#characterstudy is a visual-first dialogue in which Creatives capture and translate unique characteristics of each other. Through the conversation they become co-creators of the final images exploring the intersection of perception and self-expression.
In this conceptual shoot, photographer Nick Rasmussen captures multidisciplinary artist and model Maya Samaha rocking three signature hairstyles and outfits, turning the final imagery into a manifestation of the different identities that one’s self can embody. A dialogue about self-expression and revelation that started on set using a visual language is continued in this interactive free-flow of ideas, where Rasmussen and Samaha discuss their creative journey and experiences.
This interactive interview is comparable to an organic conversation, generated solely by the interviewees with no editor involved.
This shoot came together in a lot of unexpected ways! My first impression of Nick’s work was “wow, so he’s a cinematic genius”. I was really amazed by his lighting and the cameras he used. Takes a lot of knowledge and skill to shoot the way he does! The style is also unique from most photographers I’ve shot with, especially in LA. Felt like a piece of art within a photo, I could see the artistry in his work and it made me stoked to explore that world with him and also add to that with my own artistry.
I used to be a hairdresser, from 18 to 23 years old. That was one of many of my jobs at that time. The day of our shoot I decided to incorporate some wigs which I ended up cutting & styling myself. Definitely thankful for that skill I have, it never leaves me. I think a lot of my previous careers & skill sets have contributed to the times I am on set, whether that’s being a model, director, artist or actress. Every element of who I am and what I bring to my artistry has everything to do with my background of having way too many skills that I didn’t think would still be useful for me today, but they absolutely are.
When we shot together, I noticed Nick had these amazing paintings all over his studio. Come to found out he painted them, and he paints his backdrops which is absolutely fucking incredible and inspiring to me.
Nick, when did you first start exploring with painting, art, photography, lighting, and where does your inspiration come from? What fuels you to tell your story through your art?
Thank you for the love! I am so grateful for this shoot to have come about, I had been wanting to work with you for years, you’re such a unique presence and I think all of your personal history is really worn on your sleeve and really creates such a rich, magnetic energy.
Since I work mostly out of my home, it's interesting to hear how someone who comes over and takes everything in can be informed on what I’m about and what I’m doing with my work. I started painting last year, but it’s really just something to do when nothing else is going on. I started a way to connect with my dad who was a painter and passed away a few years ago. I enjoy the process, but it’s just for fun. I tend to just stick the paintings into whatever closet has room for them and forget about them. I made my first backdrop about 4 years ago, because they are pretty expensive to rent, and costs a fraction of the price to just make your own. Those are fun to make because it’s such a large project that takes your whole body to produce. It’s therapeutic.
As for photography, I asked to take my dad's 35mm film camera with me when I moved to LA from Michigan in 2009 to go to film school. At first I was just taking photos of my friends drinking and blowing smoke, but the interest kept growing. People liked my photos, I liked my photos, and eventually I wanted to try out various ideas. Then about 5 years ago I borrowed some lights to take a portrait of my roommate, and something clicked and I’ve just been shooting as much as I possibly can ever since. For a long time I was primarily inspired by photography from the masters, trying to figure out how they achieved their dreamlike visuals, and just wanted to try out every style of photography that caught my eye. Sarah Moon, Paolo Roversi, Tim Walker, Deborah Turbeville, Irving Penn, many more. Visual romanticism. I love experimenting with different processes. Process, process, process. Ritual, ceremony. I got better at lighting through dedicated repetition, and assisting for photographers who have more experience than me. And now, 5 years later I think I’ve finally started to figure out what my voice & personal process is, and try to use the techniques I’ve learned to carry visual conversations. That’s something I want to keep getting better at. My photography is my access card to the world, and the path that leads me to Myself.
I’m interested to hear about your relationship with being so multifaceted, and how you balance your focus and energy on different art forms. Do you find that one of them has your heart more than the others? In Greek mythology there’s the story of Paris of Troy being given a golden apple, and he had to choose one of three goddesses to give it to, knowing that the other two are going to be pissed at him for not choosing them. I feel like a lesson that keeps getting drilled into me is that to excel and be a master at something, I have to dedicate my life to it, as painful as it may be to not see what’s down the paths not chosen. Do you think that’s limited thinking?
Hearing about your journey with your art and about your father passing makes me really understand so much about you, and I’m so grateful you shared this with me (I cried). My heart is with you, I share some heavy father wounds which definitely motivates me and my work as well.
To answer your question, I don’t think it’s limited thinking, it is definitely a strong way to go about your craft. I think there’s many motivators to why we make art. Becoming a master of something takes a high level of discipline & dedication. If that’s your goal I think that’s incredible and you will absolutely do that, and you already have in many ways.
I think depending on who you’re trying to prove yourself to or receive recognition from can have you working towards that one skill your whole life. As artists will we or it ever be good enough? Who will tell us we have mastered it, if not ourselves? I think we are never satisfied, that’s the curse of the artist. But I can look at you and your work now and say you’ve mastered a lot. I think we need to acknowledge each new level we get to as mastery, and celebrate our new heights as artists.
I do have a high level of discipline from my dance, athletic and a past of many different types of jobs. All I want to do is make art, and stay in a constant state of creativity. If I didn’t have to do laundry, drink water or feed myself just to make art 24/7 I swear I would (I’m aware this isn’t healthy lol). I feel like it’s safe to say as artists we do need breaks and time to not make art. To live life, go through the pain, be in tune with our emotions so we can get back to a place of creativity and inspiration. Simultaneously, I think I do many forms of art so I can stay inspired to stay creating. What I find helpful in having these multiple channels of pathways and art forms is that when I am needing a break from one art form, I can shift over to another. So I am forever creating & finding inspiration within my own pathways. I may never be acknowledged as the master of one thing by others, but I can say I’ve mastered my life and freedom. While discovering my higher self through these many pathways and dimensions that I’ve created for myself. I think for me I don’t desire to become a master of my art, but to tell stories through my art, whether it be my story or the story of others. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about art when it comes to making it a career and who gets to dictate our worth and acknowledge when we’ve become at a certain level of mastery. To be honest, I think that’s up to us, the creators. I can look at your work right now and fully believe you’re a master at what you’ve done. It depends on how you feel about yourself and your work. I believe in this day and age it’s very possible to have multiple careers and pathways so why not explore them all? It can be such a nice surprise to feel that our skills are not linear. We can create many webs and channel many parts of ourselves & discover new ones as well. I think my multiple journeys and pathways in art are also a huge part of my healing journey. The lessons I learn from each pathway and career teaches me something about myself and creates more confidence and trust in me. It has allowed me to grow into a higher version of myself. Humans are so complex and we are incredible. We have so many capabilities. I think I come from a place of knowing my privilege living in America as a woman and having an immigrant father who comes from a place where I would not be able to be who I am so freely, or do many of the things I do at all or without great risk. My father is a huge reason why I am the artist and person I am today. I watched my father suffer my whole life to his own mental health and struggle to keep a job because of his mental health. I think I wanted to be sure I could not only keep a job but have many of them. I wanted him to be proud of me as well and in result I’ve done everything I can to prove myself. I have learned that it’s me that I have been proving myself to and I can say now I am proud of myself. I have many motivators and reasons for why I do so many things. I grew up in a town where people don’t really pursue their dreams. Sometimes seeing what others don’t do makes you realize what you can. I wanted to do everything because I knew I had gifts and talents to share with the world and that I was much bigger than where I grew up.
It takes a level of vulnerability to share the art we make and share parts of who we are through our art. What are some parts of you that your art does not show, and what does your art say about you the most? What things have you learned about yourself throughout your journey of making your art?
I love that outlook! I definitely have deep respect for people who treat their way of life as their art form. I feel like you probably have many little rituals you perform throughout your day that keep you connected to that inner artist. And cheers to the fathers in all their complexities. The men who came before us I think had some major wounds handed down to them without having many examples of a healthy identity of a man to turn to for guidance or initiation into their own adulthood. I've been thinking about that a lot recently.
I am glad you're asking about the vulnerability it takes to put ourselves into our art, this is another thing I feel like I've been trying to focus on. The more I'm able to put myself into my images, the more people are able to connect with the core of my body of work. I think for a long time I've felt there are parts of me that shouldn't be shown, or have thought that I need to appear more like the people who I see have been able to achieve a level of "success" that I would be striving for. But what works for someone else isn't going to work for me, because it's not authentic to me. If I can continue to figure out ways to share myself in my work, my ideas, my insecurities, my pride, my beauty, my sensuality, anxieties, interests, passions, flaws, etc etc etc. The things that make up my unique DNA, and stop trying to hide parts that I think people will reject, then I really have a shot at being great and creating work that speaks to the human experience. It's like once I have the courage to show the good, the bad and the ugly, then I've achieved my final form. That's when every facet of my life has an opportunity to flourish, my work, my relationships, my family life. It's taken so much work to stop tearing myself down.
I'd always be looking for evidence in the world to confirm that I wasn't good enough, so obviously it becomes easy to find and believe in. For the last year I've had to take a ton of space for myself and just try to get comfortable being me, and really understanding what I like/dislike, what I'm interested in, what my feelings are. I think I'm just now starting to get a handle on me, and have been finding a ton of creative energy comes out of the discoveries. For years I've spent most of my time developing my photographic technique, and now that I've kind of started to get that figured out, I've become more aware that I need to give just as much dedication to developing my connection to myself, because that is a much more powerful tool of expression than any camera I can get my hands on.
I don't know if my sense of humor comes through my images as much these days. When I first started taking my photography more seriously, I was working with a lot of comedy folks, because I came from the improv comedy world and that's who I knew. I'm funny and I think of ideas in a visual way, but I think it can be tricky sometimes to bring humor into photos and still create visually stunning, painterly images. Possible, but it can be tricky! Like how comedies are almost completely overlooked at the Oscars. It seems difficult for them to occupy the same space. I think at a certain point I just felt more drawn to making dreamy painterly rich luscious imagery, and felt comedy might undercut them. I'd like to find more ways to keep the humor alive in my work. I'm not totally sure what my work is saying about me these days, I think I'm too close to myself to see it objectively! I can't write a bio to save my life. I love photography, and have a deep respect for technique. I think people are endlessly fascinating and I love to play with them! I think my tireless work ethic speaks to me trying to fill a hole in my heart and prove to myself/others I am enough. lolz :D
Do you feel like there is a part of your personality that ties all your work together? My read on you is that there is a confidence and playfulness in you that pushes you to create amazing things to the best of your ability while not taking yourself too seriously, and being able to laugh about everything along the way. I think our photos show that in spades!
This made me smile and cry!!!!! Hahahaha I’m loving learning so much about you.
You know what’s funny and also interesting. I find so many dope artists who I admire and look up to for their work, and most of their work is “serious” or strong and not based on their humor, tend to be the absolute funniest humans I know!!! And these funnier sides of artists are rarely shown and imagine how funny the world would be if we showed that side of ourselves.
Because we all know art comes from pain but humor does too and I’m deeply depressed half the time so my ass has to make me laugh or else I’m crying lol!!! I grew up with an absolute clown of a mother, she was a performer as well. So when times were rough or turbulence was occurring she would put on literal shows for me and my brother and make us die laughing. She didn’t take herself seriously, and I definitely enjoy that mentality and take that with me everywhere I go, especially on set. Comedic relief is always appreciated, in every room!
Laughter is the best medicine. Along with food. Both of these worlds I am currently creating new pathways for myself this year! I am stoked to lean into my silly side, possibly do some comedic performance as well as tap into my passion for food. I have some projects coming up involving both of these elements because they are a huge part of me as well! My entire career since moving to LA I’ve been booking most jobs because of my “personality”. I was confused by every casting sent to me saying “we want someone with personality”. I always thought but what kind? Doesn’t everyone have a personality? Haha. I guess mine is big, there’s many layers to it, I’m so many different things and I want to show that to the world. We put people in boxes and that’s the last thing I think we need. If I have to pick one part of me that ties it all together I’d say it’s my energy, and I’m proud of that. So awesome learning all of this about you. It’s kind of limiting when you work with someone one time, I would have not known any of this about you if we didn’t do this interview and I’m so grateful to know it now and have shared this energy with you.
My last questions to you are do you make yourself laugh? What’s your humor like to you? What are the ways you make yourself laugh and feel joy on your day to day? Also, what’s the best thing you’ve eaten recently or in your life!
These days I get my laughs from a couple friends who share some decent memes. Recently I got crazy into baking chicken, it’s all I want to do, all I want to talk about. Thighs, skin on, bone in. That's all that matters. I made a chicken burrito at home the other day that brought a tear to my eye.
Featuring: Maya Samaha
Photography: Nick Rasmussen
Styling: Julia Horvath
Wardrobe: NO.ERRORS, DREAMHOUSE
Written and Formatted by Julia Horvath
Image Courtesy of Nick Rasmussen and Maya Samah