An Interview with Hailey Burling

Hailey Burling, my best friend and aspiring photographer, has submitted her senior thesis at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her project, titled The Unsettling, will be displayed at the “While I Was Away” virtual event on Monday, May 10, 2021. Her passion and dedication to her work are what have inspired me to chase my own dreams. Her work in The Unsettling is something like I have never seen before and the countless hours of work she has put into it are seen through the attention to composition and detail. 

 

Tell me a bit about yourself:

I am from the eastern part of Long Island, a suburban area. I live in a tiny town, everybody knows each other, and I could get to [New York City] in an hour and a half. I go to the Fashion Institute of Technology in Chelsea Manhattan in the heart of New York City; so, it's a perfect spot for art and design and fashion students. I am a photography and related media major and minoring in art history and film study. I have done two years at FIT, and I'm getting my BFA. The two years before the FIT, I attended Suffolk County Community College for my associate’s degree in photographic imaging.

 What is your favorite part about studying at FIT?

My favorite part? Before COVID hit, I felt like my favorite part was getting the experience and the feedback from professors and other students about my work and learning about different fields of photography, and being more conceptual about art in general. At Suffolk [Community College], it was very commercial and more focused on the technicality of things. Hence, being at FIT was nice because it kind of took images to a whole new level that I didn’t know existed. I guess being remote, it’s still good, but there isn’t that level of connection or feedback anymore. Critiques are excellent because that’s where you get the most feedback from your peers, and now it’s kind of like everything is shared on screen, and you don’t do prints anymore, which kind of sucks. All in all, I’ve learned a lot at FIT.

Tell me about your senior thesis. 

My senior thesis is titled The Unsettling. It is a series of cinematic thriller tableaus. There are about six that I have completed so far, but it is a project that I will continue in the future. My inspiration came from my childhood memories, growing up and watching thriller films. Having that visceral feeling of my heart racing and palms sweating, falling into the story because of how much it’s grabbing your attention. So I wanted to create images that kind of threw you into the sense of disbelief, where you are on the edge of your seat whether this is real or not. The narratives within my images are derived from the movies and books that I would watch and read growing up. The style of my photographs was very much inspired by tableau photographs which are very focused on staging and lighting and telling a story with one image.

Who inspired you?

My childhood, but mostly the stories that I grew up around. I just love movies that make me feel a certain way, specifically thrillers. I love the feeling of jump scares, my heart pounding, and wondering what’s going to happen next. Gregory Crewdson and Philip-Lorca diCorcia are both tableau photographers as well as director and story writer M. Night Shyamalan. I like the way that he directs his films — and Stephen King, a phenomenal suspenseful thriller author was an inspiration. A lot of the stories that I find more intriguing are stories with mystery, extraterrestrial, supernatural, things that feel somewhat otherworldly. Things that you and I would never experience in our lives. 

What is your favorite photo from your collection?

I would have to say “Teddy” is my favorite. It’s a little girl walking into a barn, holding her teddy bear, wearing pajamas, no shoes or socks. And you can tell that she has woken up in the middle of the night and she is entering this barn and in the hay room, you can see a light being cast and all you see is a hand and some hair and I feel like that narrative that I’m trying to tell is ambiguous but still suspenseful enough that you don’t know what will happen to the little girl or what happened to the lady in the hay room. It’s a mixture of all of these different things that make it feel like there is suspense or friction, which is the goal of my thesis. 

If you could do your senior thesis over again is there another topic you would be interested in?

I’ve thought about this before. I don’t know, that’s a really great question! The thesis that I’m doing now is something I’ve never really done before. I’ve done an assignment where we have had to create a tableau and then that one assignment kind of triggered this whole project. I was thinking about, still related to this type of work, writing a short story, because I am very much inspired by Stephen King and his writings, and then pairing the story with photos that resembled a film. Each image would resemble a screenshot or still frame from the movie and would be in chronological order of how the events played out in the story. You could read the story and then look at the images, or look at the images and then read the story, or flip back and forth and it would all make sense. I even thought about doing a voiceover as you look at the images or just having the images as the only thing you look at… I thought about doing more of a writing component with this, but I decided not to do that. I wanted to have more variety in my photographs. Instead of one long story with multiple images, I wanted to do one image one story and then completely change it up in the next frame. 

What would you tell younger Hailey who wanted to become a photographer?

Don’t stress out so much! Don’t be such a perfectionist. I feel like a lot of the time, I had a constant battle in my own brain where I wanted to go out and be shooting because I had all of these ideas but I’m too afraid to do them. It all stems from not shooting. You need to keep shooting and working because it’s the only way that you’re going to be better and have confidence in doing other things because the longer that time goes on and you’re not constantly practicing or moving forward, you’re going to have a harder time catching up. I wish I experimented more and shot more instead of being so critical and not shooting because I needed to micro-manage and missing out on a learning experience or failing because that’s the best way you learn.

I know what I would tell younger you. The same thing I actually told younger you… Stop comparing yourself to others.

Ya, that too. That was definitely a big thing. It’s weird because now that I’m surrounded by more photographers there are different levels that I see. More people who have different styles, tastes, personalities. It’s easier to not compare myself because everyone is so different. That’s what’s so interesting about art —  you compare yourself, you are trying to subconsciously mimic them or copy them and at FIT it’s all about individuality and being unique and finding your own voice. I think I figured that out a lot later than most, but it clicked when I started working on my thesis. I finally started to do what I wanted and developed my own vision of how I wanted things. For a long time, I was just catering to what the professors wanted for assignments, so I felt controlled. But the thesis is what was important to me and allowed me to look more inward. I felt I had the most growth this past year than my other years in school.

 

As a reminder, the date of Hailey’s online exhibition is Monday, May 10, 2021. I am in love with her work, and if you are too, feel free to follow her journey on Instagram @hailey_burling. I’m so proud of what she has accomplished in her time at FIT and I can’t wait to see what she does in the future!