Interview and photographs of Hayley by Jessie Li // I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist (like half the kids in Florida honestly). I championed manatee rights as a fifth grader with little petitions I’d force my classmates to sign and started a Save the Manatee Club at my high school. So from the start, I’ve had this concern for the environment and for our oceans tapped into the front of my head.
Interview and photographs of Hayley by Jessie Li
Hi, Hayley! How have you been?
I’ve been doing well! I’m nestled into the warmth of another Florida summer, back home with my family. I’ve been spending a lot of time trying all the things I never have time for during school: painting, pottery, experimenting with my photography, volunteering, planning films with my best friends, eating well (hah).
What makes life worth living?
This question always kind of throws me for a loop with its phrasing, as if life needs to have and maintain some sort of definable worth to be enough. I believe along with all of the beauty that keeps me deeply alive and thriving on this planet, there is also turmoil keeping me here, grounded in my purpose and in my desire to live. What is worthwhile isn’t always easy. So I live for balance, of the quiet moments and the thrilling ones, of creation and stagnation, loved ones and lost ones, this beautiful earth and the terrifying promise of catastrophic climate change.
What are you studying at school?
I’m studying Journalism and Sustainable Development at Appalachian State University, up in the mountains of North Carolina. Sustainable Development is definitely a newer major, as far as majors go. If you haven’t heard of it, it was born out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations in an effort to improve human life and protect the environment for the world now, and for the world to come.
How did you choose this area of study?
My involvement with journalism was born out of my love for photojournalism and my realization that one depends upon the other. I wanted to have the ability to both write and visually represent stories, so that I’d never feel as if my work was lacking. As much as I respect photography for its ability to transcend meaning and emotion across any identity, I also understand that it is not an objective medium. In a time when the truth is so important, I believe we need words to round out the stories we tell through photographs.
I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist (like half the kids in Florida honestly). I championed manatee rights as a fifth grader with little petitions I’d force my classmates to sign and started a Save the Manatee Club at my high school. So from the start, I’ve had this concern for the environment and for our oceans tapped into the front of my head. Of course, as I began figuring myself and my strengths out, I came to the conclusion that science and math weren’t my points of triumph. So when I embarked on my college search, I looked for schools with good journalism programs, and told myself to let go of my younger dreams. But then I found the sustainable development program while applying to App State. It was my chance to approach environmental, climate change and human rights related issues through conceptual frameworks, rather than scientific ones.
You are a very creative and talented individual. How do you plan on using your talents to achieve your goals?
I hope to report on climate crisis stories in the future. I mean, I hope there isn’t a crisis obviously, but at the rate that conditions are already changing . . . you get the picture. We turn to journalism in trying times, to understand our world and one another more clearly. I know that as these issues intensify, leaving more of the earth’s environment and people at risk, we will turn to journalists, to scientists and policy makers for answers. But I believe that many of our answers exist in small communities, in ecosystems and in individuals who have learned to resist— I want to help their voices be heard as well, through storytelling.
Let’s talk a little bit about your (stunning) photography! When and how did you start taking pictures?
Photography really kicked off for me in 9th grade when I got my first little camera as a gift from my parents. I photographed everything but humans for two years; I think I was too scared for a long time to take anyone’s photo— it felt intrusive. But that changed with time, confidence and learning to create trust and reciprocity between myself and the people in my photographs. My love for photojournalism in particular grew as I documented my own life and took on a position as the photo editor of my high school yearbook.
How do you describe your current photography style?
A little bit of everything? I need someone to answer this question for me hah. I’m a curious mess with a camera, what else should I expect. But if I had to narrow it down, I most ardently love environmental portraiture, layered wide angle journalistic shots, and film photography ( I shoot with a Canon Ae-1 and my new Kodak Stereo Camera!). I suppose one interesting thing about my style is the fact that I rarely plan shoots. I tend to just take photographs of events that unfold naturally around me— which can be frustrating (because I sometimes feel like I don’t shoot enough), but also rewarding (the moment means more to me personally, and that shows in the photo).
Who do you look up to? (This doesn’t have to be photography-specific but it can be.)
My favorite photographer is Alessandra Sanguinetti, I tell everyone I know about her work. She worked in Argentina for years telling the story of two young cousins through their play, their sorrow and their love for one another. She called her first book about them, “The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams”— I mean, how beautiful is that? But I also adore and respect Lynsey Addario, Susan Meiselas, Sally Mann, Bieke Deporteer, Carrie Mae Weems, Olivia Bee, Gregory Halpern, Newsha Tavakolian, Carlota Guerrero, my cousin Gabriella Canal (she’s also a documentary filmmaker in the making!) and of course, my dearest friend, Jessie Li White (queen). Also, Mónica Hernández, who goes by @monicagreatgal on Instagram, really inspired me to start painting again. I’ve been working on a piece the size of my kitchen table for over 6 months now! It’s sheer terror, to start a painting, but I’ve loved every moment of creating it. Beyond photography, I most look up to my mom. She’s the strongest woman I know, even if she forgets that about herself sometimes.