by Alaina Mabaso
Havertown native Julia Blaukopf, whom Chestnut Hill residents might know from her permanent photography exhibition at Gravers Lane Gallery, 8405 Germantown Ave., faced a challenge upon graduation from the University of the Arts in 2006 with a BFA in photography — a challenge every artist knows but one with a humanitarian twist.
“I graduated and panicked,” she says now from her small, well-lit apartment in Fishtown, which serves as a live-in workspace. For most artists, figuring out how to launch a viable living in their chosen field is enough. But Blaukopf had even more in mind. “I wanted to do social justice work,” she says, but the difficulty of working with non-profits is the low or even non-existent pay.
A taste for travel — “especially uncomfortable travel” — began during a semester in Italy in the spring of Blaukopf’s sophomore year of college. She graduated from Haverford (public) High School and the University of the Arts downtown with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She liked fending for herself abroad so much that she took the rest of the summer to backpack through Eastern Europe, relishing the adventure of waking up in a new place each day.
The next year found her in central Kenya with a reforestation project, operated by local farmers with the help of the group “i-to-i Volunteering.” Their Ethical Travel initiative connects socially and ecologically conscious globetrotters with volunteer projects.
She spent five weeks in Naro Moru village at the base of Mount Kenya, staying with a local family and working with about 30 farmers planting trees, restoring a forest ravaged during Kenya’s time as a British colony as recently as the mid-20th century.
Her stay was challenging in some ways, since as a lactose-intolerant vegetarian she couldn’t partake of the typical local diet. It seems that a lot of Americans drawn to volunteering in Africa do not eat meat, contrary to the common perspective on Americans as citizens of the land of outsize hamburgers, Blaukopf’s hosts asked her why everyone in the US is vegetarian.
When she wasn’t volunteering with the tree-planting project, chatting with locals or scaling Mt. Kenya, Blaukopf was taking photos with her venerable Holga 120n film camera, whose images require considerable skill in the darkroom. Now, the small plastic camera has a place of honor in her Fishtown studio.
“That’s where my work started to form stylistically,” she says of her black-and-white Naro Moru images, which feature atmospheric portraits of working Kenyans at surprising angles, asking for an unusual engagement from the viewer. She was 22 at the time.
By her graduation, Blaukopf knew she wanted to use her photography to support and promote other charitable initiatives. She reached out to organizations like Human Rights Watch, and learned that they preferred their photographers to be permanently embedded in the areas they cover.
But an opportunity with Women In Progress, which aids female entrepreneurs around the world in supporting their families through their own business ventures, soon took wing. To work on a special photo documentary on women in Ghana, Blaukopf departed for five months in Ghana in the fall of 2006. The Philadelphia-based organization First Person Arts helped to sponsor her trip.
In addition to writing and photographing for Women In Progress, Blaukopf unwittingly began her first book. E-mails to friends and family back home about her experiences in Ghana were the seed of Rain Parade, a compilation of her written work, photographs and photographic collages.
A flood of residencies, grants and fellowships followed Blaukopf’s work in Ghana, and her subsequent travels included Lithuania, Copenhagen, Montreal and Sri Lanka. Her US exhibitions have appeared in Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon; Baltimore and New York City.
“Grants and residencies allow me to be a working traveler,” the 29-year-old says.
The photos from Blaukopf’s Ghanaian travels, a mix of film and digital photographs, many of which are printed large on media like vellum, bringing a whole new interplay of texture and light to the pieces.
As an artist, Blaukopf is drawn to sensory immersion, drenching her text and images with the sounds, feelings, sights and smells of her travels. This leads to a creative approach in her photography products, which include evocative images and portraits melded to small glass tiles or round, iridescent cadiz shells for one-of-a-kind jewelry.
“I want there to be questions,” she says of the narratives in her pictures. She likes creating a “dreamy”, ambiguous quality in her portraits, which tell their stories while defying the usual arc of beginning, middle and end. She is especially drawn to documenting craftspeople in their work, like the women in her Ghanaian portraits.
“It’s about empowering yourself through business,” Blaukopf says of the entrepreneurs she documents through Women In Progress. “Supporting yourself, creating your life, is the thrill.”
It’s a thrill Blaukopf can relate to as her dream career unfolds.
For more information on Julia Blaukopf’s work, visit http://www.juliablaukopf.com/.