Stories produced by St. Peter's Journalism Students
Covering private parts with Legos and having headless Barbies make out is not something you would immediately associate with photography, but for one shutterbug, these dark visions derived from growing up in a weird family– and also having a bad-ass lesbian grandmother.
Never knowing when to turn down a project or event, Cathleen Parra is a 25-year-old, self described ambitious and quirky aspiring photographer, who sports a pair of fiercely shaped cat-eye glasses and an Andy Warhol gun tattoo on her inner right arm.
“I love Warhol, he is just such a character,” Parra said.
“I feel like his entire career is just like, seeing how far he can bullshit people, but also having fun with it. And sometimes I feel like that is what I do with my projects, kind of pointing things out that I feel like some people do not always notice, but bringing a dark humor to it.”
Parra reflects on her childhood and feeling out of the norm growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, a confederate farm town just a short drive away from Disney.
“I remember having the darkest skin and features of anyone else in class, they used to call me Pocahontas,” Parra said— her background is Apache Indian, Columbian, Irish and French.
“Being raised in a Southern confederate town as a minority, in addition to my quirky family made for an interesting time.”
Parra’s parents did not plan on having a family and so it was her grandmother who raised her and who also left a really lasting impression on Parra and her work.
“My grandmother who I grew up with was really just a revolutionary feminist for a time, like in Patterson, New Jersey in the 70’s. She was raising four girls with her wife, she was in a motorcycle gang in the 50’s and used to hitchhike to Elvis concerts.”
She remembers an embarrassing moment when she first moved down to Kissimmee into her grandmother’s home, where she was terrified of a doll that she thought would eventually kill her.
“I used to stare at it for hours, just waiting for it to strike, then one day I told my sister, all right, we have got to get rid of this thing because I cannot sleep at night. So the next day I ran up my gravel driveway and threw this thing, in a bag, running away screaming, convinced it was going to come after me,” Parra said.
“That is one of my favorite memories, not so much my favorite as in, that was such a good memory, but it is a funny one that I’ll always remember… the things you believe in as a child.”
Her inspiration for photography started when she first picked up a camera at 7-years-old. She describes a Tom Cruise movie she was really into, Legend.
“My grandmother had a lot of land, a lot of wooded area, so I thought OK, I’m going to take pictures that look just like that Ridley Scott movie.”
While living in Florida, Cathleen came across many outlets to expand on her new hobby. A new and exclusive art school was opening up and Cathleen knew that she needed to apply. Shortly after the application process, she was accepted into the fine arts program. Flash forward four years later and Parra excelled so much so, that the decision to transfer to the private art and design college, Parsons in New York City, was an easy one.
“I sew, paint, illustrate and am beginning to dabble in video, as well as making props for shoots. I like to incorporate all these things into my photographic work.”
Cathleen attended Parsons for one year before expenses caught up, and dealing with the mess that is financial-aid, Parra had to leave “The New School for Design” and continue establishing herself at New Jersey City University, in Jersey City, where she stayed with family.
“Moving up here, I felt like I idealized everything, and then I got here and it was really grimy and kind of scary but also really great.”
One of Cathleen’s most interesting and grim projects is currently in the works where she is recreating childhood memories in portraiture, her favorite style to shoot in.
“The project spawns from the idea of the morbidity of childhood. I’m thinking like when you learn about death, and also how you sort of have an idea of what sexuality is as a kid, but it is also this very dark thing that you do not talk about,” Parra said.
There is no evil doll memory being revisited in these photographs, but there is one that Parra submitted to an exhibit in London, one that sparked a little controversy.
“The way I shot it was from the waist down, of a woman, older than me and she is sitting on the floor in this polka dot dress with her arms and legs out, holding these two naked female Barbies, one is decapitated and they are kissing— and it is called Kissing because back when I was a kid that is what I used to think sex was like ‘Oh, they are kissing! Do not look they are kissing!’”
The model even had a scabbed knee at the time, which made for a very serendipitous and responsive photo.
“Some people on Philadelphia Weekly thought it was an actual child, and they were saying how it was really disturbing and how can anyone shoot their child like that,” Parra said.
Cathleen’s biggest inspiration happens to be Nan Goldin, who is known for living on the edge and her scandalous work, photographing friends in intimate moments and also capturing more dark and deeply personal photos, like a photo Goldin took of herself with a black eye she had been given by a lover.
“My inspiration is everything around me, like something I overheard in a crowd or a conversation with a friend, to something like a movie that I’ve seen, or a song I have heard, but more importantly an experience that I have had,” Parra said.
“I see myself using the camera to tell stories for the rest of my days. It is what has kept me happy.”
Visit www.cathleenparra.com for upcoming events and a preview of her work.