Only by leaving things behind could photographer Molly Steele see—and share—the world more fully.
Editors: Allison Geller, Irene Huhulea, Mark Uzunian
Interview: Jessica Marvin, Georgette Maniatis, Saskia Ketz
Photography: Molly Steele. Photo of Molly Steele by Frances F. Denny
AWT: What got you started as a photographer?
Molly Steele: I was traveling on research trips for my botany studies. A lot of people like to illustrate what they see, but I take a lot of time with my illustrations so it was just easier to take a photo and then draw it later. I was shooting a lot on these research trips, and I was able to go places that were really special and maybe not accessible to the general public. I just ended up taking a lot of photos while being out and that developed into more landscape photography.
AWT: Are you still studying botany?
MS: No, I’m taking an extended hiatus from school to explore photography. While I miss studying and working with botany very much, I needed a break from schedules and academia. From that break I’ve been able to honor other interests and career paths.
AWT: Your Instagram is very successful (30K followers). How do you feel about that? Did you know what you were trying to do when you started it?
MS: I love it. It was never my intention to have a following on social media and that’s obvious in my early posts.
AWT: From your huge following, it seems like you’re doing what many people wish they could do.
MS: It’s an escape, both for me and for others. I just made my career my escape. Money, bills, expectations, schedules, other people. Life is set up really poorly. We are born and we have to work for the rest of our lives. We pay money for things or pay rent every month or a mortgage and bills and go to work every day. Who likes going to work? We learn to love our jobs or we find a job that we love, but why do we even have to have a job? Who am I living for if I’m going to work every day for somebody else?
But what I’m doing isn’t easy either. I’m not going on vacation to Tahiti and sailing on a boat in the sunshine. It’s all a challenge, I just chose a different set of challenges. To me this is “going to work.”
I’ve been doing these trips to work on photography, to learn more about myself and other people. Everybody has a different escape. It’s watching TV once a year, or for other people, they go on a camping trip once a year. It happens in every direction. I guess I don’t really like myself in the real world. I don’t like my socialized self. I hate small talk, I hate networking, fraternizing. I don’t speak very comfortably.
That’s why I started hostessing actually. Two years ago my social anxiety reached an unsustainable level. I’m getting older and I can’t just be this total mess when I try to have a conversation with somebody. Being a hostess forced me to have small dialogue with multiple people all the time. It really changed me. I can speak comfortably about myself now, but I panic talking about anything else. I am very crass, filterless. Most of my friends are guys. When I go into social situations I panic and say awful, inappropriate things. I think all of my friends would agree that that’s something I probably need to work on.
AWT: Especially in New York or Los Angeles, we’re pressured to always be “on,” to fill up every second of our day while still embodying the composed woman. But sometimes silently observing our surroundings has much more value.
MS: I don’t know if I could live without solitude. I don’t know if I would still be alive without having found that for myself. It’s just what I need to exist. I appreciate intimacy, whether it’s an object, or in nature, or following somebody walking around alone when they’re having an intimate experience—I think they call it stalking. [Laughs] I really appreciate observing minimalism in this way. I find joy and purity in being quiet with someone in that way.
AWT: It seems like Instagram is bringing forth a new type of emerging artist where people are curating their spaces much like small galleries.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. It takes photojournalism to a new and more accessible place. You don’t have to read a publication to see a series. I use it to tell stories in a way, which I’ll be doing more with film now. It’s just been really easy to do it on Instagram.
AWT: There are even a few that seem to be making it as professional photographers using iPhones as their primary means of shooting. We see you’ve been doing some traveling with Kevin Russ, one of the earliest iPhone photographers.
MS: Kevin has done very well as an iPhone photographer exclusively for the past couple years. And now, ever since he and I traveled together in February, he’s shooting film. I think our work is very much influenced by the other’s. I have a new respect for iPhone photography as a career because I’ve spent so much time with him. There are people who get paid a lot of money as social media photographers that travel and shoot photos exclusively for Instagram. It’s a whole new job. It’s not a job that I’m personally interested in, but it has allowed me to get to where I am with notoriety and building a network of friends of photographers.
AWT: How did you end up linking up with Kevin Russ in the first place? Was he already one of your influences or vice versa?
MS: I guess he was an influence on me but it’s not like he made me want to do anything that I wasn’t already doing. It’s just that he was doing what I wanted to be doing full-time.
We’ve built a really special friendship that I appreciate very much. We work similarly. I’ve always been fairly ballsy with just reaching out to strangers. I emailed Kevin asking him for suggestions about where to travel in Oregon. Typically when I get emails like that I don’t respond, so I’m surprised that Kevin responded.
I don’t think that generally he does either. I was planning to live in a camper in January, and I emailed him again and asked him if he would want to pick up a camper and drive it down to LA for me. I think he was surprised that I was asking all of these weird things without knowing him.
Finally, in February I was going through an annoying break-up and just couldn’t be in LA anymore, it was driving me crazy. I decided I would go on a trip and I invited him to come. I didn’t think he would respond and told myself that if he didn’t I would stop emailing him. But he ended up getting back to me and said, “Do you want to come with me to meet up with homeless kids and hop trains from here to probably New Orleans?” I told him, “I can’t do that, I have two jobs, I’m in school, there’s no way I would be able to do that.” But he asked me two or three more times over the course of a month and I kept thinking about it.
I think we are so bombarded by inspiration that it’s intimidating. It makes it difficult for me to make decisions because there are so many things that I suddenly want to buy or do or see.
AWT: So when you emailed him back you left it open-ended?
MS: I told him, “Oh, that sounds amazing, but I’m not able to do that financially. I’d have to quit my jobs that I’ve had for a long time and I’m not that person to just disappear.”
It kept eating at me. I was going to Vermont that week to visit my best friend and I called my dad the day before my flight and said, “I’m going to Vermont tomorrow, but I have this other crazy opportunity. It requires me to quit all my jobs, I will be living in a squat in the most dangerous part of New Orleans, I will probably get arrested, I will probably get robbed, maybe worse, but I can’t get it out of my head.” My dad told me over two hours on the phone that I should do it 100 percent. An hour into the conversation, I put him on speaker and started recording it, the conversation was so motivating. He was telling me that doing things like that, taking those big risks, even if they’re crazy, are the things that color you as a person and create your character when you’re older. He said, “Even if you do get arrested, or robbed, or worse, you will be a different person because of this trip. It could go right, it could go very wrong, but you’re always going to think about it if you don’t do it.”
I really look up to my dad. He’s a very organized and rational person. For him to be telling me to do that, I had to take him seriously. I quit my job the next morning and got on a plane that night. I just knew if I did that trip, if I quit my jobs and really committed to doing that without a return flight home, that it would be my way of jumping into photography in a more serious way. I was intentionally going on a trip to shoot subjects outside of my comfort zone. And I did.
AWT: You had to strip away so many things in order to really listen to yourself. How do you connect to the idea of minimalism?
MS: As much as I’d like to, I haven’t yet found a connection with minimalism. I have a lot of stuff that I feel attached to. For that trip I packed as lightly as I could because I needed to be able to travel easily with only a backpack. After living that way for a month, I liked coming home and getting back to my things, but also felt so appreciative of that lesson in lightness and being without.
AWT: What is it in particular about traveling alone that intrigues you?
MS: It just feels right. It’s not like I wanted to travel alone, but because I grew up pretty much alone, I just feel so much more comfortable being in solitude. When I’ve traveled with other people, I find that I’m not as much a part of my environment as I am when I’m alone. I’m not tempted to go down a weird path or drive down an unmarked road because I have somebody else that I’m worried about. I get overly concerned with the other person’s needs. Traveling alone means I can do anything that I want and spend a lot of time doing nothing. I really wouldn’t have it any other way. My solitude, that’s where I’m really stubborn.
If it doesn’t make you happy, stop doing it and do something else that feels more true to you.
AWT: With that being said, what is the message you are trying to spread?
MS: You do what you want, whatever makes you happy. If it doesn’t make you happy, stop doing it and do something else that feels more true to you.
AWT: Lately you’ve been taking a lot of photos of makeshift forts. They seem so special to you—can you tell us about them?
MS: Kevin and I had built those because I was having a really rough week. I wasn’t exercising my imagination and doing the things that I really wanted to do. The process of building the forts was five to eight hours a day of us mostly working in silence, one stick at a time. That experience was so deeply meditative for me. One day we were building and it was snowing and raining on us, and we were just having a direct interaction with our environment.
We are so quick these days. Relationships escalate quickly and we are always looking at a lot of content at once. Taking one act and following through from A to B, working with one medium, not having our phones, not having city noise, not really speaking, not listening to music—it’s almost impossible to do now. Traveling alone, being in nature, going to places where I generally don’t have reception forces me to live more minimally because otherwise I would go crazy with the amount of things affecting me.
AWT: Were there any particularly meaningful moments?
MS: I feel like I have those moments every time I go somewhere; that’s what keeps me doing it. Once you step out and you appreciate the simplicity of nature, those things are so profoundly special. When I sit here in the city and I think about a bird flying by, it’s just a bird flying by. But when I’m outside and the most vivid blue jay flies by and there’s nothing else taking my attention away, it suddenly becomes an experience. I feel that constantly. Being in a hot spring when suddenly it starts pouring rain and snowing on top of you and it’s sunrise—it’s incredible.
But those opportunities are endless. You just have to be there for them. Allowing yourself to be present somewhere in any situation is when you’re able to experience it in the most unadulterated way.
AWT: We’re going to give you a few words, one at a time. Tell us what they make you think of.
MS: Stuff. Stuff is a really big thing. People love buying gear, people love buying food, people love buying things that are packaged and then all of it gets forgotten. I’ve really tried to reduce my consumption. Some things will bring me joy, but I don’t want to be a consumer-based person. I don’t want my experiences relying on that. I still like buying things, of course. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m buying, what value it will add to my life, how long will I be able to use it, and what’s the quality and the integrity put into it.
MS: I’m only just now having positive relationships with women. I grew up always close to the masculine energies in my life and I still prefer that. I think that I just haven’t quite found the women around me that operate in the same way that I do, so it’s much easier for me to just have guy friends.
Now I’m finding for the first time a very supportive group of women that make me want to understand that emotional support and closeness. I didn’t even hug women until I was 21 or 22 years old. Now I’m able to cry on someone’s shoulder and really appreciate the value in it.
I don’t know what my relationship is with being a woman. I’ve always been girly. My mom was a huge tomboy and I rebelled against that and I didn’t understand women because of it. I’m trying to learn how to allow myself to embody womanhood, to understand our strengths as a gender, which are so much bigger than what I ever wanted to acknowledge.
MS: I’ve never felt very creative, but I’m just now coming into my own creativity. I’m figuring out that I can apply my painting style or my interest in fashion into my photos. Creativity is a new venture for me and one that has never come naturally.
MS: That’s a new platform for me. I’ve only known inspiration for a few months and it has come for me in really overwhelming waves of deep sadness. When I’m feeling inspired, or at least the three times that I’ve felt inspired, they were because there were so many things that I wanted to be doing that I wasn’t doing. Simple things, the forts being one of them. I desperately asked, “Kevin, can we please do this? I need to carry out the act. I can’t just have this idea.” I think we are so bombarded by inspiration that it’s intimidating. It makes it difficult for me to make decisions because there are so many things that I suddenly want to buy or do or see.
Carrying out the act, making that move, even if it turns out to not have been the best decision, I think that’s much more powerful than to feel inspired by all these things and not do anything with it.