Greif Alumni: Q&A with Paula Rae Gibson


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us. Paula Rae Gibson has been featured in two of our Guest Rooms; Guest Room: Alessia Glaviano and Guest Room: Darius Himes. Gibson's photography journey began in her early 20's, following a life-changing car accident in Ecuador. She is a self-taught photographer, primarily focused on analogue and darkroom techniques, but she has also embraced digital photography more recently. Gibson's images are far from perfect; they are deliberately distressed and altered, reflecting her obsession with erasure and cancellation.

Her art is a captivating expression of vulnerability, violent tenderness, and naked heartbreak. It all started with the tragic cancer diagnosis and eventual loss of her husband when their daughter was just 20 months old. Through her lens, Gibson confronts the trauma of loss, capturing the visceral anguish and grief in every image. Her photographs don't offer solace but speak directly to the human experience of pain and longing. We caught up with Gibson to ask her about her photo story “NOTHING I WANT IS HERE, EXCEPT FOR HER”.

Der Greif: Firstly, welcome Paula! Can you tell us about the photo story “NOTHING I WANT IS HERE, EXCEPT FOR HER”? What inspired you to create this body of work?

This is very much a love story, a desperately sad story, as I lost my husband to cancer when our daughter was two years old. But foremost, it is a love story. The image of the kiss is from our spiritual wedding. We took ourselves off to Joshua Tree and read our vows, and later did the legal thing quietly. I bought an old camera on eBay, and this was the only image that came out of three rolls of film. It's a miracle. You can imagine how much that image means to me and our daughter. Just weeks after he passed, my photographs were all over the floor of my studio, as always, and our two-year-old was stepping on them, innocently playing, unaware of what had happened. She laid down on the photograph of her dad, and with tears streaming from my eyes, I took the photograph. Another little miracle. For many, many years, I was overwhelmed to be living on without him, parenting without him, overwhelmed by the beauty of her and him not being there to witness it. Taking photographs became my way of sharing the moment, sharing all she was and all she was growing into. On our first date, he said he would love to have a daughter with me. Perhaps he came into my life to give me her, the most precious gift ever. Even more so, as she is so much like him.

Der Greif: How do you feel this photo story relates to current events, particularly in light of Tina Turner's passing and your husband directing a movie about her?

Tina’s journey is mythic and the film captured all the agony and ecstasy of her so well. “What's Love Got To Do With It?” Everything.

Who we have by our side is of utmost importance to everyone; it affects every single aspect of our lives. And for artists like me, our art comes from our vulnerability. If I'm with someone who only cares about how much money I make or if I'm playing the game to impress 'It' people at dinner, my vulnerability will close up, leaving me without access to myself. We all go through so much in life. Our hearts are ripped out in various ways. We encounter those who try to prevent us from being our true selves, who are jealous of our thirst for freedom and authenticity, and who undermine us due to their own insecurities. But when we choose to walk away from all that, as Tina did, and only accept those who truly love us in our lives, when we know our own worth and set boundaries, the boundless can happen. Isn't it a relief to know that Tina found happiness after everything she had gone through and all the music she gave us? She found someone who truly loved her for 37 years. Not many people seem to achieve that, not that relationships should be measured solely by time, but by depth. True love heals us; it rights the wrongs... I am sustained by the love my husband bestowed upon me. It's what keeps me afloat. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" is a question we should constantly ask ourselves about each and every relationship we have in our lives. All we have is time, and we can't waste it on the wrong people.

Der Greif: Could you elaborate on the connection between your personal story and the themes explored in your images? How does the loss of your husband play a role in the narrative?

It's all hindsight as I work instinctively, even explosively. So now I can say... I was battered, I was torn, I was fragile, and I wanted all of this to be reflected in the images. It wasn't a conscious decision in the way I printed them; they just happened naturally as I didn't question what I was doing. I didn't interfere with my natural response. Perhaps being self-taught helps with all of this, as you don't even see yourself as a photographer or artist since you don't have a degree to validate it. You're just feeling your way through hell in the best way you know how. Grief feels like fear; I was terrified of everything, and worst-case scenarios inundated me. I want my prints to look lived-in; these aren't photographs to handle with white gloves. I want life to be all over them. I'm always exploring timelessness, the generations behind me, behind all of us. I loved, loved, loved my grandmother; she was a widow for many decades. These images could be of her looking at her deceased husband. What is time? Thousands of yesterdays ago feels like today to me.

Der Greif: You mentioned that the prints are all one-off, and you purposely destroyed the negatives. What motivated this intentional act, and how does it contribute to the overall concept of your work?

In a world hooked on mass productions, with galleries even requesting different sizes of the same print, I wanted something different. I wanted one singular, limited print that stands like a painting. It exists and could fade away, disappear, or become just a memory in a split second. These prints are as fragile as life itself.

Der Greif: Can you discuss the process of finding a path with your daughter after the trauma of losing your husband? How does this journey manifest in your photographs?

Well, the path definitely wasn't straightforward. My husband wanted me to move on; three months before he died, he told me I must find another man and continue to love. When he passed away, I had dreams in which he calmly told me he was gone, and I would be desperately pulling him back to me, crying and screaming, 'I can't do this without you.' I had made him my home, so where would I live now? I did meet other people, but no one who made me want to stay with them so far. I think when you're in that state of loving someone else, unconsciously you choose someone you could never love as much. It's because you feel that you emotionally cannot afford to love so deeply ever again. On top of all this, I felt guilty for loving him so much, so I couldn't just move on and have a sibling for our daughter at the drop of a hat. Emotionally, it didn't work that way for me. I got engaged three times but always ran away. Men seemed to compete with my attention for my daughter and my love for my husband. They didn't really understand my love for my work as they wanted 'us' to revolve solely around 'them.' I couldn't settle for being in a 'second best' place. I had experienced it all, so why would I settle for anything less? Having a child gives you structure and discipline. Her needs became my guide. An amazing therapist told me that widowhood is a special pass into a new world where I might want a man by my side, but I wouldn't need a man ever again. 'Women need women. Men need women. Women do NOT need men.' That's because we can take care of ourselves, value ourselves, and nurture ourselves. Find women friends who are nurturing. Of course, you don't want competitive, jealous, or needy women. No woman needs them. They are a drain.' - Beverly Dennis."

Der Greif: How do you see your work resonating with a wider audience? Are there specific messages or emotions you hope to evoke through your images?

I have been making photographs out of necessity, you might say. They teach me about life, about myself, and allow me to deeply connect with people in an instant. They have the power to turn the ugly into the beautiful and bring balance to my life. I suppose I search for beauty. Beauty, to me, is what makes me sigh and reminds me of all the feelings I have without even realizing it. But as Debussy said, a work of art or an effort to create beauty can be seen by people as a personal attack. That deeply saddens me, that people can become so broken that they shy away from authentic emotions for good. Perhaps my photographs can be like sad songs—as sad as they are, they uplift you. There is nothing like truth, like feeling truth. It reminds you that you are alive, and that the fight to be yourself was worth it. Life is beautifully imperfect. [Another reason why I guess I aim for the imperfect print.] Everyone is grieving someone or something—many will know what it's like to love someone so much that the thought of living without them is unbearable. But through the journey of my work, I have come to understand that all I ever needed in a man is inside me. I am whole now. I feel in control now. I have incredible relationships, and I know more wonderful people than I ever dreamed possible.

Der Greif: Could you provide insights into your creative process? How do you approach photographing personal and intimate subjects while maintaining a sense of artistic integrity?

I work in many ways, sometimes with art paper, using liquid emulsion to make it light-sensitive. Or textured photographic paper. And more recently, I use museum archive digital papers, though the work on the images is all done by hand. This matters to me. It doesn't get me excited sitting at a computer.

Der Greif: Can you elaborate on the significance of the title, "NOTHING I WANT IS HERE, EXCEPT FOR HER"? How does it encapsulate the essence of your story?

This title shows my emotional state when he died. Reminds me exactly how I felt. Feel out of reach, life bursts at the seams, nothing i want is here, except for her I know life takes it’s turns, no-ones here for good, I’m lost in a maze, dead ends and more dead ends… feel everywhere all over the place with scribbles as a face. Another title for this work is WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOREVER [ what my husband said to me when he asked to marry me] Take the brush from the side Run it through your hair Apply a tiny bit of mascara to your eyes Rub a thin bit of colour on your quivering lips Slip into the most beautiful black dress you bought blindly only yesterday. zip up your black boots that fit like glove, god how he'd approve a woman's only naked with her boots on march all the way up the hill One foot in front of the other eyes on nothing but if looks could kill she'd be gunning down the world and it's mother stop buy another bottle slip it down top to tail keep walking ignore the sights collected by your mind from the room with the dying only sign take it in the sea of black before you the tide could kill the tide could kill husband in a box all that love and look what you’ve got We need to express ourselves to remember who we are, to not get lost in a borrowed, dumbed-down existence (which surely will only add up to a life full of regrets and panic as we lay on our deathbeds).

Der Greif: Lastly, what does the future of your photographic practice look like?

Well, now that I have accessed more of myself, I am ready to explore other worlds, in a real way of course. My daughter is happy at uni, she is blossoming, so I have time, time to delve into the timelessness. I am photographing a lot of nudes, women I run into who spark that authentic thing, who make me want to know them more by photographing them. Who knows, maybe I will photograph more men. I have no set plans as that could get in the way, but my destination is to make sure life always touches me in the deepest way. And if I can touch others…