Women’s Week: Camera critiques social issues

By Carlos Mayorga

As a young photographer growing up in Southern California, Cat Palmer inherited a basic Canon 35mm camera from her grandparents — a tool she would learn to use to make a statement about the ills that affect society, ranging from homelessness to women’s issues.

Palmer’s current work advocates non-violence against women and calls for empowerment through involvement in the political process by voting and writing to elected officials. An exhibit of Palmer’s work, which focuses on women’s issues, is on display in the Architecture Building as part of Women’s Week at the U.

“Her work looks you right in the eye, and you’re left with a very clear emotion,” said Amie Tullius, director of the Women’s Art Center in Salt Lake City where Palmer had an exhibit in December.

“Her political stuff says, ‘You know what’s wrong, now do something about it,'” she said.

Palmer’s curiosity with photography started in high school, but it wasn’t until a special photography teacher gave her the freedom to photograph what inspired her that she discovered her passion for photography, capturing images of the homeless and other elements of society.

“He would take us to the ghetto of Los Angeles, Venice Beach…and he would take us down to shoot whatever we wanted to shoot,” Palmer said. “And that’s when I first discovered my interest in people because homeless people are really intriguing to me.”

After years of taking photography courses in high school and completing projects on the homeless, she discovered her grandparents’ darkroom, which they used to develop pictures of their grandchildren.

“They would always ask me, ‘Why can’t you just take normal pictures with normal people,'” Palmer said. “They mainly took pictures of me growing up.”

When Palmer was 16, Palmer changed her focus to women and has since stuck with that theme, making it her niche. One of Palmer’s most recognizable photos features 18 women of different races and ethnicities wearing white surgical masks on Utah’s salt flats.

Her passion for photography lost momentum in 2001 after a sudden move to Utah with her husband, but a couple of years later, she had the opportunity to shoot a series of cows, which inspired her to return to photography. In 2004, she held her first exhibit in Salt Lake City.

Current political events have inspired a lot of Palmer’s work. One of Palmer’s exhibits last year featured a soldier who proudly fought in Iraq, but was against the war.

Frustration over policies in the Bush administration and the War in Iraq inspired her to shoot a series that featured women in gas masks. Although the series has become one of her more popular sets of photos, she never expected people to relate to them. Palmer did the series as more of a personal project, so the photos’ popularity shocked her.

“I was just so mad at that time,” Palmer said. “I was just really mad with how things were with the war. I was just really mad with Bush. I wanted to just do this piece to get my anger out on paper, and once I did that, I was back to being my happy self.”

Palmer insists she is not a political photographer, although her last few major exhibits have had political themes. In the future, Palmer might address less controversial topics, such as society’s expectations on women to work and manage domestic work.

“Last year, I wanted to make more of a statement, but not necessarily a political statement, but a statement in general,” she said.

The popularity of her political photos has been an encouragement to speak out on controversial topics, Palmer said.

“That encouraged me to speak out, even if it’s controversial or people might hate it,” she said. “It’s surprising that more people enjoy it than hate it, and more people agree with it rather than disagree.”

Palmer’s exhibit will run until March 14 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Bailey Exhibition Hall.

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Lennie Mahler

Cat Palmer, whose artwork is currently on display at the architecture building, hopes her work inspires others. The exhibit runs through March 14.