Student Stories: Sarah Swanson /// Telling Stories Through Still Life

The heart of my work is my community. During the last few years, my photography journey has drawn me towards the art of storytelling. Along this path, most of my photography has centered around images of people. What is their story? How can I capture them in their natural environment, the space that is real and honest?

In studying the art of master photographers, I began to notice images without people in them. I saw images that could stand alone and draw me into a story of the object and its surroundings. Other times, I noticed an image of real life things in the middle of a series of photographs of people. I admired how powerfully a still image could support the story of the people in the surrounding photographs. What I couldn’t quite grasp is how a master photographer might take a picture of something could transform it into “art”.

I began practicing by taking images of things that I wanted to remember about this particular time in my own life – the clothing my kids had outgrown, their artwork that I didn’t have room to store, their sporting equipment and other things that made me nostalgic for the days when they were babies and toddlers. With a growing collection of images of “things to remember,” I ran across Molly Flanagan’s Real Life Still Life class. I have always admired Molly’s storytelling vision and how she so intentionally integrates photos of the objects in people’s homes, and knew I wanted to learn from her.

The first few weeks of the course were spent taking images of “things” in my home and “places” around my neighborhood, and as I worked through these assignments I began to consider how to tell the story of my community in still life. At first, the photographs I created seemed strong to me and I felt like I had captured a bit of the story of my life. However, as I worked deeper into each lesson and began to reflect more critically on my work, I noticed many of my images were flat, dull and lacked life, the life that so easily infiltrates the cracks of our spaces. My images were missing an organic element (as Molly calls it) – they were basically just images of things. They didn’t necessarily have traces of life.

Thinking about home, real life, and photographing still scenes with signs of life, I decided to photograph my parents’ home. They still live in the home where I grew up and as they have plans to move in the next few years, I have wanted to make images to help us all remember this special home. With a new understanding of what had been missing in my earlier still life photography, I took my camera and my kids to spend a day hanging out at their house, making kites, eating snacks, making music, and playing games.

While the kids played, I walked with new eyes around the house that I had grown up in, observing the details of this special old home. The life-filled objects tell a story of my parents and many of the qualities I value so much about them. The images I created that day elicit an emotional pull towards nostalgia and also towards pieces of life – filled with energy, connection, and love.

This story is not yet completed. I am grateful for a new way of seeing, of creating, of listening – to tell more of their story through meaningful images.

Our four-week class Real Life Still Life is open for registration through October 30th. Learn more and register here.


Sarah Swanson is a public schoolteacher in Minneapolis, MN where she lives with her husband and three children. She’s a longtime DEFINE student, and besides Real Life Still Life, some of her favorite classes include Visual Storytelling, Light and Life, Street Life, and The Big Picture. Besides photography, she enjoys running around the MN lakes and spending time jumping rope and playing basketball with the neighborhood kids.

Our “Student Stories” are just a few of the many testimonials and stories of growth we hear about from students in our community, along with some magnificent work. We hope you’re as inspired by these as we are.

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