From the Florida swamp, grew a diligent observer. Molly Steele’s photography is a visionary account of her progress through the wilder parts of the world.
Molly from the Swamp
Originally published in the “Swamp” issue on June 27, 2017
Molly and I met through mutual friends earlier this year while she was visiting New York. By our light exchange, we quickly found affinity in some of our past experiences and our current aspirations – namely traveling, train hopping, and trying to bring about some sort of autonomous revolutionary force. You know, the usual things people who have just met find in common.
Originally from the swampy lands of Northern Florida, Molly Steele is a talented photographer now living in Los Angeles, where she stays if she is ever not on the road. Moved equally by nature and radical mutual aid, she is always traveling and ever watchful for potential friends, while her lens stays focused on capturing the world in all its creeping distance and entangled passion.
When we met in February, she gave me some her work in the form of her new photography zine I Just Want to be Warm at Night. I was moved by both the imagery and its sentiment. The first words found inside the book promptly state Molly’s active mission and emotional purpose.
“I travel because I am heartbroken and because it is only out in the world that I feel again what it is to love.”
Shortly after, I asked about her life, process, and method.
How did you begin? Were you literally raised in the swamp?
I grew up in an extremely rural and fairly isolated unincorporated community in Florida. It was just an intersection where four counties met. Far too small to have its own law enforcement. Because of these things and the isolation, it attracts a mixture of small town people, convicts, and some eclectic intellectual runoff from the University of Florida thirty miles away. It’s one of those small towns that people rarely make it out of. Most of my elementary and middle school peers are in jail, some became devout Christians, and a few joined the circus. For real. The many small towns around there self-segregate and most people are pretty set in their ways when it comes to how to relate to politics, religion, and race. I’m not sure of the numbers, but many of the people around, my family included, were definitely well below the poverty line. Lots of trailers.
The area was also super fucking beautiful. Intensely dense luscious forests and water everywhere. Lakes, rivers, ponds, marshes, and a whole lot of swamp. I mean the place is referred to as The Swamp. My parents both moved there to start a farm before they divorced when I was maybe three. I grew up wth my brother going back and forth between houses. We lived on the herb farm with my Dad for a long time, and moved constantly with my mom, but usually not more than a mile or so from one house to the next. Because there was no public transportation to or from town, and because of the rural setting, I didn’t often spend time around other people except in school. Even there, it was a rough scene for me in terms of feeling like I clicked with people. I homeschooled myself after a short stint at the bad kid’s high school and then moved out to Los Angeles alone when I turned 18.
What is your workflow like lately?
I am a few years into my attempt to work very little but still get by. Because I’m a reportage photographer and writer, I am lucky to be able to conjure up work when I need it. Generally, I try to do the things that interest me and sometimes they end up setting me up to create work. Like, say I travel somewhere and am stoked on something I experience. I try to write about it and share some photos. I’d like to enforce some discipline in my practice, though, because nine out of ten times I prioritize the experience over just taking a photo when I see something special. It means I’m inspired by a lot but that inspiration doesn’t materialize often. Which is fine, but like, I pay rent in an expensive city and have to keep my hustle monetized.
Would you tell me about your process and meaning-making?
Unexpectedly, photography became the medium through which I could feel my position in the world. I’ve used it as a way to better understand where my values lie and also my vulnerability. It’s only some of the time that I ever go to a place with the intention of shooting something specific. Usually, the desire to take a picture comes out of nowhere at the moment I catch a feeling. It could be a quiet street corner from a distance where I see someone solitary, or when I feel like a very particular emotional event is taking place, like bliss or people moving through an experience together. Because my work is not exclusively of this or that, it’s possible to see how these feelings arise both when looking at a mountain or a bedroom, a stranger or a group of friends. I have spent my entire life on the outside looking in. I move through spaces never feeling like I fully fit in, so it makes sense to me to have a perspective that’s observational and reportage. I see something I like or want, I take the photo to freeze that moment in time for when I need to feel it later, when I’m alone, as I often find myself.
What are some of your inspirations? What is currently life-affirming?
I go back and forth between thinking nothing inspires me and thinking I may actually be inspired by everything. In the Italian Alps, I walked in the rain through a forest next to a glacier passing many houses made of stone almost certainly by hand and hundreds of years ago. It reminded me of how much I feed off of nature. I showered under the tallest waterfall I’ve ever seen from a hole halfway up the mountain in a tunnel dug behind the falls. I went from the cave shower to a neighborhood in Milan where friends squat all the buildings. They spend all of their time together and I’m inspired by their radical and unending grace when it comes to solidarity and mutual aid.
I’m inspired by the clothes drying in the sunshine on the hillsides in between these places, houses built into rocky outcroppings on the mountain, and bivouacs constructed in the forgotten pieces of land, the spaces in between. It’s life-affirming when there is room for me in these places that inspire me. When I’m in the squat and people want to know my opinion and for me to share myself with them, no longer looking in, but being. In a recent conversation with a person in France, we deduced my purpose to something much simpler than all that I just said, which maybe is the better answer to the question.
Être-avec. To be with.
Your purpose may be to commune with a radical community. On that, have recent political events affected your focus or work?
I’m not sure how much the current political climate effects my work different from last year until now, but being at Standing Rock was a pivotal experience for me on many levels. I spent much of last year questioning my capacity and place in the world and more specifically in the radical community. At Standing Rock things became really clear for me and I felt my strength that had been lacking in certain spaces just before. Since returning, I hate to say I have slipped back into some of the bullshit day to day melodramas we all have as we go through the motions of being people in cities, but I have a different relationship with my work and a more refined idea of what I’m looking for with my future and in my community.
I was moved by your zine. Could you tell me more about it? How did it come together?
The zine brings together photos I’ve shot over the course of several years and in its culmination and the process of self-editing I was able to better see where my eye goes. I have taken pictures for a long time and never had a solo gallery show or put out a book. I’ve never shot a particular project or even had many desires to. It was actually really frustrating because it seems to come so easily to other people. I wanted to put out a zine for years but never knew what to put in it. When Deadbeat Club approached me to do the collaboration in late 2016, everything came together surprisingly easy. The same feeling I look for when I travel, develop friendships, or take pictures was the goal for the direction of the zine. I didn’t want it to be a series of photos someone flips through a couple of times and stores on their shelf. Because my work is deeply emotional for me, I wanted to communicate through more than pictures.
Inside every zine is a handwritten letter in which I interact with my vulnerability. In completion, the zine shares my quest for a life worth living. I often get grouped into this weird genre of travel photography which really reduces the meaning behind what I do. The zine and the letter explain that it is not through a love of travel and joy that I go from here to there, but often instead because I’m sad or lost, and that’s okay. It’s because of these feelings that I’ve moved through the world and ended up with experiences that made it make sense. I value sadness because if it weren’t for it, I would likely not feel the need to escape, and it’s because of escapism that I’ve accessed the world of radicals and finally found a language I can understand.
Do you have any new work coming out, upcoming events, or projects you’re otherwise into right now?
I used to be a jack of all trades, master of none. When I started taking photos, which I’m far from mastering, I put down most of my other creative tools. I used to play several instruments, paint, and sing. What I am doing more of these days though is writing. Lately, I’ve taken on more writing projects than photo work though. I’m doing some work in Turkey later this year that I’ll write about. Maybe I also consider my social life a creative endeavor because I’m forever trying to figure it out.
A good friend of mine Yumna Al-Arashi recently released a photo and video project that is very personal to her. Even just based on aesthetics it’s an alluring body of work of Arab women together in a hammam. It is the type of piece I want to blow all my money on to have and look at every day.
I’m also a real fan girl for this initiative/collective called Get Artists Paid that advocates for artists to stop working for free and for companies and publications to stop expecting free labor in exchange for their primary currency, exposure.
What do you want to see more of in the world?
Honesty and accountability. It’s too exhausting to navigate through illusions, or at least for me has seemed nearly impossible. I want to live in a world where the people around me are more open and communicative, where they are conscious and responsible for their impact.