Karen Hilmersson – photographer

Karen Hilmersson self portrait

Karen is a portrait and lifestyle photographer steadily marking her space in the photography world, one photo at a time.  Her love of photography started as a child but it took her years to come back to it and realise that with a camera in her hands she could fill a void in her life – the need to fulfil her creative drive.  Karen is self taught and her busy practice today all started with pushing herself to be her own subject in front of her camera, and making portraits of her children a daily part of life.  She is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Karen talks to Tempy for Sonnets and Dirty Dishes about how she convinced herself of her own creative power, her battles with self doubt, and what drives her to keep doing her work.

Portrait inspired by Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

BEGINNINGS:

In this section we ask artists to talk about what started them down the road they are on – how did it begin? On Sonnets and Dirty Dishes, we want to explore what motivated people to take the leap from dreaming, to doing. We ask: Can you tell us what drives you to do what you do?

I have always loved photographing, keeping memories and making things beautiful in images. When I finally started to take more time for photography – because I had generally more time for it and because my kids were older – I quickly realised that there wasn’t anything else that made me feel that way. Happy, fulfilled and content with what I was doing. 

I took pictures from a very young age. My father always had a camera in his hand and I felt like that’s something I would love to do too. I always had a camera myself. I didn’t pursue creative studies or career, despite loving photography and history of art. I went to study law instead. I finally decided to take an analogue photography film class just before I turned thirty – but then I got pregnant and had to stop it. 

My life road took me from photographing my kids with an iPhone, to then starting again with a DSLR (not film anymore), to finally wanting and feeling like I could take it a step up to create the pictures I had in my mind. 

I was working part time, but took a year off when we went to live in Sweden; my kids were eight  and eleven at the time. I started to attend photo school and took some other online classes. 

It took me some years to be able to say “I’m a photographer”. It was partly thanks to feeling more confident after having more experience in taking pictures and more knowledge… but also thanks to an online class I took with the instagramer @me_and_orla who was kind of “forcing” us to state what we were and not be afraid any longer. That was the first kick. I had to write “photographer” in my bio. Such a big step! 

‘I felt ashamed and not really up to the word ‘creative’’

I also had to try to accept that I was creative. Still, after that course, I didn’t really fully embrace it. I felt ashamed and not really up to the word. I read Playing Big by Tara Mohr, and that book was a game changer for me. There is still some work to do; when I went to the Arles photography festival a couple of years ago, I didn’t really feel that I belonged to the same crowd.  Mentoring with people like the Melias (a couple who are both photographers) really helped me too. The long and winding road…

For a very long time I said that I didn’t have any passion because I liked too many things. I also said that I wasn’t creative. Mostly because I was bad at drawing; but also because I always thought I needed other’s ideas to do something. Which is partly still true but when you dig deeper into the question you realise that inspiration is very different to copying or needing others for your own ideas. (See the book Steal like an Artist, by Austin Kleon) 

But after taking some classes, reading a lot about creativity and having this great community on instagram sharing so much knowledge and support; after having experienced creativity flows and droughts; I realised that I was creative. I could say it out loud. I was also quickly realising that photography was my passion. It always had been, in a way, but either dormant or pushed down like something which wasn’t for me. 

‘I learned to accept that creative droughts are not the end of my creativity.’

Today, when I have no time to create, I can feel the void in my life. I have another job which uses another side of my brain (or another type of thinking) and when only that part works and not the creative side, I don’t feel as good as when I do. This is what pushes me to create even in difficult circumstances or when time is limited. Because I always feel better and satisfied afterwards no matter good or bad is what I created! 

I also learned to accept that creative droughts are not the end of my creativity. The first times it happened to me, I thought that was it, I was never going to be able to have any ideas… but with experience and support, and accepting frustration as a fact, it’s ok to do nothing for a while and just wait for inspiration to come to you again. 

Things that help: Fresh walks, going to museums, going on Pinterest; but also reading, watching movies or listening to music. The book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is very helpful.

PRACTICALITIES:

In this section we ask creatives to talk about their workspaces, tools, and resources they need. We ask what their work day looks like. We also ask them to respond personally to the Sylvia Plath quote that gives this project its title: ‘I would live a life of conflict, of juggling children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes.’

I have a desk at home with a computer to edit my pictures. I recently purchased a big iMac which is life changing for editing compared to my laptop! I don’t have a photo studio though so I take pictures outdoor and indoors. I create spaces in my home for portraits and for styling (in particular food styling) and usually I make a big mess, move all the furniture around and then put it all back the way it was. I recently purchased a table just for styling. But we now use it as an outdoor table too. I wish I had a big portrait stand and a studio. One day!

Karen regularly styles + photographs her kitchen table and food she makes.

I work part time for the Greens in the European Parliament so I usually work in the morning (sometimes a full day) and then do my creative work in the afternoon or in the weekends. I prepare lists of what I would like to achieve during the week on the Sunday before. I write down goals and see if I achieve them. I use the “goaldigger” agenda for this. For instance, I will aim at preparing two blog posts and a draft newsletter. And try to do my kids’ portraits on the weekend. If I have some work for a brand, it will always have priority. Family shoots and portraits will more often happen during the weekends. 

I always try to do a bit of yoga before starting the day but it’s not always easy. I also try to do some biking and meditation when I find the time. 

‘Sometimes the day goes by without an ounce of space for creativity’

Earlier I talked about my ideal work day/week. Because sometimes I come back in the afternoon from my day job and I have to do shopping, prepare food and then take care of the kids’ homework and the day goes by without an ounce of space for creativity and photography. 

Sometimes my day job takes over, I will work longer hours (because it pays the bills and because I have some loyalty towards it too) and then my brain is too tired and not able to make space for creative thinking. The little mental space I have left will be used for kids and the household… Maybe a little reading if I’m lucky. 

Small moments throughout the day provide photo opportunities.

I really try to not leave these days or periods last too long. I usually need just a weekend or some outdoor walk to create some space. But if longer periods are in order, a holiday will be necessary for a reset. I’m lucky enough to have that luxury with my day job that I can take some holidays and be paid. I also know people who can manage working full time and still find time for creativity. But that’s not my case, I need some sort of balance between the two but overall, I’ll always find some motivation to find some time for photography and creativity as I know this is what makes me feel best. 

BEING IN THE WORLD:

Publication, performance, recording, exhibiting. In this section we ask: how important is it to you that your work exists in a public space? Why do you think this is? And can you tell us about the time and effort you give to getting your work out in the world?

I share my work on Instagram, on my blog, and now my website. Partly, there is a need for recognition I suppose; although it doesn’t stop me if my work is not having the impact I would like it to have. Mostly, it’s about pushing myself, and accountability. Accountability to myself; and to my online community. I could certainly live without this community, but it helps me continue creating in times that are more difficult. I call Instagram my creative playground. This is where I show what I experiment. This is where I have projects like my 12 Portraits project. And this is also where I have a sense of support and inspiration I get from nowhere else. 

I’m sure that if I move further into my photographic development and confidence, I would love to have an exhibition one day. It would be a great challenge! Also to be able to explain my photography, making it so that it has some sense for others would be something I would like to achieve.

Portrait for a client

It used to be really difficult for me to share anything to the outside world but after Instagram and my blog, I guess I got used to it. It takes quite a lot of time though and despite being quite resilient generally, sometimes it’s a bit daunting. I spend several hours a week on Instagram and try to prepare at least two or three blog posts a month. I imagine that if photography was a full time job, it would be difficult to have so much time for getting my work out there. I guess the plus side is I do a lot of my work for pleasure and less for money. 

BEING IN OURSELVES:

Many creative people speak of periods of self doubt or imposter syndrome. It seems that choosing to persist with our creative projects takes great courage at times. In this section we ask: How has self doubt affected you, if at all? What have you done to bring yourself through difficult times and allow yourself to persist? What has helped you?

I mentioned the book from Tara Mohr, that one helped a lot to understand the systemics and problematics of self doubts and the imposter syndrome. My photography mentor and friend Kim Klassen has encouraged me to get into the habit of writing. Putting things down on paper really helps to sort out the self criticism and transform it into constructive and productive criticism. I also listen to some podcasts, including one in French from a student of Brooke Castillo on the thought construction that can lead to all these destructive thoughts we may have. 

I do have self doubts. But then I love creating so much that it hasn’t stopped me totally. It stops me in my tracks sometimes but not totally. And support from the creative community I have on Instagram or from friends and loved ones can be enough sometimes too. My kids, who are my models a lot, can get a little bored at times when it comes to helping me out. But when they look at the result and they say that they are amazed by it, it makes it all worth it.

From ‘Portraits of my children‘ series.

www.karenhilmersson.com                       

Instagram: @karenhilmersson

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