After approximately 21 minutes, I finally hear the water from the shower head stop. Dawn walks out of her boyfriend’s bathroom to settle on the couch in sweatpants and an oversized t-shirt. Under dim lighting, we pour into some cheap wine and prepare our pallets for a conversation as raw and gritty as her photo series.
Dawn Ross is a conceptual photographer, event photographer, marketing manager, and creator of Brekfast.xyz. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, Dawn has become a prominent photographer in her hometown after moving back home from the west coast. A conversation between artist and muse, I was able to sit down with Dawn to talk about her Boys series, mental health, and life in Los Angeles. Check it out below.
How old were you when you knew you wanted to do photography? When did this become a passion for you?
I never actually thought about doing photography. I was mad interested in film during high school. My first documentary was on teen sexuality and the ways that culture, media, and your peer groups affect sexual activity. I was actually the only student to do a film for my senior capstone project. When I graduated from high school, I went to my hometown university to study journalism and film. I wasn’t really feeling the film program there, and I started looking into film schools around the country. It was a toss up between New York Film Academy and The Art Institute…like a dumbass, I chose the Art Institute [laughs]. It was cool learning film there, and moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone and was kinda forced to build my own narratives, but it was a royal waste of money. Being in that film program, and seeing all the quirks behind some of my favorite shows and movies, made me not want to study film anymore. I did rock with the idea of having a camera in my hand, and I knew I was creative and had the eye, so I bought a camera and kind of forced myself into photography last year, surprisingly, I’ve gotten this far.
Who do you find inspiring in photography right now?
I’m super inspired by the photographers that I’ve interviewed for Brekfast. Don Lifted inspires me so fucking much with his film photography. Alison Resac and her fuck the patriarchy type photography has really inspired me conceptually. Catherine Patton is such an amazing local photographer who I kinda feed from. Seeing her photos in galleries across the city…she really made me say, “I can do this too”. I’m super into a couple other Memphis photographers, Bailey Smith and InsaneChris. BeShootin’s work has been beautiful as fuck lately. I’m just really inspired by artists that I know.
How did living in LA shape you? What was your experience like?
Living in LA was a beautiful shit show, and when I say that, I mean it was the best and worst experience of my life. LA definitely made me into the emo character that I am today. My first year was all bullshit. Me and my friends would get drunk 4 days out of the week, we barely had groceries, our clothes were dirty…but we always had Vodka. I fell in love with two different people at the exact same time. I developed an obsession for one of those people. After my first year, I was homeless for about 3 months, going from couch to couch. It’s funny, because I said that would never be me. I said that I would never struggle to live anywhere…but LA has this way of tricking you into believing that you’re supposed to be there, like your big break is right around the corner and you can’t leave just yet. My last couple of years there were the worst. I was just jumping from relationship to relationship…bed to bed. I slept with people and I didn’t even know their names. It was a wild period. I was heartbroken again and again. I wasn’t homeless but I was still spending my entire paycheck to keep a toxic roof over my head. It was hell. And I remember hiking with my friend Rosa, trying to decide whether or not I would stay. We got to the top of the mountain, overlooking this famous skyline—my favorite skyline—and I felt nothing. I used to feel like this overwhelming moment of pure bliss and security when we reached the top, but LA just no longer felt like home. It really did chew me up and spit me out.
Tell me about some of the images. What do they mean?
Every image is reflective of a boy that I once knew, and how I saw them. You have one with Shorin with bandaids on his fingers, and it’s reflective of one physically abusive relationship that I had in college. There was an incident where glass was thrown and he cut himself trying to pick up the pieces, and for three days, he walked around with princess bandaids on his fingers, stained in blood. Handcuffs also played a big part in past relationships, used for both sexual expression and humiliation. I put Shorin in doey-eyed poses, because some boys were innocent. I put Dame in front of a cross with Hennessy because of alcoholic boys against religion. These images mean something for me, even if they are just appealing to you.
Boys can harm your mental health. How does mental health play a role in your life/work?
Whew. That’s a loaded question. A couple of months ago, I had a really scary incident. An incident where I sort of blacked out and I couldn’t remember everything that I had done the night before until I was reminded. The next morning, I found myself in this like really funky mood that I couldn’t shake. And for some time, I had been feeling depressed about nothing. I wasn’t taking pictures, I wasn’t working on anything. I kinda convinced myself to go get some help, figuring that maybe it was just depression, but I was actually diagnosed with bipolar 2. And you know what, I blame boys [laughs]. I’m kidding but I’m also kind of serious. That’s why we’re here…I blame boys for all my problems.
That’s funny, I was going to ask what this series meant for you.
That’s it. It actually didn’t start with that meaning. About a year ago, I messaged all my exes and asked them to do a photoshoot with me and a video interview where they could tell me everything that was wrong with me. Stupid, right? I saw some meme about all of your exes being gathered at a dinner table, and what would be the one thing that they all agree about when it comes to you. That made me curious. That project fell through, thank God, but I was able to speak with one of them…Kiandre. He really had nothing bad to say, which honestly surprised me. He took sole responsibility for our failed relationship. It made me think…no fuck this. I know that I have these flaws, we know these things…but we insist on hearing other people call them out. I know it’s good for your personal healing process and ensuring that you don’t take your toxic traits into another relationship and blah blah blah…at this point in my life, I want to be selfish. I want to blame you—Kiandre, Chris, Delon, Jeremy, Terrance…and even the boy that I’m dating now. I blame him too.
Boys can harm your mental health.
Boys will harm your mental health.
If given the chance to work with any artist living or dead, who would you want to photograph?
Luka Sabbat and Wet.
Any destinations or places you’d like to visit or shoot?
I’m trying to convince my current boy to move to London with me for 6 months. I might just have to go without his ass though.
So what’s next for you?
My next photo series is titled “A Beautiful World” and its based on a script that I wrote about my current relationship. It’s based around a statement that he made to me once, where he said that we don’t make sense. And I realized that on paper, we don’t make sense…but in our beautiful little world, in his quaint little studio apartment…we make perfect sense. After that, I’m doing a photo series titled “She is Art at The Louvre,” and that one is based around the first playlist he made for me. My work is super reflective of my now…and for now, I’m happy but stressed out about a 6”2 narcissistic demon.