UNT graduate student wins $20,000 prize for spiritual photography

UNT graduate student wins $20,000 prize for spiritual photography

November 10
14:38 2017

Bathed in the amber light of the darkroom, Trinity Kai realized this was where she was meant to be. Surrounded by faces and memories and her trusty camera, she knew it was what she was searching for.

And since then, things have been looking up for Kai.

Kai, a UNT graduate student, recently won a $20,000 grand prize and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington D.C. from the VSA Emerging Young Artists competition. The contest was devoted toward artists with disabilities and Kai was one of 15 winners chosen across the U.S. Her winning photo, titled “Insight,” will be touring the country in a year-long exhibition called “Electrify!”

“I grew up in a very conservative, religious family,” Kai said. “That body of work was really me trying to figure out what spirituality was for me personally and dealing with these memories of a very rigid religion and traumatic childhood experiences.”

Kai was born with oculocutaneous albinism, a genetic condition that results in lowered vision and extreme light sensitivity to the eyes and skin due to the lack of melanin in her body.  She can see as far as two to four feet in front of her. The effects of this condition classify her as legally blind.

Kai says inspiration for her work comes from personal experiences, philosophies and memories.

But one topic that her photography does not focus on is her disability.

“None of my work is about my vision,” Kai said. “It has no part of the meaning that I create. It has formed my process that I used to create and part of enjoying the analog and the historical exposure of film.”

Her disability merely helps form her work, and that has been a purposeful choice.

“Working as a self-portrait photographer, she shares her personal perspective and emotions about what it means to be different,” close friend Alecia Wells-Barton said.

Kai’s relationship with photography blossomed in her undergraduate years at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she majored in art education. Up until her junior year, Kai hadn’t quite clicked with a specific medium in art yet.

Things quickly changed when her introductory photography class held a pinhole camera day.

“They had made little pinholes out of Pringles cans, and we had paper negatives in the cameras,” Kai said. “That’s when I really fell in love with photography.”

Pinhole cameras have no lens and the end product cannot be seen until it is fully developed later. That, combined with the high-contrast, dream-like quality they produce, peaked Kai’s interest.

“This idea of being able to create images and not necessarily seeing what you’re creating was intriguing to me,” Kai said. “So It was just about learning what the camera sees and not necessarily what a photographer sees.”

When she is shooting, Kai says she likes that she is forced to rely on the material and her own understanding of the equipment. The point of not fully knowing or seeing the photo at the time has drawn Kai to continue using pinhole cameras in her current work. In fact, “Insight” was shot with one of them.

“I definitely got into photography by the unknown and having an image be created just based on light and not being able to see it,” Kai said.

In her photos, light is a common thread that runs through each one. Although photography is dependent on light, Kai says her work focuses on the presence and meaning of it. She supposes this is what her photography style is like whenever she shoots.

“Light is a pretty noticeable part of it,” Kai said. “My style definitely revolves around the use of light and the meaning of light in my images, and that kind of historical, traditional way of creating definitely appeals to me.”

In her search for self, Kai says she has become more interested in psychology. In her website biography, Kai states that she “turns the camera on herself in an attempt to create images that speak to spirituality, identity, and feelings of alienation.”

“A lot of it is from my exploration of psychology and trying to understand this kind of interconnectedness to the universe and nature,” Kai said.

Once she graduates, Kai says she hopes to move out of Texas and into a place where things are less spread out. Most importantly, she wants to teach in higher education.

However, she says she has no plans of straying from her work.

“Photography will always continue, but I definitely want to teach at the university,” Kai said.

Kai continues to produce more work and is currently busy working on multiple projects for her studies. She is far from slowing down.

“When I heard she was awarded the VSA grand prize, I immediately thought that no one deserves the recognition more than her,” Walls-Barton said. “She is a really special artist and human being.”

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Amy Roh

Amy Roh

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