In her photography, Amber Chavez speaks to the solitary subject within the confined space of their interiority. The destruction, the suffocation, the rawness, and the vices are carefully provoked. Chavez invigorates recognizable subject matter and through it, she coaxes her viewers into her work. This, in turn, suggests a certain (auto)biographical narrative. Check out Chavez’s work in her EK feature from 2011!
What kind of qualities do you look for in other people?
The most important thing to me in another person is their sincerity. I surround myself with people full of genuineness and empathy. People with the ability to feel things without fearing what it means are the best companions and comrades.
What do you do when you’re not making art?
I do so much outside of art! Number one thing is I’m an athlete. I run 6 miles every day of the week. I also swim and do some dance classes. I have terrible body anxiety that I’ve been able to manage through exercise every morning. Basically, if I’m exhausted by 9am then I’m too tired to feel anxiety. I also do a lot of research on the things that interest me. Right now I’m learning about Lebanon and South America. I watch a lot of films; my most recent favorite was Goodnight Mommy. So good! I also spend a lot of time planning “stuff.” Making to do lists and goal lists and film lists and shot lists and lists of what to learn next and just in general—I’m usually writing a lot of stuff down. My purse is filled with note books and pencil pouches and emergency notebooks.
On your Tumblr, Instagram, and personal website, photography is clearly your preferred medium. Do you practice other forms of art? Why (not)?
Photography is my preferred medium. I try to not limit myself, though, so I attempt a lot of things! The last couple of weeks, I’ve been water coloring. First thing I painted was myself. Second thing I painted were mountain ranges and right now I’m working on some cacti. Easy stuff to figure out technique. But it’s just fun to me, the only thing I take seriously on an emotional level is photography.
How has your symbiotic relationship with your sister, Ashlie, changed since your interview with lomography two years ago?
Me and Ash have always used the word “symbiotic” to describe our dependency because it’s a less negative way to describe dependency. It’s more of a “matter of fact” than opinion. We don’t have a choice but to be this way; it’s just the way nature has left us. But with River being born, our dependency has turned into a less tumultuous, uproarious neediness and more of a calm necessity. I guess I’d like to think we grew up a bit, not out of eachother but with eachother. Ash has always believed eachother should be one word so don’t correct the spelling, please.
In terms of your art—what is the most memorable advice that Ashlie gave you? Does her art ever change how you receive your own photographs?
Ash has forever told me “only do something for a reason,” and I’ve always created with that in mind. Her art is something I wish I could do. I’ve always been jealous and it pains me to write that because I know it’s so satisfying for her. Her paintings are something out of some kind of fucked up children’s animal planet where animals talk and people don’t. That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of her drawings. It’s a compliment.
In many of your photos, especially on your Instagram, you photograph yourself. How do you decide when to use yourself as your own model? What kind of moment calls for a selfie?
The first photograph I ever took of Ash, I think we were 9. She was in my mom’s wedding dress and wore a crown that you’d get with a happy meal, and she was so impatient waiting for me to focus and get the shot that she ended up making this really disgruntled face. It’s funny, we have never had the patience to sit in front of the camera; we both get irritable. I am my go-to-model now, though. If I have a shot in mind, I almost always use myself. I never consider shooting myself to be self portraiture because it’s not “me” that’s significant; it could be any body. Using myself is a way to explore that “any body” that could be anyone. I don’t think I really use the term “self-portrait.” I like how Cindy Sherman described shooting herself. It resonates well with me, and I’d like to think I could have said it if she didn’t say it first.
“I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear…I think of becoming a different person. I look into a mirror next to the camera…it’s trance-like. By staring into it I try to become that character through the lens…When I see what I want, my intuition takes over—both in the ‘acting’ and in the editing. Seeing that other person that’s up there, that’s what I want. It’s like magic.”
Beautiful right? I just can’t speak that well about my own work, and I generally form sentences very terribly. As for the term “selfie,” that absolutely should never be used to describe photographs even if self-portraits. “Selfie” was invented in like 2009 with the sole purpose in hopes to glamorize one self. I’ve been shooting myself for 15 years, and I’m usually face down to the ground or in water.
It seems that many of your subjects find themselves in water. What is expressed to you through bathing?
I first started to focus on water as a subject when Ash and I matured enough to understand our mom’s brain aneurysm. She said it felt like she was drowning and that just pretty much carried over into everything else I did. It preset a lot of tones and imagery for what I would work on later.
I see that you’ve mentioned Egon Schiele as an inspiration. How does he treat his subject differently than you do? How do you conceptualize your art?
Egon Schiele is an inspiration because he perceived himself in countless amounts of ways. I can only say so much about how he felt towards himself without over stepping, but from his drawings, you can tell there was a lot of roles he was playing in his own head. That’s how it has felt shooting myself while separating myself from the actual photo that I’m in. I’m just a body. Schiele sexualized his subjects quite often, even children sometimes; he was walking on a very fine line of what was deemed “ok” in society. I guess you could see I’m more conservative when working with people as subjects. Also, I just want to state that I would never put myself on par to the greats, Schiele and Sherman. That’s not what I’m doing by comparing myself to them, they’re just undeniably brilliant reference points. I don’t know how to conceptualize myself or my work yet, I just don’t know enough to do that right now.
When will you leave California next?
I will be leaving California in May! Me and my boyfriend, Christian, will be traveling to London and Lebanon to meet my love’s family. Lebanon is a very important place to me. Growing up religiously, the Middle East is very historically significant. There are many places I would love to photograph.