Michelle Yee wants to see how far she can take her photography. After growing up in a household in Edmonton where “a camera was always present,” she used the medium as a way to crystallize and then analyse moments in time, spanning portraiture, documentaries, and weddings. In 2014, Michelle and seven of her peers co-founded the acclaimed SOFIA — the Society of Females in Art — a Toronto-based fine-art photography collective working towards amplifying the voices of women in the industry. Between them they have shot everyone from M.I.A to Adrienne Clarkson. Michelle is an award-winning artist and storyteller. Now based in San Francisco, Michelle has shifted her focus to a newly intimate kind of storytelling: A photographic memoir entitled After That August, the story of her journey to love after divorce. The book uses photography and written reflections as a mediation on the dissolution of her marriage.
From a young age I always felt like life was really ephemeral. I remember not wanting to have a birthday as a child, because it meant time was passing! Photography was my way to freeze time and hold onto it. My mom was the one who got me hooked. She took it upon herself to learn to use an SLR, to take black and white developing classes, and she taught me how to use her camera. When she developed those first photos for me, it just felt so thrilling.
Throughout my career as a photographer, I was kind of a generalist. I loved the act of photography; I was able to do all kinds of jobs. I loved everything that photography allowed me to do. I was meeting people I normally wouldn’t meet, seeing things I wouldn’t normally be able to see, all because people needed pictures. Having a camera felt like this path into a world that you normally wouldn’t have access to.
SOFIA was a huge catalyst in terms of discovering my own voice as an artist. A lot of the motivation that brought us together to form SOFIA was that we had a desire to reconnect with what drew us to photography in the first place; I don’t think any of us expected it to become as big as it did. Having the experience of learning how to organize people and seeing what could happen when they come together with a shared goal, it was really exciting. It was the beginning of being able to make work for myself — it wasn’t for a client, it was just what I wanted to do. And the experience of making that work, being supported by the other members, and being so warmly received by those around us, it gave me a lot of confidence in my own voice.
I feel there’s a lot of things I still need to work out, and living with those things adds a bit of discomfort to everyday life. Instead of getting trapped in a loop of doubt and worry, cannabis clears that away and helps me focus on what’s really important; it makes me more present. ”
I decided around the same time that SOFIA started, that I was going to start writing a book, but I’d never tried writing or showing my work publicly. As a kid before I was a photographer, I was a writer, but I felt too young and immature and photography had less resistance to it. I had an opportunity to create a zine in preparation for a workshop I was teaching in New York, where I moved after the divorce to start over again at 40, and I let myself do what I felt like I needed to rather than what I felt I was supposed to do. I felt this story inside me, and I asked myself how would I tell it?
I knew I had photography with me as a tool, but there were parts of this experience — the story of what came after the “happily ever after” was over — that I was going to need to communicate through writing. Three weeks later, I had 160 pages.
After That August is a portrait of a moment in time; it is the story of what happened after my marriage ended. We were married for eight years, and we separated in 2015. I had to think hard about who I was and what these things meant to me. How can I build a future when I’m still carrying my past around with me? It took a long time and a lot of questioning. While it’s also a story about my relationship with my current partner, who I’ve been with for three years now, a lot of it is learning to trust myself again.
I feel there are things I still need to work out, and living with those things adds a bit of discomfort to everyday life. Instead of getting trapped in a loop of doubt and worry, cannabis clears that away and helps me focus on what’s really important; it makes me more present. I’m so grateful that it exists and that I have access to it here in California.
I use cannabis socially and for work; it has a daily presence. I’m still experimenting with my usage. In my experience with it before, there was always somebody else responsible for obtaining it for me, but since moving to California I’ve got the freedom to find what works for me. I’m currently using a PAX Era vape pen and becoming a little bit more aware of what the differences are. Before legalisation I felt like I would take what I could get, and now I’m trying different strains and products, taking note of what works, and what doesn’t.
With cannabis, the world goes from being this wide angle lens, where you can see the whole array of possibility, to a zoom lense where you can focus in on that one thing you need to concentrate on. Sometimes in the morning I’ll feel a little bit confused about what I have to do in the day because everything feels urgent and pressing, but I’ll remind myself to visit my vape pen, and then everything gets clear. I can only do one thing at a time, so I choose one and just start. Cannabis gives me this feeling that everything I want to manifest is totally possible.
It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to capture moments — like weddings — that evoke an emotional response and are truly meaningful for people on a personal level. There are photographers who are concerned about their legacy, but I’m more attached to using something that I’m good at to be of service to others.
Create your own opportunities. I spent too long waiting for someone else to say yes or give me a chance or an opportunity. I was literally waiting for the phone to ring. What I’ve since learned is that I have to be the one who picks up the phone and dials; life really changed when I started taking action myself. Your life, your success, your happiness — all of that is your own responsibility, so take it!
Practice kindness towards yourself. The path of a creative person is not going to be lined with flowers and praise at every turn. When you are doing things differently than others, some may find it challenging or confrontational. When you are evolving and growing, it’s possible that your work won’t immediately be at the level that you want or expect of yourself. Learn to become your own biggest cheerleader. All of the challenges that arise will be so much easier to handle if you can develop the habit of being kind to yourself.
View failure as a gift. Not everything we try is going to work out the way we had hoped or expected. If you can train yourself to see every setback or failure or mistake as a gift, they will be invaluable to you in the future. When you’re creating something totally new, learning what doesn’t work is just as important as discovering what does. It feels great to win, but it’s through the losses that we can really learn.