It’s a late Sunday afternoon on September 29th and I’m meeting up with photographer and artist Colleen Mescole at Mauerwinzer in Berlin. Colleen and I first met in June to talk and have a portrait session later on. I get to know her as a resolute and strong woman who has no fear of saying what she thinks or feels. While I’m setting up my tripod to film our conversation we realize: Colleen is matching the nice interior of the wine bar – a perfect start! Over a glass of wine, I’m listening to what she has to say on the importance of a good work-life balance, especially for her art. I’m also curious to know more about the differences between America and Europe and how it is to live and work in New York City where she’s from, originally.
You’re from New York City, which I dare say is THE city to be for people of the fashion industry, next to Paris or London. Why did you decide to come to Berlin?
Yeah, I mean New York IS the fashion city, especially for photography. The thing about living in New York… I was blessed to grow up right outside of New York and I lived in New York City on two different occasions throughout my life. Once when I was 21 and then I moved back again when I was 27. Possibly, because I grew up there I understand the city. To me it’s real, it’s not like the glamorized thing that you see on TV. I think a lot of people have a really big misconception about what New York City is. It’s a great city where you learn a lot and the thing that I think you can take out of there the most is work ethic and hustle. But there’s a really big part of the city that will chew you up and spit you out. And the second time that I lived there I had moved there from San Francisco – so I was going out to the woods, hiking and having that nature before. And when I moved back it just didn’t feed my soul, to be honest. I was there for about three years and I worked really hard and I just kind of felt like if I wanted some sanity and I wanted to really be fully happy in my life that New York City just wasn’t a place where I wanted to be anymore. There are just so many creative artists there and there’s a lot to learn if you’re open to it but there’s also just so many people there doing the same exact thing. I think, to me that was the hardest. There are 9000 other people vying for your jobs and frankly, I wasn’t doing anything special. So I guess I just wasn’t fully happy there.
I understand that. It’s what holds me back from working in New York so far because I heard a lot about it being extremely competitive.
Yes, it’s very competitive – it’s good and it’s bad because you also learn a lot about yourself and it gave me a huge upper hand. I see how I work compared to other people in California and even in Berlin. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s anything in being ashamed of leaving New York. People leave with their tail between their legs and I did so too, I absolutely did. But my work is only going to be good and I’m only going to make it as a photographer if I can put my passion into it and be happy and if you’re not loving what you’re doing as an artist… I feel like it’s so obvious… I can always be there too. That’s my other thing: I always wander back there.
“My work is only going to be good and I’m only going to make it as a photographer if I can put my passion into it and be happy and if you’re not loving what you’re doing as an artist… I feel like it’s so obvious…”
What about California? Did it feel different?
Well, I’m one of those people, to be honest, that will probably never be satisfied… California was great and it was really inspiring because I’m a nature person so I had this element in my photography. I was always bringing everyone out to these really amazing locations. I loved that and it really defined what I was doing. But also I was at school so I was forced to really analyze my work and constantly be shooting. I had a real niche kind of thing because I only photographed men and men’s fashion. That was kind of different at my school. I was the only one who ever photographed men and the only one who did men’s fashion. There wasn’t even high fashion in San Francisco so the whole thing was very interesting and unique. But coming from New York, of course, there I had the feeling that no one works hard enough. You can’t have a shoot before 10 o’clock in the morning there because nobody shows up or everyone shows up three hours late. However, in New York, you can have a shoot at 5 AM and everyone’s gonna be there with their coffees but ready to go. They’re different worlds. But once I left I missed California a lot.
“(At my university) I was the only one who ever photographed men and the only one who did men’s fashion. There wasn’t even high fashion in San Francisco so the whole thing was very interesting and unique.”
So you adopted San Francisco pretty well. What about Berlin, do you think it’s easy to adopt work-wise?
You know, it’s really hard for me to say. I got here last year and I was working as a freelance photographer for about 4 or 5 months but now I have a nine to five. It’s really interesting, it’s the first nine to five I’ve ever had. I do shoot a decent amount and I test a lot but I’m not in the industry like I was when I was in America where I was freelancing full-time and I worked at a photo studio – I was fully immersed. I’m not really there yet so it’s hard for me to say but I think what Berlin’s doing is very unique. The whole look, style, and feel of Berlin fashion is very underground, it’s very alternative. You see that a little in New York but I think it’s actually very unique in Berlin which is really interesting. But again, I’m not fully in the industry so I feel like I can’t really say. I probably have no idea what I’m talking about (:
Okay, but are you working towards being a freelancer again soon?
Not at the moment. I actually really like my job. I thought I would hate the nine to five. The first three months were really difficult. But I’m actually enjoying it a lot more than I thought I would. And I have a lot that I’m learning from it. I do eventually want to go back into being more artistic. The thing about photography is that I never really saw myself as a photographer. I considered myself more of an artist and photography was just my medium. It was what I studied and always just how I made money. That’s why my job now is interesting because I’m doing so many different things in the digital arts. Whether I’ll come back to photography as a freelancer or I’ll have an agency and maybe do retouching or some sort of art, I don’t know. Probably not in the next two years. I haven’t really planned that far.
Yeah, I think sometimes it’s good to stay in a place and just explore and find out where your focus is going to be. It needs time. But the other arts you’re doing at your nine to five are all in fashion, right?
My job is technically working in a fashion company but there I actually have almost nothing to do with fashion. My arts are for example painting as a hobby and I’m really into collage and digital collage. Most of the fashion I’m in really just has to do with photography. Because I have a lot of my experience in that you probably can see fashion throughout all of my work but I wouldn’t say that my work necessarily surrounds fashion. It’s probably just something that I’m familiar with so you see it pop up a lot.
Okay, so what other topics do you treat in your art or what do you try to communicate through your works?
Lately, most of my art has probably been centered around my emotions and I’m trying to find a way to express that. I do work with people, portraiture, and fashion and when I look at the collages that I’m doing now they are partly portraiture and fashion because I take a lot of images from magazines like nudes and stuff like that and I create a design around it. But a lot of the past two years what I was centering a lot of my personal artwork on is the heartbreak that I felt and I was just trying to find a way to express that. I had so many ideas but I didn’t know the right medium to express in. It’s almost like taking the same idea over and over and doing it in a different way. It’s the same title, the same words, it’s the same emotion and figuring out what it was between painting and photography and digital collage and… I sculpt a little bit but I’m not that good at it.
Yeah, but it feels good! I also liked to sculpt… but it’s long ago.
I like sculpting! It’s really weird because I tend to only sculpt penises and I always just revert back to that one thing (:
Haha, interesting! And what do you use for it?
Most of the time, it’s clay. The first things I did were picture holders for my family for Christmas. They were all just weird erotic things like men holding their huge dicks that were just an unproportional size and then they had a little slit in their heads for a photograph to be a picture holder.
That’s a great present I think – So they’re not all over your apartment! (: But coming back to healing emotions. I remember that I was also doing these kinds of projects just for myself in order to process heartbreaks. And usually, once I finished a project I was done thinking about the person – it really helped and I didn’t need to start other projects on them ever again. As you’re doing several artworks on this one emotion – did it help you heal already?
No? Oh, that’s unfortunate.
Yeah, well, it’s not to say it didn’t help me with processing the emotions. I think the thing about art is – I had this epiphany one day when I was asking this myself – how do you make sad art? How do you express your emotions in your art? And I had this moment of realizing that eventually you just make art when you’re sad…? That’s it! It channels in there. I was always wondering: what do I have to paint to get someone to feel my pain? And now I realize that it was such a backward way of going about it. I needed to just paint when I was really sad. It wasn’t painting anything in particular and nothing was ever finished. Again, it was a lot of me just playing around and experimenting. I don’t know if I have found the medium to really express any of it satisfyingly. But that also just might be the part of being an artist. Is anything ever finished? I don’t know…
Do you also express your feelings in your fashion work or is it just commercial?
When I was in college we had to know why we were doing everything and analyze it. For that I did, I was in a really happy part of my life and one thing that I focused on was building an idea and a concept. But it was more like showing my fantasy. The story behind all the portraiture I did, it was contemporary portraiture, it wasn’t documentary. So we get models, and we go somewhere and pick an outfit and create this beautiful scene of who that fantasy character would be. I wasn’t trying to photograph my models and who they were, I was trying to build a scene. But currently, I can’t say… I think that’s one of the reasons why I left New York because I had nothing to say in my work. I went from fashion photographing men in San Francisco and having something to say and knowing what I was doing to being in New York and just trying to keep up and I felt like I didn’t have a voice. It was just shooting to shoot. I was shooting women and I wasn’t saying anything. It just felt like I lost my identity in my work and I lost my voice. It was one reason why I decided to just take a step back. Now I’m working on digital content and everything I’m doing at my current job in graphics. I still shoot sometimes and I’m hoping to maybe get back there but currently, I just shoot commercially. I’m just shooting to keep shooting and not stop.
And why don’t you just pick up men’s photography again?
I don’t know… I had this epiphany about four times in the past three years. I loved shooting men and I was good at it. But the truth is, maybe, I’m just not ready for it. It’s a lot of work. The thing about the men’s fashion industry and the reason why I loved it is that there are not as many people doing it. It’s a lot harder to find designers and stylists who are good at it, you really have to put your soul into it. I always tell myself to focus on it again but right now, I’ve already started this other thing so I just haven’t gotten there. For my test shoots, it’s just easier to book women and find make-up artists. When you do men’s shoots there always has to be a bigger concept to it. But you can just have a pretty girl and make-up with nice hair and a dress. No offense women’s fashion – but it’s super easy to do.
Yes, I agree. I also shoot a lot of men and the funny thing is that I get more feedback and follow-up requests here because it’s pretty rare that female photographers shoot men’s fashion. So I always have to take care of shooting enough women as well because I love to make those concepts. There’s just so much more scope to your ideas. For men, there’s just elegant or sporty. Simply put, just suits or street fashion.
Yeah, you want to do something that’s interesting and on-trend if you will but it’s very easy to go overboard. I really like ornate men’s fashion but it’s a very fine line between androgynous and going over the top. But I think one thing that makes men’s fashion so exciting is that when you get it right it’s so good and so interesting.
About your tests: how do you work them out – is it working with a concept or are you rather spontaneous when it comes to tests?
I’m going to differentiate between shooting an editorial and testing because I shoot editorials too and obviously I try to have a concept, be seasonal and have a whole team. I haven’t been shooting a ton of editorials but I try and test at least once a week if not every other week. My tests have no concept. I work with a few agencies, we’d book a model and definitely get a make-up artist but sometimes the model can do her own make-up and I’m sure between everyone on set we can figure out how to do hair. I ask the model to bring her clothes a lot of times or every now and then I have a stylist friend who would come and we just shoot two or three looks in my apartment. Literally, all summer I’ve had a clothing rack and a white sheet we’ve been using as a backdrop shooting with window light – super simple, just two or three hours. It’s just to shoot and always be working with new people. I do that mostly because I don’t want to let all of it go. I firmly believe that if you want to be an artist you have to make art. While it’s not my main focus and maybe I’m not putting too much energy into it, I still can’t stop. So I just do small projects on the side, I shoot on a Saturday, we’ll have around five or six photos from it, it will take me three days to retouch them. It’s a way for me to keep my connection with the agencies and meet new models and make-up artists and just continue to grow and develop relations with people. So if there ever is a day where I’m ready to jump back into it full force at least I have some sort of momentum.
What do you do with those test results? Do you publish them on your website and social media or do you just store them?
Well, I put one or two on Instagram. But I’ve been neglecting my website a bit. My website’s very tailored: I have portraits which are only black and white in-studio portraits, I have men’s and women’s fashion. The testing that I’ve been doing doesn’t really fall into any of the pages that I currently have on my website. There’s not to say I won’t use them in the future. You really should redo your website every two or three years. Maybe I’ll put a book together. Maybe I’ll come up with something in three or four years. I’m just starting to learn Illustrator, graphic design and digital arts so maybe I’ll do something with that like e.g. make some digital collages. Currently, they’re not really going anywhere but sometimes it’s just about making a collection and that’s what I kind of do with the portraits page on my website too. They are all from tests and super simple in-studio shots. Every now and then you just take one really really beautiful picture. There are maybe ten images on there and it’s taken me about the whole five or six years that I’ve been freelancing. In another four years maybe I’ll have a huge really great collection of it. I’m just compiling it on the side.
Okay, so we’ll just stay curious about what you’re gonna do with your latest portraits. But to get back to how you feel in Germany – you recently told me that people around here have another understanding of personal space compared to America. In which situations does it bother you and how do you deal with it?
How do I deal with it… I don’t know if I really want to talk about it so much. It’s just a very different culture where people stand super close to you. I don’t think they notice either which is kind of crazy to me. Generally, if it’s somewhere where I have space I’ll just move. But sometimes I can’t. I’ve been standing in line and this guy – his stomach is rubbing on my back as he’s standing so close to me – and of course, I had to say something…
But actually we don’t love that either so in such a situation I’m also turning to make eye contact and signify to keep some distance. So I know this problem. Maybe some people just don’t care…
It’s really interesting to me and I haven’t made sense of it yet. I travel a lot so it’s something I’ve seen before but me personally I have a really big bubble. A large personal space (: In New York City – no matter what – everyone puts a maximum staying space between each other, even on the subway. It’s just how it is.
But how does rush hour work there?
Okay, interesting! And are there any other things that are super different for you in Germany or in Europe? Or is there something that really bothers you as well?
Yeah, I’d rather talk about it as things that are different. I don’t want to say it’s things that bother me because it’s just cultural differences and they’re things that you’re not used to. I really like that people care. There’s this difference in terms of the job here and I experienced this in California as well where people actually take time to be happy and relax. Here, if you get sick you can just be sick and you don’t have to worry about going to work. In New York, it’s about working all the time. It’s one thing that when I moved back and I was a little bit older I found to be super toxic. Success wasn’t by how much money you have, it’s by how hard and how much you work. If you weren’t working three jobs you were just lazy. It’s a constant hustle and a bragging right to be working 24 hours a day and stuff like that. It’s super cool for a year or when you’re young and you can handle it but then you get to a point like me where my mental health just meant more to me than proving my worth. That’s one thing I like about Europe, people seem to care about being happy more and there’s nothing to prove. In America everyone wants to be rich and famous or successful. I guess, in my art, I got to a point where I just wanted to be happy and I just wanted to make my art and not worry about if it’s gonna be a masterpiece or how many likes I was going to get. I feel like something was taken away from me in New York where it was just always trying to create to prove something. You know, people don’t understand my art and my art doesn’t fucking understand them either. I don’t even understand it. But you want to just take your time to do something for yourself and not feel the pressure of being pronounced lazy or selfish. I feel like Europe is a lot more understanding to that. I like that a lot.
“That’s one thing I like about Europe, people seem to care about being happy more and there’s nothing to prove. In America everyone wants to be rich and famous or successful.”
Alright, I very much enjoyed the topics that you brought up. Thanks for sharing so much from your emotional world and your experiences in Germany and America. I’m sure that many people have comparable struggles and are looking for answers on how to find happiness and how to express in their art and I guess reading about how other people think about it is a great help. If you have a bit of final advice or anything else you would like to say here you’re welcome to share it as well (:
I guess, just stay inspired. It’s one thing that I always try and do. It was ingrained in me as a student. Like I said before if you want to be an artist you have to create art. If you want to be a photographer you have to photograph. So for me, it’s important to always stay inspired. Go to museums, look at other people’s art. There’s no competition in other artists. Don’t be afraid to show someone how to do something in Photoshop or show them how to light something if they want. We’re all artists and not competition. You can either be someone’s competition for money or you can just be fellow artists and learn a lot from each other. So stay inspired!
I agree so much. I also try to teach as much as I can and I’ve heard so many photographers say ’no’ to sharing their knowledge because they are afraid of losing some jobs. But I think why not? Everyone will express in a different way even if they use the techniques they learned from you. I think teaching is how you can contribute to this world and help other people.
Yeah, and put yourself in their position and think – if my mentor never took me under his wing and showed me how to do things I would never be where I am now.
Exactly. Very nice last words. Thank you so much, Colleen.