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Brittney Cathey-Adams: Body Positivity Photographer

Brittney Cathey-Adams holds a camera on herself more than any subject she has documented.  These are not selfies, these are portraits.  These are portraits that tell a story only Cathey-Adams could tell.  

Check out more of her etherial work at

Nature began to integrate itself into Cathey-Adams work in the past few years.  It became a place of comfort to explore your art further.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You have been documenting yourself for over four years to my knowledge.  Why this need to explore the self?  Are you searching for something with this work?

At a point in my life, I had created a separation between the person I thought I was and the vessel in which housed it. This body did not match the person I knew myself to be, or so I thought. When that became clearer to me, I used this work to bridge that gap. I search through barriers I’ve built, walls I need to overcome and thoughts buried beneath the surface. My perspective was forever changed when I heard the words, “You are a single event in the history of this world that will never happen again.” This gave me permission to work from a point of self with so much dedication. I work from an internal space making connections, and forgiving myself for limitations I set, out of fear. For over six years, I have been photographing myself, and it changes every day let alone each year. I recently read something about art-making being a way to rewrite the history you never had; I think that is very beautiful, and rather than a documentation, I feel as though I’m translating strength into the places I didn’t allow myself to experience before. There are so many things in this world I am unsatisfied with in terms of how we portray a person of size, but instead of limiting myself, I replace with my work what I never had growing up. 

'Totem' from Emergence by Brittney Cathey-Adams.  Photo © Brittney Cathey-Adams

What keeps this body of work fresh?  And do you ever have what I call visual parsley where you step away and work on something else and then come back to finish the photographic entree?

Each photograph I make evolves into the next one. Sometimes I will step back from something that I just made, and I’m unsatisfied. I know that this had to be made to allow the space for the next piece to come. There has never really been a “project” for me but rather my work. My work will always change and sometimes I don’t see where something new began until a little later down the road. What inspires me can be other subjects I photograph outside of this work, other times it can be a song, a book, or a film, but most of the time it is the interaction I am blessed with in being a teacher. There is no better inspiration than being around the bravery of the students with whom I’ve worked. To be witness to falling in love with photography and to the power of their imagery keeps me the most inspired. Yet, at the same time, I never wait for inspiration; I know that in order to stay ahead it comes down to working. When I’m the most frustrated, the last thing I want to do is pick up the camera, but the only thing that can fix my frustration is to pick up the camera. A daily practice is very important whether that is sketching out the next image or creating the space to work.

Within the spotlights through the tree line Cathey-Adams demonstrates an inner strength in her work that self-portraiture demands.  Photo © Aimee Santos

With your latest work you are stepping out into the natural world which has an exhibitionist quality to it.  What do you feel you are gaining from walking around a forest nude?

When the word exhibitionist comes into play, I start to feel quite exposed, if that makes any sense. Don’t get me wrong, I know I use nudity in my work, but there is a way that I use it specifically, and that is to reveal. To reveal a body I found lacking in the art world – to claim this body as mine – was very important. I use this body not to talk about what it looks like but what it feels like. Often times I have come to work where a larger body is being used, and I walk away feeling cheap or unsatisfied. This body is much more complex than the associations tied to it. I use my own figure go beyond body image, beyond skin and beyond surface to build a perception of self. I replace the work I find problematic with one that has ownership and power. As far as walking around the forest nude, this is a part of the process. To create the internal landscape that I see in my mind, I look for specific textures or elements. In the reality of making the work, I do what I feel must be done in order to create the image. Whenever I come across any of the variety of landscapes I see, I think of it not as it is but what it could be. 

'Luminosity' by Brittney Cathey-Adams.  Photo © Brittney Cathey-Adams

Do you feel growing up in Humboldt county has helped shape your imagery?  Humboldt being a more organic environment as well as artistic.

My experience in both the magnificence and cruelty that nature possesses did start at a young age. I grew up admiring the ocean’s beauty but was also taught to fear and respect the dangerous waters.  These ideas still play into the work that I create now as the locations that I gravitate towards have this duality to them. They have been touched by the natural destruction that happens in nature while still possessing the beauty of reformation. Being from Humboldt County, I did grow up where the environment is very receptive to their local artists, and the landscape is vast and full of options from the river to the ocean. However, I knew that in order to survive as an educator, I needed to be elsewhere, but I will always bring with me what I have learned in my previous home. There is no denying my comfort within the space I photograph but I dedicate myself to following this work wherever it leads me next.

Brittney Cathey-Adams in one of her outdoor locations, all of which are a guarded secret.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You originated in the darkroom creating one of a kind works that took hours to make, then you went into the digital world accomplishing the same effect but on a larger scale.  What originated this shift and is there a happy marriage between the two?

For a variety of reasons, I started changing the way I work, but ultimately this shift occurred the most when I began to teach digital photography at San Jose State University. I had worked with digital before, but there was always a divide. My personal work always came from the darkroom while my commercial work was made with a digital camera. When I began to teach, I felt like that “wow-factor” of pixels and computers was missing. This doesn’t have to be the case; digital photography is a tool like everything else, and I slowly began to prove to myself that magic can happen with anything. I feel comfortable jumping between the two and still used both for my most recent works. Process isn’t logical; sometimes there might not be a concrete reason that film or digital sparks a photographer to make something, but I use whatever works for me. When it comes down to it, the magic of photography really lies in light and the ability to harness for the purpose of the work.

'Luminosity' by Brittney Cathey-Adams.  Photo © Brittney Cathey-Adams

Is there a project in your future that you have cooking in your imagination that does not involve documenting a part of your life?

 Whether the work appears internal or external from self, I cannot disregard that I have brought to it my own experience of the way I see this world. Each head carries with it the rare gift of unique sight, and I am really open with the fact that this is how I work, why I create, and the importance it has on me. Often times fear can keep us from making our own work, the work we are qualified to make. From early on in my photography I always took this fear and turned it around to welcome it. The work has to feel important to me, I have to be so invested that stopping doesn’t feel like an option. This is when I know I’m making no one else’s work but mine. I mentioned before, my work tends to evolve from the previous rather than projects, but I will say that I have other channels of work flowing in the background to what was highlighted during my graduate studies. These back channels are in there natural state of becoming clearer, but they weren’t bodies of work I was going to reveal during my academic career.  

Damien Adams is Cathey-Adams' life partner and husband.  He is an important aspect to her work and her secret weapon at times.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Do you think you are alienating a particular audience when your work is all about you?  

Sight beyond topic is necessary when coming to any work. I may not have been a part of Sally Mann’s family, nor grew up as her children, but to this day she remains an important artist for me because of her ability to evoke the senses. When I was first introduced to “Immediate Family”, I was stunned. Some images provoked laughter and joy while others brought a solemn feel to the intricacies of being a child. She didn’t make that work for me but it still touched me. Let me just put this question out there: if not a single person looked at your work, would you still make it? When we think of art, we also put it into the world to be seen, and that is very important to people and sometimes a part of that specific art, but for me, I have always made the work I need to make. This doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience, nor does this mean I don’t think it needs to be seen, but my work needs to be made – I feel that with every image I make. There will be some who will feel outside of what I do, and this is bound to happen, but then there are those that may come to these images and have some feeling move within them. Though not a concrete reflection I feel like these emotions come from a recognition of self within the work. To feel inspired by work is not to see work that looks like yours but who has made work so important and honest that it puts you on the path to searching for your own. 

'Beacon' from Emergence by Brittney Cathey-Adams.  Photo © Brittney Cathey-Adams

'Silver' of Emergence by Brittney Cathey Adams.  Photo © Brittney Cathey-Adams

You are half Mexican.  Is there a part of you that wants to explore this side of yourself and would it involve turning the camera on your family?

Correction: I am actually a quarter Hispanic from my Father’s side as well as Native American.

My multi-cultural roots have been complicated from the beginning, and I’ve slowly began navigating myself through them. I’m fair in complexion, so that gives me the privilege of whiteness, though I’ve often struggled when coming to terms with the other part of myself. I felt confusion as child when one of my school’s superintendent came in to tell me to check the “Caucasian/Non-Hispanic Decent” box on the STAR tests. She told me I looked white, so I was white. For various reasons, I never got to know the other side of my family, or ask my Grandmother what emigrating from Mexico was like, but I did come into the possession of some family negatives. My interest is there, and in general, I have always turned my camera on my family. Part of the back channels of work I spoke of previously is a lot of work on my Grandmother on my Mother’s side. She is very important to me, and I never want to forget the little things about her. Her stories, her laugh, the way she folds her napkin – they are all important. I have always used the camera to translate the emotions I feel into the visual language that I trusted in long ago.


Brittney Cathey-Adams currently resides in Santa Cruz County where she is looking for teaching jobs and currently teaching photography to youth in the Bay Area.