Interview: Photographer Gabriel Syhalath
A visionary and aficionado of trying new things and taking on the unknown with a camera at the ready, Gabriel Syhalath opens up about how he’s become the varied and multi-visioned photographer he is today.
What’s the story of what got you to pick up a camera and stick with it?
To understand how I got into art and photography in general it’s important to know that I, along with millions of other Americans, suffer from a severe depressive disorder. It’s not that highly romanticized “depressed artist” kind of thing either. In fact, I’d say that it’s quite the opposite of that kind of story. There’s nothing beautiful about it besides the fact that, on some off-chance, I’m still alive today.
I personally started my whole journey into photography during my senior year of high school (about 15 months ago). I bought a super rad little Canon 50D with an EF-S 24mm F/2.8 lens to try and make a short film with. That quickly fell apart. Remember that depressive order I told you about? Yeah, well I’ve been battling that for as long as I can remember, and this time it was a battle that I was 100% willing to lose. I fell into the lowest point I’ve ever been in. I began to self-medicate which just turned into drug and alcohol abuse. In the winter of that year, I attempted suicide on two separate occasions. Both times I grabbed every single pill I could find and followed that up with a couple shots of liquor that my dad had laying around the house. The first time, my body just completely rejected everything I had dumped into it. The next morning I woke up sick in a puddle of vomit with pills half dissolved all over the place. Apparently, I just wasn’t meant to die.
That winter, I was able to make it out alive with the help of the few friends I had left. They would get me outside to go shoot with them in Downtown-Portland or hike or something. This is when I really fell in love with the camera. I found that every time I put my eye up to the viewfinder I was at peace (Not to sound cheesy). I still struggle with incredibly hard days, weeks, and even months, but I still seek and find refuge in photography. Photography saved my life. It’s the reason why I keep moving. It’s the reason why I wake up in the mornings. It’s the reason why I’m able to fight these low points and come out on top and that’s why I’m so in love with it.
How would you define your vision and style?
I don’t really define my style if I’ll be honest here. There are definitely some very common things you’ll find in all of my photos. I like my highlights to be pretty muted, and my shadows to be strong. So, I guess you could say that I’m a pretty angsty and moody photographer. I want photos to make people feel something. That being said, there aren’t any specific emotions I aim to capture. I want people to interpret my photos however they’d like.
I try to not lock myself down to one style as a photographer. I see too many people shooting and editing the same way, and that just doesn’t make sense to me. I like to play around with different styles because challenging yourself promotes growth and progress, and who doesn’t want to progress at their craft? Once you tie yourself down to one specific style then you’re essentially just putting yourself into a creative box. Some would call my edit style inconsistent because I’m always trying out something new, but I consider myself more explorative (is that a word?)
How would you describe your evolution through photography, from beginning to now?
The artist I am today is 100% a different person than the artist I was when I started. I think it all kind of roots from my confidence and health, honestly. When I started I needed to feel safe. I kept all of my posing really kind of boring and almost reminiscent of family photo poses from the early 2000s. But now, I’m a more emotional person. I’m more confident in myself, and I think that shows in my recent work. I no longer want to do the “safe” kind of shooting. When it comes down to my personal portrait work I get pretty wild with my ideas, I have a whole notebook of frames sketched out that I want to shoot. I’ve overall just become a more creative person.
What kind of mindset and perspective do you go about life with?
This is a solid question right here, I could honestly talk about this forever, but I’ll keep it short. I live religiously live by the phrase “Shit Happens”. I’m not a planner because every time I plan something it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be disappointed at some point. There’s nothing I can do to control the world around me. I can only control the way I react to things. Admittedly, I react poorly to most negative things that are thrown my way, but I’m working on that! It’s such a hippy thing for me to say, but I legitimately just go with the flow. All of my favorite experiences and memories came from me just going with the flow and letting “shit happen”.
What was one of the most defining moments for you in your life?
The most defining moment in my life has to be the day after my last attempt at suicide. I remember waking up in complete and utter regret. I realized the impact I could have left behind on my family and friends. I, myself, have lost two close people to suicide. That feeling of waking up to a millions calls and texts because your friend killed themselves is beyond horrible, and I would never wish that feeling upon the people I love the most. I realized the day I woke up that I wanted to change and I wanted to feel better about my life. That was moment that I became the practically carefree, yet hardworking person I am today.
What are your goals and aspirations with your work?
My single goal is to just be happy with my work. I would be lying to you if I said that I have this massive business plan and that I want to shoot for Vogue or Nat Geo. I’d be down if they were willing to have me, but recently I’ve just been letting things play out. I’ve gotten extremely lucky to have made this my career after only a little under a year and a half of shooting, so I’m already living the dream. But I guess if I had to lay out a goal, it’d be to have my work displayed in an exhibition of some sort. I’d love to be able to see my work on massive prints and talk to people about what was going through my head when I shot and edited a specific photo. I think it’d be so rad to reach a point where people think my work is cool enough to be displayed like that.
What do you try to shy away from most?
I don’t like photography trends. I’ve definitely participated in a handful of them, but as I’ve developed my taste a little more I find that it’s more valuable to shoot for yourself rather than shooting to be like someone else. I just really feel like when I was trying to mimic people I was slowly stripping myself of my creativity by taking someone else’s ideas. I love Sam Elkins and Brandon Woefel, those dudes are absolutely geniuses with a camera, but they already exist. We don’t need 5 million people doing the exact same thing as them. Be yourself, be your own creative! Having your own ideas and making them come to life is so, so, so, so much more rewarding than directly imitating someone else’s work. That doesn’t mean that you can’t take inspiration from them, but you gotta put your own little creative twist on it!
What are your favourite things that keep you sane in life?
Ah, easy question to answer! My two quality doggos named Moose and Hazel, super indie music that even hipsters have probably never heard about, photography, my bed, food, and tea.
Is there anything, absolutely anything we didn’t address that you’d like to share?
I know this is a photography based interview, but I just to want remind everyone to take care of their mental health. It’s not cool to feel bad about yourself. If you need help and support then please ask for help and support from someone who you love. Also, remember to always be there for everyone because you never truly know what’s going in someone’s life.