Kate Mada: Life Photographer and Observationist


I’m going to make this easy for you: Kate Mada is someone you need to know.

The BC native is a seasoned photog, intuitive storyteller, and west coast phenom. Her street photography is honest, her portraits encompassing, and with official gigs like Shambhala Music Fest under her belt two years in a row, her talent isn’t to be taken lightly.

A soulful artist with an eye well beyond her 24 years, Kate’s ability to capture the essence of life is more intrinsic than acquired. It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if she had been born with a camera in hand.

THEREGION: Define what beauty means to you. Where do you find it, and how does it inspire your art?

KATEMADA: Beauty: I find it every morning when I look in the mirror. I’m serious! I look like absolute crap when I wake up and I immediately recognize this. I’m a droopy, blinking mess with a face-mask still crusting my upper-lip. But that whole interaction is beautiful to me.  I find beauty in subtle observations about reality:  when you can look at a mundane situation and find something humorous or ironic about it, you’re my poet.  I love seeing it in other photographers’ work and that’s why I love street photography so much; beauty lives in street photography. Please check out some of Matt Stuart’s work if you want to understand what I’m getting at.

Photography is a way of sharing and identifying beauty and I find it most in the subtleties. In frames that not everyone sees at first, but once pointed out, can create an entire narration or hilarious juxtaposition. That’s the kind of beauty I try to capture in my ‘street’ work. Often I’ll use a couple of words as a caption along side an image to trigger the perspective I’m coming from for the photo.  I’m sure photography purists would scoff, but I’m not a photography purist–I’ve always loved words and I think they bring another dimension to images.

REGION: You grew up in New West and have spent your life on the coast. Do you think that your approach to photography would differ if you had grown up somewhere else?

KATE:  I’ve been told before that I over-analyze things, but I’m just going to go for it… I believe that an individual’s interpretation of the world serves as the main lens in their photography. How we see, or ‘interpret’, is a result of who we are… and who we are is informed by our experiences. I’d argue that our environment helps to mold those experiences, and as a result I think that if I grew up somewhere else, my photography would be different because I would be too. To what extent, I have no idea, but if I hadn’t grown up with a beautiful coastline as my playground, I’d be more inclined to take photos of starfish and barnacles. They’d be novel, and novelty is huge for anyone holding a camera.

New Westminster is hardly an oceanfront resort town, so when I moved directly along a coastline the coastal scenes held a bit more novelty. You can see it in my photography when I first moved to Victoria:  ‘A branch? On the BEACH? This must be documented’, kind of thing.

I’m at a point now where the beauty of the coast has become such a common part of my experience that I feel like I’m cheating if I take a photo of a beach sun-set without some sort of interesting juxtaposition.  I’m more fascinated photographically by interactions and culture. If I’m trying to capture ‘the coast’, I’d rather try to capture the holistic experience of it: the way your hair feels when the salty air conditions it, the faces of people having staring contests with the ocean, the feeling of a van over-stuffed with bodies and beers after a hike or surf.  You can’t capture that in one photo of a sunset and some barnacles, it takes a series of glimpses to hint at the overall feeling of that prototypical ‘coast-culture’.

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REGION: You believe that photographs are “records of existence.” Is there a difference between recording a moment and creating a memory?

KATE: I think photographs can be records of existence in two different ways. There’s the internal sense–recording how a photographer sees the world at a given moment, the angle they choose, their use of light, the impulse they have to press the shutter in the first place.  These are indications of a photographer’s spirit and sensibility, and a frame of mind can decide how an image is framed. Guaranteed that a photographer  fresh out of a bed with a woman he loves is going to look at a dandelion differently than the same man, down-struck and getting out of bed with an escort and a bottle of rum. They’d highlight something different about the flower in the photograph, at least mentally. One might hate its stupid, smiling face; he’d take a photo of it and see a nemesis. Maybe he’d edit it with some gritty sepia filter and feel like a profound and damaged artist. The other might pull a cutesy ‘I’m in love’ move and pick it up to take a shot of it in his hand before presenting it to his lover. That image would mean something very different in those circumstances. A basic example, but you get what I’m getting at.

The other record of existence, obviously, is the external content itself. The subject. Be it a simple shot of a good time with friends, an epic event in history, or a candid moment between a stranger and her shopping cart.  The whole record of existence framework can happen simultaneously: a record of a photographer’s mind and a record of the subject they’re recording. Which brings me back to your question: I definitely think there’s a difference between recording a memory and a moment.  I like to think of ‘moments’ as organic or candid.  Photos made exclusively for ‘memories’ are more like reminders.  For example, the famous ‘Oh, here I am posing in front of the Eiffel tower’ photo. This picture becomes a document of the real moments before, and after: of your looks, your age at the time, where you visited–proof really, a reminder of everything attached to it. That’s not to say that capturing candid, organic moments is superior, they just mean different things.

REGION: Observation requires us to immerse ourselves in looking and listening without passing judgment on a scene. When you photograph street life, how do you navigate the dynamic between being a silent observer and an active storyteller?

KATE:  I am definitely watching the world with a bias.  If I was shooting for a newspaper and it was clean-cut photojournalism, my commentary probably wouldn’t fly and I would make sure to get my facts and frames straight.  But to be honest, I love inserting my own commentary into a scene.

It’s not lying or judging, it’s watching a life unfold candidly in front of you, then finding entertainment or insight in your initial reactions and assumptions. A photographer’s perception is all a part of the interaction.  Even without words, how someone frames a scene will only show a fragment of the whole story.

I mean, sure, sometimes for street situations I’ll sit down afterwards with a person I’ve photographed and get a story from them, or the interaction with them becomes the story—at that point my narration is based in reality and I won’t change the facts. But when I don’t know them, a street photo will often come together so perfectly to suit a quip or observation about life as a whole that I’ll use it visually as such.  There’s a time and place for taking artistic licenses— it’s how you circumnavigate being an objective observer versus simply being a living, breathing, biased human being with a unique set of binoculars.

REGION: Picture this: You’re sitting on the deck of an old friend’s cabin. It’s dusk and the mid summer sun is setting over the mountains. You have a beer in your hand and friends all around you. What are you listening to?

KATE: Dubstep, for-sure.

…No, I’m kidding (although I have friends who would try for it).  I’m not a music snob, but in that situation it’d have to be something classic. 60’s folk-rock for me, definitely. When you’re in a natural setting that wraps your soul visually, you have to match it with some equally soulful, natural sounds.  Dylan, maybe even Petty would do it for me in that instance.  If I was feeling something modern: the Head & the Heart. I’m not a stranger to the electronic scene, but my loyalties always lie with a man & a guitar.

Visit Kate’s Facebook page and portfolio for more .
Featured images were taken by Kate Mada.


One response to “Kate Mada: Life Photographer and Observationist

  1. I like this article. Informing me about the absolute equality of candid and staged. Neither is better than the other. Except for candid. Which is different.

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