Caroline Tompkins

Tell us about your first camera.
My mom had a bright submarine-yellow Kodak point-and-shoot. I remember it clearly because it could also shoot underwater, which I appreciated because I grew up as a swimmer. When I was in sixth grade, I took a school trip to Canada, brought the camera with me, and none of the pictures developed. It was the first time I went on a trip without my family and I was very excited to show them pictures of the Canadian mountains. Instead, there was nothing. [Laughs] Soon after, I got my own camera.

Nowadays, do you shoot digital or film?
I still shoot film. I’m not against digital and don’t think that argument is worth having, but I find that film works better in terms of my personal practice. The whole process of taking the photograph and having the interim of time before you see the photograph is necessary for me, at least while I can still afford it.

You studied at SVA in New York. Under the branch of visual arts, were you studying a set curriculum or were the courses you took more independently selected?
It’s all one discipline. I studied photography, so it was difficult to take classes from other majors without special permission. Photography majors [at SVA] aren’t required to take foundation classes such as figure drawing. We just pursue photo. That said, I did take some sculpture, screen-printing, and book making classes!

Let’s talk about your Ohio photo series. What would you say is the biggest misconception about Ohio?
People are right to think that Ohio is incredibly flat and that there are a lot of corn fields, but there’s also a lot of strangeness and diversity in the state. I grew up in Ohio and didn’t think much of it, but returning after a few years in New York, I’ve come to realize, “Woah, this place is really weird.” That sentiment was the catalyst for the body of work. It’s the idea that Ohio doesn’t have mountains or oceans or geographical attractions, as other states do. And yet, there is still a need for tourism.

Did this tourism factor play a role in shaping your Ohio series?
Definitely. I’m interested in how we still want other people to come and visit Ohio, so the tourism becomes very man-made. I’m curious how someone gets to the point where they decide to make a fiberglass loaf of bread to attract people to their small town.

[Laughs] Do you have other examples of quirky tourist attractions in Ohio?
The list is endless! There’s a grocery store that I’ve patronized all my life called Jungle Jim’s, which houses culturally inappropriate murals based on the owner of the store, animatronic animals dressed up as Elvis, and a movie theater. This is all while being the best grocery store I’ve ever been to hands down. It’s crazy. There’s a field in the middle of an office park outside of Columbus with hundreds of cement larger-than-life corn sculptures. There’s also a wax Bible museum where you “walk through the Bible”, but all of the wax sculptures are Madame Tussauds rejects. So you’ll see the Virgin Mary and then realize she roughly resembles Elizabeth Taylor. I’m very interested in how these things come to be.

Who are the people you shot in the Ohio series? Family?
Family members, friends, or people based off the two. The thing about Ohio is the familiarity that you feel. Ultimately, it’s not important that the photos are from Ohio.

Shifting gears to Hey Baby, I had read countless articles on this project in the media but didn’t make the connection that you were the mastermind behind this series until after I reached out to you. Tell me about the process of photographing these people that catcall you. Do you tell them that you’re going to take their picture?
The whole process is about how they are not asking me if they can catcall to me, so I don’t feel that I have to ask them if I can photograph them. That said, when I take my camera out, I often say, “I’m going to take your picture.” From there, it varies in terms of the responses. Some men are encouraged because the act of photographing can be flattering and that leads them to think I am flattering the harassment. That can lead to men asking me if they can get my number. In other instances, the guys realize that they have done something that I don’t approve of, or perhaps they themselves don’t approve of, and so they’ll stand and cover their face. Sometimes the guys will straight up run away. [Laughs] It’s usually not more than a 30-second interaction.

Is “Hey Baby” the most commonly used phrase by men, in your experience?
I just felt that it was the one phrase that everyone can relate to. It is a phrase that makes it easy to connect the work with the context.

You don’t hear a lot of stories about women catcalling men. Have you ever thought about this?
I think it’s a part of the culture we live in, the patriarchal system that we live in. Women are shamed to have sexuality and shamed not to have sexuality. Whether it is through slut-shaming or virgin shaming, the idea of female sexuality is shameful in our culture. It’s something that I, like every women, has to get over. Because it is socialized between the homosociality of men, I think catcalling goes all the way back to how public space is considered a “male space.” It always has been, though much less now obviously. Private spaces are historically more of a “female space.” It is just the way that our society has shaped over the years.

I figure that in Ohio, you didn’t have to deal with many catcallers. Were you shocked by this phenomenon that is very much a part of the urban culture, particularly in New York?
It had happened to me before I moved to New York, but it wasn’t until I moved to New York that it crossed a point where I felt endangered. I started asking myself, “Why do I feel scared? Why am I being followed home by men on the subway?”

Are there specific instances where you were physically harassed?
I have had multiple experiences of guys ganging up on me and physically running away from them. It feels natural to feel unsafe in New York. In Ohio, I can drive a car and it’s appears much safer. That said, my first vehicle infraction happened two days after I got my license when a group of men surrounded my car late at night, and I didn’t turn my headlights on when I was trying to drive away. These sorts of situations have happened all my life, but in New York, I’ve come to expect it more. I have to be conscious of what I wear in some regard. I might be late to work, but I don’t want to run because someone might comment on the way my body moves when I run. It’s relentless. That’s why with Hey Baby, I figured that at least I can take their picture, and they can feel a consequence for their actions.

What was the response to Hey Baby?
I talked to some people at school about this issue of catcalling and people often respond that I ‘look cute’ and am ‘blonde.’ It’s as if they somehow blame it on me. Some people even suggested that I dye my hair darker, as if that would solve the problem. The discussion was never in the right place because people were never thinking, “Well, what can we do about this problem?”

Whose concert do you dream of seeing live?
Patsy Cline or Nina Simone! Maybe Patsy Cline and Nina Simone together. Damn that’d be weird.

Name a song people wouldn’t expect to find on your iPod.
I’m a Flirt by R.Kelly.

What books should everyone take the time to read?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. All of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Also, anything Lilli Carre puts out into the world.

Which photographers’ work could you look at every day and continue to get inspired by?
Harry Callahan’s photographs of Eleanor have been really meaningful to me lately. I know Robert Adams’s photographs will be important all of my life. Of course, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and Joel Sternfeld are the “dudes.” [Laughs] Alec Soth is an obvious influence for me too. Jo Ann Callis and Dana Lixenberg aren’t as well-known, but I think their work is very important. I’m struggling between keeping this list incredibly concise or making it far too long, so I think I’ll stop here.

Where do you dream of traveling?
Tokyo is my number one. I’ve traveled quite a lot North America because I live there and a lot Europe because most of my family lives in Czech Republic, but Tokyo seems like a freaking dream. Other than that, I dream of traveling to very geographically beautiful places, being on top of mountains, skinny dipping in lakes, that sort of thing.

And lastly, define beauty in your own words.
Beauty is whatever you as an individual find beautiful. Maybe that’s a cop-out response. Personally, I find sincerity beautiful. Genuine optimism and general happiness is very important. Being accepting of yourself, what you are, and what you have is very beautiful to me. I think strong woman are beautiful, woman who have gotten themselves out of tough situations, strong woman who choose to be soft. I find groups of happy people, whether they are a bunch of young boys horsing around on the street or a community of people enjoying something, very beautiful. Now that I think about it, all of the above can be summed up into the way that dogs treat life. I find it very beautiful when people act more like dogs. [Laughs]

For more of Caroline’s work, check out her website.