By Tesa Pesic
We decided to meet at Refuge Café, a coffee shop on the corner of Brighton and Harvard Avenue. I was to recognize her thanks to her brown glasses, green jacket and white MacBook with a black V89 bumper sticker on it. Upon walking in, I was overwhelmed by the loud music, strong smell of brewed coffee and a number of hipsters – all whom had MacBooks in front of them. But after creepily walking around the tables, a black sticker appeared in the corner of my left eye. And indeed, the person behind the computer was my interviewee, up-and-coming artist and photographer, Nikki Segarra.
Formal greetings ensued, and I sat down opposite her at a small table as she was moving her laptop and empty coffee cup onto the windowsill we sat next to, explaining how she had been busy working on her thesis project she is doing at the Art Institute of Boston. Her graduate exhibition is in fact being held this April on the 24th, and is in part a continuation of her previous series titled A Mariner’s Descendant, about which she says, “It’s really about searching, and finding a connection between my relationship with this location [Boston] and my family. Trying to ask questions is it possible to have fears, or to behave a certain way that may be predestined genetically. That’s what it’s about.” This fear Segarra is talking about is the fear of water. It is something she “inherited” from her mother, and something that took years to overcome. But now, she is able to swim in a small pond infested by eels in order to take the perfect photograph that exactly embodies the issue she is trying to convey (granted she only went into the shallow end, but the dedication is there).
By the way Segarra so passionately talks about this series, and her journey of discovering details about her family and her past, one can tell how connected she is to this particular piece of work and how meaningful it is to her to be able to finally find herself. “When I moved up here I felt a sense of belonging that I’ve never felt before in Florida.” In fact Segarra was born here in the Boston area, her parents grew up here, and she has generations of ancestors who have lived on the coast. But since age four she has lived in Florida, going to Florida State University and finishing Mass Media Studies after changing her major five times. Even though Mass Media was very much related to photography and video, it was mostly research based, something Segarra later knew wasn’t what she wanted to do. “When I graduated there was still a sense of unsatisfaction and I realized that from the very beginning I’ve always wanted to do photography.” Having a camera since age ten, and having a mother who did photography as well might have molded that decision, and if one was to follow Segarra’s theory of inheritance, then this was most definitely passed down onto her from her family. So, after graduation, a decision was made to come to Boston and finish a two year undergraduate photography program before moving on to the graduate program at the same school, the Art Institute of Boston.
But none of this is to say that Segarra wasn’t happy in her years at Florida State University. I mean, this was the time she joined the circus. Yes, Nikki Segarra was a member of her collegiate circus that has been around since the late 1800s, and is now actually a one credit class at FSU (you go Florida State!). The students put up a big top tent at the beginning of the year and learn a number of acrobatics, such as The Five Person Bike and The Spanish Web. When explaining this particular act she says, “You climb the top of a rope, and there’s a ring where either your hand or foot would be placed in, and then someone at the bottom swings you. Lots of fun. Though I injured my foot, I didn’t end up performing that. But my main performance was fire spinning. I miss that.” Though she says she is out of practice, she would most definitely go back to this in the future by joining the one acrobatic school in Boston.
Declaring herself a girl of many trades, Segarra is just that. Besides photography and circus performing, she was heavily involved with the renowned Florida State University’s radio station – WVFS 89.7 FM; or for short, V89, which I late realize is the meaning of the sticker on her laptop. Volunteering at the radio station, Segarra says she did everything, public relations, organizing parties and festivals, going to shows for free and meeting the bands, working with local business, and of course DJing.
During her senior year, V89 became the place where she met her boyfriend. Graduation separated them for a little while, but they decided to live together first in Florida, in their University’s town, and then move to Japan for a year. “It wasn’t in any of my life plans. But I loved it, I almost didn’t come back.” Segarra says. But what brought her back to the States was her strong love for photography, and her decision to continue school to study it. And two years later, she married her husband whose name she never mentions (I realize throughout the interview that there are certain things she wishes to keep private, so I don’t ask for more details). Right now, they are deliberating whether or not to move to New Zealand for a year. Even though she would love to go, a year seems like a long time to be away from home, and from their puppy Nuki, a Shiba Inu (a Japanese breed).
This talk about exotic places leads us into a conversation about travelling, and Segarra’s impending trip to Italy after graduation. I tell her about all my times there and how she will definitely find beautiful things to photograph and hopefully fall in love with Venice like I have. At that moment we are interrupted by someone behind the counter quickly turning up the volume of the music to the maximum before bringing it back to what was a normal when I came in (which in the first place was more than a coffee shop should play). This serves as a queue to continue with the actual interview questions, and for me to stop talking about Italy.
One of Segarra’s series I found extremely interesting was one titled The Fringe, which was created before the idea of mariners came into her head. It was inspired by her interest in subcultures, and the type of modern bohemian. “I like to find people who are perhaps living on the verge, on the fringe of society, that may like to dress a certain way, or have a certain kind of lifestyle that isn’t considered the norm.” she says. And that is certainly visible in those photographs. The process of actually finding those people was somewhat unusual – “I encountered a lot of strange people. I found some people on Craigslist, that was, um, interesting. I always brought a friend!” she exclaims through laughter. Some were actresses or singers performing in Cambridge, some she met at a Steampunk Night at T.T. Bear’s, all of them were fascinating people who were more than happy to sit in front of Segarra’s old large format camera, in order for her to make the ‘vintagey’ portraits that she wanted.
And Segarra loves using her large format camera. She started out using film and it is now her main working material. “But I like digital too,” she claims, “I love combing them.” She used digital for one of her series where she took imagery from obscure movies that had scenes of women drowning. It seems as though Segarra’s fascination with water and how it affects lives is a constant in her newer work. For A Mariner’s Descendent, however, she used film, and again her large format camera. She also decided to use a difficult method of printing the images, called salt-printing. According to Segarra, it dates from the 1850s, and is extremely daunting. “I hated it when I first tried it. But I really liked the idea of using the salt as a metaphor for the sea. I became very interested in it, and then it got better.” But whether she really liked it or not, it resulted in a spectacular series of photographs that was featured in the Panopticon Gallery until this April 1st.
Answering the question of if she plans out her photographs, Segarra says “I’m an extremely neurotic person, so I’m a big planner. I usually have an image in my head that I want to achieve.” Because everything is about her thesis work now, she is always thinking conceptually and bringing out her large format camera. But when it comes to photographs she does for herself, she easily separates these two in her head, and is brave enough to admit, “Honestly, I use a lot of Instagram”, which in no way hurts her credibility, but just makes her one of us common people.
I once again get a cue from the outside world, this time in the form of the sun that has now started to set. Bright orange rays of sunlight are beaming through the large windows we are sitting next to, getting into our eyes and telling us the day is almost over, and the time for me to go has come. I shake Nikki’s hand, grateful for this opportunity she gave me to get to know who the person behind the intriguing photography is. I leave her to continue her work in this coffee shop that has actually grown on me in this hour spent between its walls. I realize the loud music, and laughter kept the atmosphere live, and molded our conversation in the best way possible. As I exit the door and walk past our window I give Nikki one last wave until our next meeting at her gallery exhibition. A girl of many trades, who has lead such an interesting life in her young years, will certainly continue to do so and continue to produce magnificent photographs.