Wild + Wise: Karen Graffeo



This Mother's Day, we're celebrating Mom and all of the amazing women in our lives with profiles of six women who have inspired us. The group includes Karen Graffeo, a photographer and Professor of Art who has worked extensively in documenting Europe's Roma community. Read on for her story, and find all of our Wild + Wise profiles here.

When asked why she became a photographer, Karen Graffeo says, "For me, photography pulls together all the other arts that I love: theater, sculpture, painting. It's a dynamic form of painting and serves as a kaleidoscope filled with pieces of the things I care about. It brings together fragments and broken things." A Professor of Art at Alabama's University of Montevallo, Karen says that she doesn't search for inspiration -- instead, it finds her. Her photography focuses on people displaced from their traditional homes, and explores how they carry the concept of home within themselves. Drawn to the intimacy of photography and its capacity to emphasize shared human worth, she says, "Being a photographer is like being a midwife -- I get to be the first person to touch the stories of these people and places." 

For fifteen years, Karen has traveled among the Roma (Gypsy) communities and refugee encampments of Europe doing documentary photography. She says, "The Roma are the greatest survivors, and it's incredible how they have preserved their rituals, traditions, and identity through so many generations of displacement. One of the things that most amazes me is how they've carried and passed on their language, which is based on Sanskrit."

"It's so essential to listen deeply, and to hear where people come from. Storytelling is a medicine for the world. In the blink of an eye, someone can reveal the soul."


For another exhibit, Karen traveled to Cuba to photograph the trans community in Havana. In her work there, she was inspired by a quote from photojournalist Robert Capa: "Like the people you shoot and let them know it." Karen says, "For people who so often feel that their body isn't what they want it to be, and who have had to self-define their own gender, it was important to keep photographing until I could give a loving rendering. I wanted to capture the warmth and trust in this community, so I shot in kitchens and bedrooms to feel close to each person. Making these connections with people who have had the courage to self-define, I was humbled and learned so much about myself, too. The camera lens points both ways."

As a teacher, Karen believes that her students should step away from the places they feel comfortable, and explore what can be gained through challenging who they really are. She strives to be truthful to her students, and to help them achieve the discipline to be taken seriously. She says, "I encourage my students to embrace awe and humility, and to build their abilities through discipline and a love of their work. To take joy in doing each thing to the best of their ability. Many people want to be artists, but those who are happiest work on their craft all the time. As a mentor in art, you need to show students that they're worth trying their hardest."

Karen describes photography as "an authentic space where there's no holding back." She says that being out in the world as a photographer has shown her how strong she is, and how lucky she is. Photography has also opened her to the stories and experiences of others. "When I started, my heart was a condo in terms of its capacity to absorb stories, but now my soul feels like a mansion."

Who inspires you?
Karen says, "My family matriarch, known as "Mama Pearl," was a great inspiration to me. Growing up in Mississippi, she wasn't allowed to swim for reasons of propriety. When I was young, she supervised our swimming outings, where she had a dependable ritual. She would scold us children from the sandy, rocky shore of the creek, wade in for more emphasis, then stumble all the way into the water. Finally, she would announce, 'Now that I am wet, I might as well swim.' Once she was in the water, she was a powerful swimmer. Mama Pearl taught me that there are times when you have to dive in, to go against the water."

Find all of our Wild + Wise stories here, or tell us about the Wild + Wise women in your life on Instagram! Tag your photos of them #terrainwildandwise, and we'll celebrate them and all of you by sharing a few favorites on Mother’s Day.

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