An aspiring and successful actor, Che is deeply immersed in the Rochester cultural scene. So much so, we’ve named him Che of The Town!
Exclusively for Talker, Che has solicited and is conducting interviews from about 50 Rochestarians working in a diversity of creative fields.
For the full series, see Che of The Town: Interviews (1-21)
In this highlight, we turn our attention to a local talented photographer by the name Michele Ashlee. I’ve followed Michele Ashlee’s work for quite some time now and was pleased to meet her for the first time a couple weeks back at Spot Coffee, a neighborhood staple in the downtown East Ave area.
The first thing I picked up upon meeting her was her upbeat attitude and warm demeanor. We spoke briefly, but I do believe I have made a valuable ally. Michele, whose work focuses on social injustice and poverty, describes herself as “an activist carrying a camera.”
I asked Michele a series of questions. Here is what we discussed;
Tell us a little about yourself, where your from, grew up, what H.S./College you attended etc.
I’m from an extremely small town right on Lake Ontario called Kuckville. We grew up surrounded by cottages, summer rentals, bait shops, apple orchards and dirt roads. I graduated from L.A. Webber High School in Lyndonville, N.Y.
Growing up in a small town taught me so much. For starters, I learned to use my imagination in ways other kids didn’t have to. We weren’t close to any of the “town luxuries.” We had to be creative with the space around us. Having so much space gave us the freedom to use what we had to entertain us. You learn to appreciate space, nature and the freedom that comes with it. I also learned to keep my friends and family close to me. When they are all you have, they become your tribe, your support and your circle.
My photography has been mostly self taught. I have done some private classes (Stephen Craddock and Arleen Thaler) and also assisted in teaching a class at the Community Darkroom.
What inspired you to be a photographer? Early experiences worth sharing?
I was inspired at a young age to get into the arts from watching my father. My father didn’t believe in “buying things.” He created things to fill his house handmade by both himself and his children. I remember being envious when I was young, thinking that I wasn’t born with his artistic gift. It wasn’t until my 40’s when he had looked at some of my amateur photos I had taken on a recent trip to Haiti that maybe I had it. My dad kept looking at my photos and then looking at me repeating ” you do have it, now what are you going to do with it?” It was surprising to me how natural it felt for me and yet it took me so long to pick up a camera and start shooting.
My passion became an obsession and my career grew very quickly. I dabbled in many different areas at first until finding where my true desire was. I had this intense pull steering me into the direction of documentary style photography. I love how raw, open and real my subjects are, as opposed to posing or using props with people that expect this perfect image.
Talk about a time where you have faced adversity/conflict and have triumphed.
I grew up with a brother that was mentally ill and a drug addict. He was missing for over 25 years with very little contact with my parents. He passed away without his family ever knowing it. Having children myself I can now understand the pain my mother must have felt not knowing where her child was. Because he was on the streets and an addict he was treated as if he was a nobody, and yet he was somebody’s child. I decided to not spend time looking into his death but instead use my time and talent to tell the stories of those who have been treated as if the were invisible. Bring some sort of social acceptance and justice to human beings with mental and/drug issues.
That’s where it started, but it quickly turned into so much more. I’m now a social activist carrying a camera. I’ve started to focus on social, economical and political issues in Rochester. I’ve worked with Rochester’s Refugees, childhood poverty and the LGBTG community. I’ve come to this revelation at this point of my life that a life without purpose is exactly that. I’ve found my purpose, and it’s life changing.
The struggles I’ve faced in my life have made me humble and compassionate. In some ways my struggles were a gift, although it hasn’t always felt that way. It’s hard to see things clearly until you are out of the woods, and I guess you can say I’ve made it out of the woods.
What do you believe sets you apart from other photographers?
My approach is to build life lasting relationships with most of my subjects. I have a hard time getting into their space and then letting go. I build trust with these people. It’s important to me to make sure that they never feel exploited, Because the type of work I generally do is in situations where people are extremely vulnerable. I try my best to stay in some sort of contact and check in on these people. I gain their trust, so it’s difficult for me to spend time with them, hear their stories and then never see them again.
My subject matter tends to be a bit painful and maybe to some depressing. But I try to bring light to the poor and less fortunate. At the least I’ve let them be heard, understood and humanized. We live in such a wealthy country, people are so oblivious. It sad that most people can go through life without really seeing, seeing what life on the other side looks like.
Do you have other interests or hobbies?
I volunteer at most of the homeless shelters in Rochester. It’s helped me to develop relationships, experience and gratitude for life. I love to read anything that helps me to understand this world we live in and other human beings. I have two grand daughters that are my world, I’d spend every waking moment with them if I could.
Any projects you have out or currently working on? Oh boy do I, so so much. I’m displaying photos at the Bachelor Forum May 1st for the anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub tragedy. Myself and a few other photographers are part of the B.T. Roberts Symposium on childhood poverty in Rochester. That is set to take place May 31st 2017.
I’m the staff photographer for Open Mic Rochester and have so many different events coming up with them in the next few months.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years?
I honestly love where I’m at right now in my life, so in five years if I’m in the same place, I would be ok with that. But if I can, I’d love to learn how to be limitless without constraints in my life, my time, my relationships and my photography. I aspire to be a teacher of sorts of human beings through my work, A soul teacher helping people to discover other human spirits.
What advice can you give to aspiring artists/entertainers/photographers?
It’s funny these days everyone wants to be a photographer. If it’s really a natural talent and passion you have to find the avenue that suits you, that feeds your soul. Find what makes you feel inspired but also nourished and satisfied. It’s important to remember that your art is like a muscle, you have to flex it to continue to strengthen it. Practice while building your own set of rules and don’t follow anyone else’s journey. Make it your own.
How can we follow along in your journey? Social media?