To Reylia Slaby, the root of creativity is in the truth of what we are feeling. In conceptual photography, she found a new way to communicate, and while she uses her photographs to capture what is going on in her mind, they also form a map into the core of her own emotions.
Reylia has lived in Japan all her life. About thirty years ago, her parents moved from the Unites States to Osaka, where Reylia’s mother had been an exchange student. Now, Reylia and her twin sister share an apartment in Ikoma, a fifteen-minute train ride from Nara, Japan’s first permanent capital and the first stop of my journey.
When we walk to a small café opposite the station, the streets are already dark. It is the middle of March and while the nights are still cold enough to bite into your skin, the days are finally getting warmer. Reylia is looking forward to a new shoot that she has scheduled for the next morning. Since most of her conceptual photographs are taken outdoors, her personal work slows down in the winter. For the last few months, she has mainly focused on studio portraiture and fashion photography, as well as hosting occasional workshops around the area.
‘Winter sucks’, she says. ‘It’s like my brain is hibernating.’
Reylia tells me about her creative hurdles, and I realize I tend to look at creative people I admire, imagining that they possess some never-ending superhuman flow. But the more interviews I conduct, the clearer it becomes that no matter how far you have come, overcoming doubt and resistance over and over again seems to be an inevitable part of the creative process.
‘The only time that I don’t feel stuck, or in a rut, is when I’ve finally made a piece. But then the day after I’ve finished it, I’m stuck again. I’m still learning how to get over it.’
Reylia’s most effective method for staying in the flow is to keep herself busy. She makes sure she is always ‘mixing the pot’, by photographing as often as she can, looking at other people’s work and listening to other people’s stories.
‘I set myself up for taking pictures. I schedule model shoots and say “Can you come this date?” Even if I don’t have an idea that day, they’re coming, so I have to find one. I kind of push myself in that way.’
When she does get stuck, she tries to grow from each experience instead of beating herself up about it.
‘I figure that the more I make it hard on myself, the more I’ll equate that to art or creation being a negative thing. If I struggle while I’m creating something, those feelings are still attached to the end image. So as much as I can, I’m trying to be kind to myself.’
Daring to Feel
Reylia started her creative career with realistic graphite pencil art, but lost her motivation when people kept telling her what to draw or not to draw in order to make money from her art. She was advised to make commissions and discouraged from following her own ideas, which eventually made her associate drawing more with money than with creativity. That was when she fell in love with photography.
‘With photography, everything just fell into place. I was given this medium where I could express myself to a greater extent than I could with drawing, and that felt incredible. When it comes to personal things, it’s usually kind of hard to talk to many people about it. So in a way, photography became my way of talking.’
While working on her third picture, Reylia was going through a difficult experience in her personal life, and she says she was lucky to have started photographing at the time.
‘If I hadn’t had photography, I’d probably have fallen into something else. Maybe something negative. It’s hard to say. But I did have photography so I just kind of poured everything into that picture. I think it wasn’t until then that I realized how strongly emotions tie in with the composition. It even kind of showed me how I felt. When I’ve had some emotions or an experience that I didn’t understand, I’ve tried to interpret that through a picture.’
As an example, she shows me ‘Not Letting Go’, one of the pictures in her series ‘Tales from Japan’. It shows a girl holding a bouquet of flowers, thinking that the tighter she holds it, the less likely she will be to lose it. But petals are already floating away, and in reality, it is her tight grip that makes the flowers fall apart.
‘It’s kind of how I was feeling about a certain situation. But on a twist side this image is nice in the sense that it’s a new season, it could bloom again. Something new could happen, so it kind of encouraged me as well.’
I ask if she is ever hesitant to show her emotions through her photographs.
‘Not really,’ she says. ‘I’ve always felt safe in a picture, because I feel like the people that really look at my pictures to interpret them and search for what I actually meant, are the people who those emotions are safe with. And since most people have their own interpretations for the pictures anyway, I don’t feel scared about putting my own feelings out there.’
Neither is she afraid of the feelings themselves.
‘In a written interview, someone said “It sounds like you’re not afraid of emotion.” And I thought it was very interesting because no one had ever put it that way before. Like: “You’re not afraid to feel?” And I’m not. It’s frustrating sometimes, at the time, if you experience something negative. But it’s also quite beautiful to feel, especially if you’re sharing an emotion with someone. It can be incredible.’
Filling the Silence
Reylia lets me leaf through her sketchbook. It is tiny, each page just big enough for a rough sketch and a few words. She explains that she usually just scribbles something in quickly to make sure she doesn’t forget the idea. It is not until the actual photo-shoot that all the pieces fall into place.
While her photographs start with a few simple lines, each of them holds a deep story. One of her photographs, ‘Collecting Dust’, is about the passivity of the young generation. About losing your dreams. About staying alive, but not really living.
‘I think the world we’re living in today has kind of set itself up for this. Everything is done for us. If we go out we’re always looking at our cell phones. We’re not really looking into the world. I don’t have a cell phone. I don’t have a TV or anything. I go on the computer and have an iPad, but that’s basically it. We have created this whole different universe inside social media. There are like three worlds: the reality we’re living in now, dreams and social media. Dreams and social media are the same, in a sense, where none of it is real. I mean, it’s real in our heads, but that’s about it.’
I ask her if she thinks it is important to be observant as an artist. She says it is, but puts an emphasis on how you observe; it is not just important to look and listen, but also to observe how you feel about your experiences.
‘For a long time, I had really, really bad social anxiety. If I went into a room I just felt this big knot inside my body. And I noticed that, but I didn’t know why. All the people I surround myself with are genuinely good people, so I was really confused as to why I was feeling like that, but I still did. Eventually I took the time to observe it, and I realized it’s kind of like a maze. When I go through a social event, I’m observing my feelings and if I keep hitting a wall, I just trying to turn my feelings to what makes me comfortable. Going another way. Avoiding the obstacles or thoughts that I know would make me feel uncomfortable. And eventually, I feel better.’
I ask if she has overcome her social anxiety.
‘Oh, no. I still have it. But I’m mindful of it now. To the best of my abilities, I try to genuinely enjoy myself in social situations. I used to feel like I had to talk all the time, and I still talk a lot, but only when I have something to say. I try not to fill in the silences as much as I did.’
This is where I start to lose track of my own thoughts. My list of questions blurs into a senseless mess. I am afraid of filling the silence with the wrong words. Reylia’s openness has reminded me of my core reason for starting to interview people in the first place. I wanted to fight this fear that stops me from asking questions because it makes me feel like an intruder, like I am digging too deep.
When I try to explain this, Reylia tells me not to worry, so I put my notebook away and we look at her pictures for a while. Then we drift into the future. She tells me about her dreams of having her own photo studio, writing a book and travelling more – maybe even moving to Europe for a while, where her grandparents used to live.
‘Japan can be a little bit suffocating. There are certain limitations that I have, being like this. It’s hard sometimes not fitting in. Or people expecting me to be this way or that way. Or somebody expecting me to be more than I am. Whereas when I travel, I feel like everybody’s more open to everybody else. And I think travelling is a beautiful way to grow as a person. If you’re an artist it can also affect how you create art. Everything that you take in comes out.’
It is time to head back to the station. My train back to Nara is crowded for a few stops and out of old habit, I pick up my phone like everyone else, opening my note-taking app to put my own confusion into words. Then I catch myself. Remember Reylia’s words: We’re not really looking into the world. So I put my phone back into my pocket and really look. At the neon signs zipping by outside the window. At the teenage boy opposite me, falling asleep over his school bag every fifteenth second. At the people in the aisle, swaying closer to each other with the movements of the train.
Then I turn my gaze inwards, and I realize that regardless of whether I messed up the interview or not, I did allow myself to feel. Instead of escaping or repressing the fear that seems to catch me out whenever someone reminds me of how huge it used to be, I took a step in another direction, a step towards the truth, and found another way through the maze.