Alyssa Bistonath


Function: Is there a particular experience or project you can pinpoint as key to your artistic development?

I interned at a newspaper called iWeekly when I first started shooting professionally. I would shoot almost the entire paper every week, except for the music section and the cover. I had to figure out a lot of things because I didn’t study it—I kind of had a trial by fire figuring that out. Then later on, I was a contract photographer for World Vision Canada for about seven years, and I traveled with them extensively. I would be on location somewhere in Asia or Latin America or Africa and be shooting for two or three weeks nonstop. It made me become a very efficient photographer, but it was formative in the sense that I learned about issues of representation and ethics through that experience. I feel like now, a lot of my practice is not just about representation but about turning away from tokenism.

Myth is a truth-seeking journey into your Guyanese heritage, but the photographs retain a dreamy purple haze. How did your post-production and editing choices reflect your thoughts about diasporic nostalgia and magical realism?

Those trips to Guyana were pretty heavy. I shot most of Myth twice, when I was there with my parents, and so I was seeing Guyana through their eyes. Guyana has a pretty troubled history but there’s also so much joy, even in mundane things happening on a day-to-day basis. I think the story begins in the essay with these images that seem or are idealized, and then they begin to be mixed in with pictures of my family and pictures of the land we used to live on, or the place my parents used to visit on the beach. At some points, the idealization and the documentary intersect, and at some points they don’t. It’s always about finding out where these stories from my childhood came from. In a way, they’re illustrative of that folklore but also of the people that live there, who have not been frozen in time since my parents left, and [it’s about] honoring that and trying to pull it apart. I think a lot of the reaction of Guyanese people to those photographs is, “I’ve never seen photographs of Guyana like this,” because they are so idealized and it’s seen as this country that needs to be fixed.

What advice would you give to early-career photographers on how to develop their visual intuition?

What I see from a lot of photographers is that they’re really afraid to follow their curiosity. They might be really struggling for an idea for a project, and I think they’re trying to come up with a project that other people will appreciate. But that’s a backwards way to approach it. You should approach projects about things that you’re interested in, that you’re curious about. It should be an exploration that you maybe don’t have the answer to, and through making the project, perhaps you will come to an understanding. And the second thing is, you may never come to an understanding and you may make that project again, and again, and again. But you’re just following your fascination; I think that’s how a body of work gets built.

How does your outreach and collaborative process differ when you’re talking to people in your community compared to commercial photography subjects?

I think collaboration in its truest form is a time-based thing. It requires engagement over a long period of time. I’m still in touch with the people that I made Portals with. I didn’t just parachute in, get them to participate, leave, and never talk to them again—which in commercial work happens all the time. I’ll photograph someone, perhaps in their most vulnerable moment and with their permission, but it’s not necessarily even appropriate for me to build a relationship with them. But with Portals, it was members of the Guyanese diaspora, and I was searching for a common language that people within the diaspora would understand. Whereas when you shoot commercially, you’re trying to create a language that as many people as possible will understand. In a way, Portals is closing it in, and commercial work is often opening up. With Portals, it was very clear at the beginning that I was making this film for my cousins, specifically for my generation, and that’s a pretty small audience. You can’t really commercialize that—it’s too niche. And that’s the beauty of working in contemporary art. 

You’ve written about receiving reductionist image requests for stories about developing countries during your time working for Canadian media. Can fine art projects counter this journalistic tendency towards oversimplification?

It’s funny because I talk about this in my classes a lot. When I was doing my master’s degree, I wanted to make a magic realism documentary because I’m Caribbean, and the idea of truth is very embedded in folk, so I felt that the documentary should be more flexible. But this idea of journalism and marketing intersecting to try and represent a situation across the world is very difficult. The people who are on the receiving end of that marketing don’t have complex ideas for the most part about what is happening in the developing world. If you gave them anything complex, it might just confuse them. But I think you need to start giving people the benefit of the doubt. So it depended on what part I was playing at what time; if I was shooting for a magazine, there was a little bit more context towards photographs, but if it was an ad, then it was just kind of a photograph on its own.

How has mentorship and community impacted your career?

I don’t think I would have been able to make it as a photographer if people who were older and more established than me hadn’t taken an interest in my work or even just me as a person. Before I had photographs that looked nice, there were people who genuinely cared about me and they guided me. I’m still friends with some of my undergraduate professors, and actually I teach alongside them now. My master’s thesis advisor taught me so much and opened a million doors for me. Everyone that I know who has managed to find a career in image making has done so through mentorship and forming genuine relationships with people who have something to offer them—and also mentoring others as well.

            I was really isolated as a first-year student in the arts. I didn’t have any family members who studied fine art, I had zero support system in that regard. My parents obviously helped me, financially and by taking care of me, but it wasn’t like I could go to an aunt or an uncle or a cousin and ask, “What do you think about these photographs?”, because the language wasn’t there. I really needed to connect with my profs, and there were some who didn’t want to, but there were a few who did. I still go over for dinners at their houses; those are long-term bonds. It goes from being a mentor-mentee relationship into being a friendship.

Who or what inspires your work?

I was a pretty lonely kid. I have four brothers and they were my world. I’m very close to my family. But I spent a lot of time alone in my room and I think that’s the lens through which I shoot—a mixture of longing and belonging. I hit my stride in my twenties and found my community, which now is very similar to my family. As I grow, I see so much need for people to experience care, genuine care, in their lives, and I think that’s the driving force: the desire to put something kind out there.

How do you challenge yourself creatively?

I’m in a moment of transition because I just started teaching full-time as a faculty member at TMU in July. Before that, I would say I follow my curiosity; I absorb all this information and then sit down and try to form it into a narrative. There’s a screenplay I’ve been writing in my head for six years, and I’m not sure if it’s a thought experiment or an actual screenplay but it’s a really interesting way to digest current events, news, and conversations into some coherent little world and package. Sometimes, something will happen and I’ll think, “This would be impossible to incorporate,” but then I find a way. It’s a creative exercise in my mind and it doesn’t have to come to fruition, but it’s what I do at the end of every day: contextualize my day within this narrative.

What makes an image cinematic?

There are so many times where we’ll be in critiques and a student will be like, “That still looks like a movie!”. Film language and photography language are very different. Cinema is obviously about motion, but photography is also about motion—I think people forget that. When we think about the word “cinematic,” I think we’re thinking about a certain level of high-budget filmmaking. A photograph can be like that if every single pixel or grain in the photograph is considered in the same way as they do in video. There are hundreds of people making a film at any given time, so as a single, solo photographer, maybe with an art director and a model, you are constructing something that many people construct when it’s moving. So, I think it’s a carefulness, maybe.

Both Isolation Photographs and Myth explore the idea of physical and emotional barriers—to loved ones in the former and to heritage in the latter. How did you navigate the conflict between feeling disconnected while trying to create intimate images?

I have really close friends, we talk every day, and I know they’re never far from my thoughts, and it’s the same the other way. I feel like that feeling of disconnection is an internal story that we navigate, it’s not an external thing. With COVID-19, it became an external thing—we physically couldn’t see each other. With Myth, there was a physical barrier because I wasn’t able to travel to this place. I think that because these physical barriers existed, you’re able to bring out these personal, intimate insecurities that prevent you from having true intimacy with others. In pursuing my friends by walking to their houses, I was really offering a bit of a love letter to them and being vulnerable to them.

            I think that both of those projects are a lot about uncertainty, vulnerability, and really high moments of transition, like seeing the place that’s your heritage for the first time or being separated from your loved ones for the first time. I was talking to some people the other day about Isolation Photographs and they asked, “How did you know when to stop?”. I said that I stopped when it stopped being novel. It’s not like the pandemic is really over, but the lens which the pandemic provided is now common, and I’m used to it.

Whose feedback do you value the most?

My inner circle, and that includes family, friends, and colleagues who have become friends. It’s always nice to win a prize or get a show—those are things that people consider milestones. But I think as humans, we are very poor at accepting validation from institutions. Maybe it makes us feel good for a second, but it’s really the sustaining belief that your community has in you that gets you through the other days.

Looking at your path since graduating, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

Maybe advocate for myself a little bit more. Like I said, I had a lot of mentorship, I assisted a lot of working photographers, but I was timid. I shot for magazines and newspapers and had connections, but I was timid to reach out to them to ask for work or show them what I was working on. Later, I remember a photo editor saying to me, “Why didn’t you ever reach out to show me what you were working on, to remind me that we worked together?”. I was too shy. I think I would just wait for work to come my way, which a lot of it did, luckily. I applied for competitions and had a decent community, and got a lot of work from other photographers who hired me, but I think I was a little too passive. You have to be a little clear in putting work out there on a regular basis and following up with people. I don’t know if that’s going to be the same problem for this generation. I think Instagram has resolved a lot of that; you can just exist there and people will always love your work. But assisting more senior photographers doesn’t seem to be as appealing to younger generations, and so much of what I learned was [from doing that]. And helping my peers on shoots was invaluable to me.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned in university?

To be a critical thinker. I wasn’t necessarily raised to be a critical thinker, [growing-up] I was mild-mannered and barely spoke. In university, I began to really find my voice, to speak out, to cause a little trouble, to disagree sometimes, to advocate for myself—just to speak up. Because the thoughts were all there, and the feelings were all there, I just never said anything. I needed university to become mature enough to understand that what I thought and believed was as important as anybody else in the room.

What would be helpful for students to know as they apply for their first exhibitions?

It’s about making it clear what your idea is, and not trying to pitch ideas that you think the curator will like, because you have no way of guessing what that will be. Maybe, if they have a specific area of research interest and you happen to line up with that, so you pitch a project in that specific arena. But I don’t think you should ever approach making from the perspective of trying to make something other people will like—unless you’re working for a client and they’re giving you a directive. They don’t want to see more of the same, they want to see something that they have never seen before. I don’t think that kind of genius comes from being a savant; I think it just comes from actually going to shows. I have been on juries for exhibitions and galleries, and I am 99 percent sure that a lot of people have never been to the gallery that they’re applying to, or they don’t go and see other art. There’s a toxic idea that if I consume art of other people, it will tamper with or compromise my original thought. But no thoughts are original; we speak in a mutual dialogue. If you’re making work, make work that’s important to you, that follows your curiosity, but then also take a moment to see how it’s contextualized in the larger conversation. I think that is often what’s missing from gallery applications: a lack of awareness of what the gallery’s doing, what’s happening in the world, what the current research is, and how your pieces are contributing to the dialogue in a generative way.

How do you find inspiration when you’re in a creative slump?

I read science fiction: I love Ursula K. Le Guin, I love Ted Chiang. [Those stories] are all thought experiments—asking a question and answering it in a large and unfolding way, kind of like my script exercise. If you create parameters, ask questions, and try to answer them within those parameters, I think you will always come up with something. When people really struggle to come up with project ideas, I think it’s because the world is too big. They need to give themselves parameters, like, “I’m only going to shoot this at this particular time of day in this geography.” That’s why I think competitions and applying for curated group shows is key, because you have to work within a theme. And looking at a lot of other work—not copying it, but just looking at it and being like, “Why does it speak to me? Why does it not speak to me?”.

            Usually, when I’m struggling to come up with an idea, it’s because my well is dry. I haven’t been taking in the things that inspire me, probably because I’ve been working too hard. So, I need to spend some time reading books, watching movies, reading the news, and going to galleries. It’s really important to me.

For photographer and filmmaker Alyssa Bistonath, her earliest memories of the visual medium are as a child hidden behind the comfort of her couch, flicking through her family photo albums. After receiving her first camera at 18-years old, a Canon Rebel film camera from her mother, Bistonath went on to complete a BFA in New Media at Toronto Metropolitan University, and then an MFA from TMU in 2016. Her works explore themes of belonging, memory and nostalgia, with her ethereal photo series Myth (2015) weaving together documentary and folklore in a contemplative study of her parents’ homeland of Guyana. With her documentary and science-fiction film Portals, commissioned by the City of Toronto for Nuit Blanche in 2018, Bistonath once again returned to her heritage for a story about the Guyanese diaspora, which enriched reality with imagination and befitted an astronaut with a feathered carnival backpiece. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she began her photo series, Isolation Photographs (2020–ongoing), that are a series of visual love letters, tributes to her loved ones that find intimacy within isolation through portraiture.

Instagram: @alyssabistonath

Website: Alyssa Bistonath