Jenn Heflin Captures Her Subjects’ Spark

The Alameda photographer is inspired by nature, art, history, and, particularly, people.


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Photos by Jenn Heflin

Alameda photographer Jenn Heflin likes wide open vistas. Growing up in the Arizona desert between Phoenix and Tucson, she became accustomed to miles and miles of open space set under beautiful, dramatic skies. Her parents owned a small trucking company, and as a child she spent breaks and summers on the road traveling from California to Florida. Her mother always had the latest point-and-shoot camera and would encourage her to do “something interesting” when she was being photographed. Grabbing the camera herself, she applied that same idea to capturing snapshots of all the curious people she met at truck stops, diners, and parks.

Heflin attended Arizona State University, picking up her first professional camera for her college newspaper with the goal of creating a good visual for a story she’d written. “Unfortunately, that camera got stolen, so it was back to point and shoots for a few years until I got a job with a real newspaper that came with its own camera and the objective of capturing the soul of every story,” she said.

After college, she moved to Telluride, Colorado, where she worked as a marketing manager for a community art school. In 2008, she moved to San Francisco, seeking a bigger pond, and found work as a marketing professional for nonprofits in the HIV field. “I moved to Alameda after meeting my husband in 2013. At that point, I launched myself into photography, realizing that was where I had always belonged,” Heflin said.

Over the last five years, she’s been fortunate to make a living by shooting commercial photography by day and portrait projects by night.

As a photographer, Heflin is inspired by nature, art, history, and, particularly, people. “I am honored to sit and work with people to capture their spark,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she admires photographers Irving Penn, Imogen Cunningham, and Dorothea Lange. She also highly regards painters Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Egon Schiele, and Paul Klee. “The common thread among them is that they capture the distinct personalities of who people are beneath the surface,” she said.

While working for the community art school in Colorado, one of her duties was to plan, market, and help hang exhibitions. There she met clay artist and mentor Julie McNair. “She helped me see art from a creative and hands-on perspective. All the while, I soaked up the energy of being around incredibly talented artists and how they created beauty and interesting pieces out of their blood, sweat, and tears,” she said. This is when she decided to focus on creating collections that tell a multifaceted story of people, time, and place.

 

Heflin’s first gallery show stemmed from a project photographing 52 women and men in various landscapes around Alameda, one each week for a year.

As she considered what to do next, she was driven toward capturing images of women from all walks of life in a portrait project combining still photos with their own words. “As powerful as images can be, I felt that giving my subjects voices about their influences and what they feel needs to change could be even more inspiring,” she said. That is how her WOMAN 2020 was born, a photo essay featuring portraits and interviews with women of all shapes, sizes, and ages during this time of change in America, giving their perspective on the challenges we all face.

Heflin grew up watching the women in her family struggle with traditional and societal pressures, not being able to attend school and working in factories. And she experienced her own roadblocks as she came into her own career. Having a daughter propelled her to consider even more that society must change now for the next generation of women to thrive.

“We cannot go on this way any longer,” she said.

Heflin is a natural storyteller, fascinated since childhood with learning more about everyone around her. She remembers at age 6 or 7 sorting through her parents’ giant Justin boot box of Polaroids of extended family at holidays and just doing ordinary things, which made a lasting impression.

“Stories have internal power that can change the way we look at our world, show us how to navigate and improve it for the better,” she said.

In the studio, Heflin said the longer she shoots a subject, the fewer images she takes, having broken through the barrier of self-consciousness to discover the unique qualities and mannerisms of each person. Later, she adds accents to the foundation already laid. “I like to move like a painter and create something thoughtful and perhaps even thought provoking,” she added.

For the project, Heflin put together a list of questions to go with the session photographs, based on what she would have asked women 50 or 100 years ago — questions she feels are especially relevant now.

 

With WOMAN 2020, Heflin’s hope is that viewers will immerse themselves in the images and find inspiration and common ground in the stories. And ultimately, feel compelled to help move the needle forward for women everywhere. In a sense, Heflin’s work remains in the realm of those wide open vistas of her youth; reflecting the breadth of space that resides within each of the women while aiming to break through the boundary lines to open the external scene into a wider, more expansive landscape for women to shine. Heflin plans to do 20 large-scale portraits and exhibit the collection in the spring of 2020. View her progress on her website, which is JennHeflin.com/woman2020, and read the women’s interviews on her blog.

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