Caiti Borruso: Wanting to Photograph and Be Photographed (So Badly) — By J Houston


I first came across Caiti’s photographs of herself pissing. There’s a broad history of feminist image-making they reference; my mind goes from some of Barbara Hammer’s soft black and white images to documentation from Carolee Schneemann’s Interior Scroll. I have a hesitation to immediately compare the images to other feminist work – rooted in a desire to allow images made by women to exist outside of prescribed feminism – yet the images themselves feel comfortable in this history and depart from it with a self-aware snapshot quality. In some, we only see a splatter of liquid, fragmented body, and in others, we see a shutter release cable or a full person. On the surface, the photographs mock a history of men pissing in public, but on further reads, they give tidbits about a changing body and create a counter to this hypermasculine violence.

Caiti’s pissing photographs only led me deeper into her vast archive of self-portraits, spanning almost a decade. Even without the year-markers under each image, I can tell time is passing with the swap from color to black and white and back again, a variety of formats and qualities. The language is familiar to me as someone who grew up prescribed female: we see a pose in the mirror, some flash in bedrooms, an upheld arm holding the camera. However, there’s a strangeness, solemness, and sweetness to many of the images. I’m not sure I could find these on the internet, rooted in vernacular but surpassing it with a messy combination of bodies or soft light. There’s a willingness to bring other bodies into the work while always letting us know who made the image, who is doing the looking, who is being looked at.

Each image has just enough of the place, using specificity as a point of entry. Seeing a dorm-room dresser, a line of dirt against bathroom tile, or the white siding of a suburban home lends us information that goes hand-in-hand with bodily changes over the decade. This sharp description of place carries onward into Caiti’s work about where she grew up in New Jersey. Outside of her own body as subject, she tells me she almost only makes work in the two miles around her past home. In a larger book project Whale Creek is Flooding, the landscape is compared to a body; the metal-binding cuts through images with a violence that references the natural disasters that Caiti mentions. She has a keen sense of material, using a kraft board similar to grocery bags, recycling, brown winter landscapes. These sensibilities carry over into the books that look at her own body and back again, weaving text and image into both character-based short stories and mundane factual gazes.

When I arrive at Caiti’s, she pulls out several books and zines she’s made alongside books and work she’s inspired by. We’re looking through her book SELF PORTRAIT FOR EACH DAY I AM IN IRELAND, which contains exactly what it sounds like.

J: Do you think the self-portraits made for this book are different at all because you changed location?

C: It just made it so that I felt less pressure in some ways, but also I normally shoot with a Pentax 6×7 and I borrowed a Mamiya 7 so that it would be lighter. It has a self timer but it didn’t work and I didn’t bring my cable, so Eva O’Leary actually helped me make some of the pictures. It was weird because I don’t normally have people help me with them.

C: I also shot some 35mm because I had made the decision to start again. I have always had trouble bringing my Pentax along to things because I’m not really the kind of person who makes pictures by bringing a camera along to things. Most of the self-portraits are me setting up my tripod feeling very definitively I want to make a picture.

We start looking at her thesis, Whale Creek is Flooding.

C: So many of the pictures of this are taken in a specific angle because you can’t really photograph the ground because with a Hasselblad because of the finder. [With the Pentax 67] I was finally like ‘I can make pictures of the ground!’ I was making pictures that were about the ground, about the landscape.

C: I also make a lot of pictures in the studio, just of me working. It’s something I haven’t really fleshed out yet, but having pictures of me working feels like a very valid [idea]. There’s a picture of me from a few months before I left New Jersey for New York of me writing at my typewriter. All of 2011 in high school I wrote a page a day on a typewriter and I feel really grateful to have that picture of me then, working. There are gender norms to consider. Carmen Winant [for example] has pilfered archives for images of women working and I love her work for that. Ruth Van Beek published this book called How to Do the Flowers; I love that book. It’s beautiful and under-appreciated. It’s not explicitly ‘feminist’ but I take it that way.

J: It’s so process-oriented and mechanical, but about flowers, something traditionally considered feminine.

C: And these disembodied hands doing things and she’s said before that if you do every single thing, it is a manual and I enjoy that idea. A small thing I do is carry around my keys on a carabiner, and someone once said to me ‘you look like a worker.’ I thought I am a worker, in many different senses of the word. It makes me feel powerful.

C: I think about a small studio I got in my friend’s basement. People would ask what I did in it. I think that’s a thing that people maybe don’t ask painters or sculptors. I started to feel insecure about it. I was like what do I do in here? I had a camera in there that I would set up and make a picture. I have a picture of me reading a Wolfgang Tillmans book. I have a picture of me sewing these zines. I don’t know what they’re good for.

J: Going back to context though, they’re building your own archive. Many of your images have this vernacular snapshot quality, but it’s interesting because usually those images come from quick pictures taken by someone of other people. Do you think about this? How does this change when you’re the one taking the image of yourself?

C: Yeah, I do have this thing where it’s very hard to be photographed by other people. Because I photograph myself so much, it’s especially fraught. I have body issues and have for my whole life. When I’m photographing myself, it’s not even that I know how to stand or look, but I have a different relationship to my body than when I’m being photographed by someone else.

C: Have you ever heard of Emmett Gowin? He photographed his wife Edith, and has been for their entire relationship. They’re in their 70s or 80s now. There’s this one picture of Edith peeing. Someone wrote an essay on how it’s the most intimate picture in the world, and it’s not even that I think, it’s just for a long time I’ve wanted to be both of them. Emmett photographing and Edith being photographed. I don’t think it’s possible to be both, though. I want to so badly, and that’s part of where the more vernacular images of myself come in.

We start looking at UNTITLED LOVER PICTURES.

C: I lived with someone who broke up with me right before Trump got elected. After we broke up, I asked him for all the images he had taken of me in bed. He wasn’t a photographer. I asked him to take some of these pictures, I wanted some of them to be taken. A lot of them he also took on his own accord. I asked him to send them to me, and he did. I’m surprised that he did because our relationship did not end on good terms, but I decided to publish them because I felt angry that he had these pictures of me. They aren’t salacious and he wouldn’t have done anything with them, but it was more that they were photos of me and my body. I just wanted to have control of my own visage and own pictures. There are no pictures of him in it.

J: That is kind of salacious though, desirable in that way then. And because you want them and someone else has them. That brings it back to the standard of the subject in an image not being considered to own the photo, but why not? I’m interested in going back quickly to the photos that Eva helped you make in Ireland and maybe also these lover pictures. How do you think about authorship? Are making the photos one thing and then creating the publications is another?

C: I used to feel really stuffy about this, get annoyed at people who would say “so-and-so pressed the shutter for me.” I felt [conflicted] about having Eva press the shutter for me on pictures at first in the images where she was holding the camera [as opposed to it being on a tripod]. I feel looser about it now; I trust Eva enough … Eva photographed me for two different projects she’s done, so this felt very much like this is not Eva’s work. I do try hard to avoid it though. I still prefer a solitary picture-making space.

J: It feels like it might have to do with your sensitivities to labor? Being really cognizant when people are doing work for you or what work you’re doing for yourself.

C: I just think it gets hard to know. Like, with the pictures my partner made of me that I then published without his permission essentially. In a lot of ways, I was doing labor in that relationship. The term emotional labor has ceased to mean much, but it was a relationship where I was the emotional support system. Looking at those pictures of me then and even now, I was like I’m capable of being looked at with love. I don’t think I’m necessarily photographing myself that way now, but it didn’t occur to me that someone else could do that for me. They helped me see myself differently, having photos of yourself does that for you. I make my self-portraits for a different reason than I may ask my best friend’s stepdad to make a photo of us in Washington Square Park or [my partner] to make a picture of me laying in his lap.

C: I don’t want my work to be explicitly about sexuality and sexual trauma. It’s something I’m still figuring out. Part of it is that I started making pictures of myself when I was 15 basically at the same time I started experiencing sexual trauma … sometimes it feels like there’s so many words for what’s happening to other people but not a lot of words for what happened to me. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way. It just does it a disservice to frame it only around trauma.

J: Not that you don’t need words because of course you’re very invested in writing. But when you have a personal archive about your body over such a length of time, it almost does that for you. There’s a lot of agency in being able to make work in the ways you do, but also in the way you distribute it. It feels like you have the final say since you are self-publishing most of the time and nobody else controls your social media. You keep your personal archive and have access to it all the time. That feels important to how you make work.

C: To talk about writing, when I was 17, I wrote a page a day on a typewriter and nobody has read the whole thing but me. I never scanned them or shared them. After the Weinstein news broke, I think there was a lot of doubt cast by people who experienced sexual trauma on their own experiences because that was the general societal reaction: was it really that bad? Did it really happen that way? I felt dubious of myself — I have a personal archive that spans back to when I was 15, and I got it and read through it all. I was able to see that I was not making it up. It’s hard not to mistrust yourself at first. The narrative for women was that you don’t remember things correctly, so having this archive that I can look back [mattered].

J: Society definitely does not see women’s emotions as fact, so I enjoy that you look at your emotional photographic and written archive and trust in, know it’s fact and representational. That’s really beautiful. Something that we haven’t touched on much yet — I can see that your work is shot by the same person, but your work on New Jersey feels somewhat different than your self-portrait work. Do you consider them differently or where do you think that might come from?
C: I haven’t really made a lot of pictures that aren’t of me. I mostly just photograph myself and myself pissing, possibly lightly been photographing men. With [the New Jersey work], there’s so much that I can’t say in a ‘documentary-esque’ photograph. I’ve started in the last year to press flowers in my August Sanders book, and I made a surface rubbing of a rock near where I was raped, also considering a lot about maps. I’ve been thinking less about photographing a place directly and more about other ways to [describe] a place. I’ve still been making self-portraits there.

C: They are separate. When I started making my thesis [Whale Creek is Flooding], I made all of it about trauma in the landscape. Two different young men were killed in the same 500 feet along the creek which is the border of the neighborhood. I’ve been thinking about this trauma that happens in the landscape and trauma that happens to [the landscape]; the area I’m from was really impacted by [Hurricane Sandy] … I got to the end of my thesis, and then I took a look around and was like oh this is about me, that all the bad things that happened there happened to me too, just understanding that. It’s also the place where I started making pictures, my home. I feel safe making self-portraits there in a way that I don’t feel safe in New York City for a variety of reasons. [New York] is also really obvious to recognize.

C: I also realized a lot of the work I’m making is about climate change. I’ve already seen the [New Jersey] landscape change in the past 20 years. Sandy happened for a lot of reasons, but climate change is a big one. Saying I’m making self-portraits right now and they’re changing and getting more explicitly sexual, and separately I’m writing about New Jersey and making supplemental pictures. It’s a relief to say that; I’m not putting pressure on myself to make beautiful grandiose pictures of New Jersey and the way it’s changing because some of the most important pictures might be satellite images or images from the Department of Transportation’s archive. I feel much less of an urge to visually represent it [myself] than I did. It’s okay for me to go there and cry and make a tea and not feel like I need to make pictures.

J: That makes a lot of sense. It’s been really great — thanks for talking with me!

Caiti Borruso

b. 1993, Cliffwood Beach, NJ
lives and works in Brooklyn, NY

MFA candidate at Image Text Ithaca (2021)
book woman at Elementary Press
digging holes, humming loudly

See more of her work — Website / Instagram.

J Houston

Is an artist & photographer working in Brooklyn, NY & sometimes Pittsburgh, PA.

To see more of her work — Website / Instagram.