seemed like such a powerful day of the year to pay respects to loved ones and I was curious to see what kind of people it brought out to a place of memory.
It was at that point that we met Gary - an older man in a tucked-in shirt and cowboy hat. He was lingering by one of the more elaborate tombstones - one with a sitting bench, and a decorative cast of a saddle and set of cowboy boots. We sparked a conversation with Gary almost immediately. We learned he was visiting his wife Freda’s gravesite. It is also the spot where Gary will eventually be buried too. Gary tells us that Freda died two years ago from breast cancer, that she was beloved by people in city of Athens, and that he mostly visits her grave alone. Gary tells us she was his soulmate. His demeanor was kind and calm, and I think he mostly just wanted to talk to somebody about his wife.
He agreed to be photographed, and I agreed to email him his photographs. I did just that the other day but still haven’t heard back yet from Gary. I am anxious to hear if he likes the pictures. Most of all I hope that they bring him some type of comfort in memory.
Gary Lee Baker, b. August 17, 1955 -
Nick and Tanya, Christmas morning
First of all, apologies are in order! I'm so, so sorry, blog, and I'm so, so sorry subscribers/friends/Mom. I've neglected you all for the last two months and that's not cool. I didn't mean to leave such a big blank space between notes, but the East Austin Studio Tour happened to fall in the middle of that blog post-less period, and the election was nothing short of a brain melter, and I have never successfully kept up with a blog before in the past, so why should this time be any different? Retract that last little bit of negativity, please -- I'm moving forward with my reflections from 2016, and I'll be doing that by sharing my iPhone with you.
The Idea of You is a new, ongoing baby-project that I decided to call a "something" after noticing these recurring themes and patterns in my most prized iPhone photos. When I looked at all of these images side by side, I discovered a collection of moments that I felt a deep emotional reaction to. I immediately wished I had a place to let them breath - somewhere outside of the Instagram-cell phone void.
So I uploaded these photos to my website and printed them off in book form under the guise, The Idea of You. (My absolute favorite part about projects is thinking of a title. The title blankets the images, giving them a sense of validity as they start to take on new forms.)
The subject matter within The Idea of You is completely different from my usual, straight up, in-your-face portrait projects. These pictures are moody and not transparent- vague impressions rather than concrete shapes. They were taken at unsuspecting times, when my best camera wasn't ready at hand. In these camera-less moments when a picture was begging to be taken, I would completely beat myself up about it. The thought of missing the potential drove me absolutely crazy. Lately, I've been learning just to shake it off and make due with what I have in hand.
This one photographer I used to work for always comes to mind in these instances. She would scold me for constantly whining about my photo equipment - or extreme lack of it. I graduated college and entered the professional photo world with a terrible digital camera that I would use as a scapegoat to excuse my shitty photographs. Even though I still let myself believe there was some truth behind that claim, this photographer's words have stuck with me over time. "The best camera is the one that you've got, Jo." Translation? "Quit your bitching, and just get it done."
The picture above was taken at the prom for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, which is documented each year by photographer Sarah Wilson. I have voluntarily assisted her on this long-term project for the past few years. Each recurring year, the experience is consistently emotional and indescribably humbling.
The photo up above was taken on one of my very first days at my new job. (Not the jewelry store, to be clear -- & no direct pun intended there, either.)
This was an important week for me- the first week I officially gave up my freelance photography and bartending life for a full-time, nine to five one. The boy I was dating at the time dropped me off at this exact block where Kruger's sits on the corner of, but about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. I was a little nervous so rather than go into the office building early, I spent those 20 minutes looping the same block over and over again. During my last loop around, I walked straight past this scene, but had an immediate wave of regret as soon as I passed it- the coulda-shoulda-taken-a-photo-god-dammit voice, buzzing obnoxiously deep inside my skull. I knew it wouldn't be a groundbreaking, front-cover, life-changing cellphone photo of any kind, but even just the idea of it was enough to get me worked up. I decided to turn back around.
I made a picture-taking motion towards the jeweler through the window. My fellow nine to five-er smiled, gave me a thumbs up, and continued setting the diamonds out for the day.
This snap up above was taken in my neighborhood, February 14th, 2016.
This project - this diary - this scratch pad of my life has been scribbled over so many times that it's getting harder and harder to make the words out clearly. But beneath all the scribble and all the scratches, I can still make out distant impressions of the things at hand. I see pictures of people that have drifted away, and I see moments of joy. I see the spontaneity, the uncertainty, and the isolating loneliness that have very much defined how I perceive myself and my past life experiences. I see the things I like about myself and the things that I loathe.
And through all of this I wonder how much is even transparent to an outside observer and how much gets totally lost on account of the fact that this is my personal diary and I'm only gonna let you read some parts of it anyways, while I white out and blot the dull parts -- or even worse, the really ugly parts. Maybe reading my blotted out diary is not that interesting to begin with. Maybe I just need to write more and white out less. Maybe you like the of idea of The Idea of You, or maybe you don't.
Whatever it is, I'll be cool with. But I'm going to ask you a favor either way. I want to use this blog post to welcome any comments, critiques, and perspectives. Send me a note! Love mail, hate mail, it's hardly-worth-my-time mail -- I'd welcome it all. How do you initially feel about this as a project? Would you want to see more? What about it is interesting, and what is absolutely not?
I generally don't ask for validity, but I'm really interested to hear your thoughts. And I generally don't know what I'm doing anyways, but I'm really enjoying these scribbles as of late, and the anticipation of many more to come.