New Rules Photographer Rhiannon Adam on creative control

Cover Image - New Rules
WordsGem Fletcher

Feeling like an outsider and being able to shapeshift in different contexts has always been an important aspect of Rhiannon Adam's storytelling process. These qualities were born from her early life spent living aboard a boat as her father chased his dream of a nomadic life at sea. The reality of chasing utopia was far from the fantasy, and Rhiannon describes the experience as “being a victim of myth-making.” Catalyzed by her early life experiences, Rhiannon's creative practice is about embracing the unknown and debunking idealism, constantly scratching away at the veneer of life to find something real. Here, she talks about creative control, the medium's materiality, and how embracing the possibility of failure might be our greatest mark of success.

This feature is part of “New Rules: Navigating photography’s unfixed future,” our downloadable guide to the ever-changing photography industry. The full guide can be downloaded below.

I quantify whether a risk is worth taking by whether I think it will create any positive change. Photography is a great conduit for conversation, and that's not just when the work is out in the world; it's the conversations you have throughout the making process with outsider perspectives. 

We spend so much time trying to control every element of our lives and work, consciously comparing ourselves to others. We leave very little up to chance these days. Especially as you get older, it becomes even harder because you get stuck in your ways. For me, engaging with the physicality of photography is a meditative process, and you can relinquish an element of control through its materiality, especially using analog processes. There is adrenaline and excitement in this element of risk. You never know if it will work or not!

Longboat Moss Pitcairn Island Expired Polaroid
Longboat Moss Pitcairn Island Expired Polaroid

Since the beginning of my career, I've been devoted to Polaroid and, therefore, working towards the death of the medium. At some point, the Polaroid Pack film will not work, so this element of chance and passage of time is embodied in the image's materiality. Photography sets itself apart from every other medium in this sense. It can offer a commentary on its own presence. 

Introducing the element of risk into my work is a great leveler and sustains me when working with quite heavy subject matter. In putting myself in a vulnerable position, I always hope other people will be more willing to be vulnerable. I'm interested in simultaneous truths, and the materiality of a photograph also allows for a breadth of interpretation.

Ships Landing
Ships Landing
Down Rope
Down Rope

Personally, I think the risk of embarking on the dearMoon Project is great. It's not just me being catapulted into space and the obvious risks of being blown up in a rocket, although I feel less petrified about that. I may have underestimated the risk that being selected means I'm no longer anonymous. That lack of anonymity impacts my other projects as my chameleonic qualities—the power to be a blank canvas—are a lot more difficult. I've realized it's now going to take a lot more legwork to get to that grit that I once was able to witness. 

dearMoon is such an overwhelming opportunity, something you can never repeat. I need to make work that justifies the mission, and that feels like such a heavy burden to bear. No one knows how it will work, and I have to be okay with the fact that it might not work—and that might be part of the story. So, I'm embracing this sense of chaos. Instead of trying to control every variable, I hope to scratch at some hidden truth. 

Due to the weight limits, I won't be bringing much material to work with. Every item we take is part of our payload and impacts the fuel needed to leave Earth's orbit. I want to be prepared on all levels and have many different variables and equipment to play with, but that's impossible. There are also a lot of unanswered technical questions. How does gravity affect the diffusion process? What about the low light and long distance? I'm working with specialists to overcome this because there isn't a camera that can do those things right now.

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Instead of trying to control every variable, I’m embracing this sense of chaos.
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Working with companies to make photographic equipment feels like risk-taking, too. It's become a testing ground for my ideas about what a photograph should be. It's forcing me to think about photography in a much bigger sense. In a way, I feel responsible for pushing the medium forward a little bit further. It's an interesting place to find myself because I'm at a point in my career where I feel like I should be all-knowing, but actually, it's just a lot more questions. I'm opening myself up to being very vulnerable, which is quite an exciting place to be. 

I'm realizing that this project might be more about opening the doorway into an artistic or creative process. To show all of the thought process, which often remains invisible in photography - it's the part no one ever gets to see. Maybe that's the greatest space of vulnerability, where you strip away this guise of the perfect image. I'm always trying to push at the possibilities of the medium in whatever I do, but I often fail and am often frustrated with my work. What does it look like to question and possibly fail? And then be able to embrace failure as its own success.

If photography is trying to document, and I'm tasked with transmitting the reality of what it feels like to be in space, and I'm taking photographs through the window or of the crew eating dinner—how is that any different from what we've seen before? Maybe the most powerful thing I can do is show you what it is like to have a creative opportunity, be vulnerable in it, and show the value of what we add as image makers. 

People are afraid of kicking the hornet's nest in the creative industry. They're afraid of their personal risk. I'm very kamikaze about things in some ways. I feel like my purpose is to leave a legacy through my work, so the least I can do is create conversations that could have a ripple effect and allow people to think about their own position in the world. If the only thing I ever do is inspire five people to have an important conversation, it's worth doing.