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Learning By Doing: How This Aspiring Art Therapist Pursued Her Interest in Photo Printing Techniques in Berlin

Art runs in Gabriella’s blood. Between studying art at university, practicing art forms such as painting and writing, and teaching herself photography, she’s a curious soul drawn to creative expression. A self-described “kinesthetic learner,” Gabriella isn’t content to learn by simply having someone talk to her. Instead, she needs to work with her hands and learn by doing. 

Eager to learn more about photo developing and processing, skills she had only taught herself, she travelled to Berlin for a VAWAA to learn cyanotype film development with photographer Sehera. There, she shot photos on her daily wanderings through the streets of Berlin, developed and printed her work using the unique, eco-friendly cafenol process, and asked Sehera questions about everything they were doing. Like, a lot of questions.  

We recently sat down to chat with Gabriella about everything she learned, what she thought of Berlin, and how this experience has impacted her photography now that she’s returned home.* 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m from LA. I went to school in Santa Cruz, where I studied psychology and education, as well as art. I work in the mental health field at a facility, and I also teach art to young kids on the side. I want to eventually become an art therapist and work with young kids. I've developed an interest in photography over the past couple of years, specifically film photography. However, I've only really learned what I've been able to teach myself.  

What is a goal you have for your future?

Just to be creating, and to be in a place where I can be creating constantly. 

What were you hoping to find or achieve during your VAWAA?

I think for me, personally, I really wanted to learn a lot. And I wanted to be very engaged. I learn by doing things, which is why I thought it would be a really good thing for me. I’m very kinesthetic, and formal classes, like sitting down and having someone talk to me, doesn’t always work for me. And I’ve developed a hobby of photography in the past couple of years, and I had been wanting to learn developing and processing. I hadn’t had any--I don’t like the word formal training--but I hadn’t had any structured training, like it was all very DIY, I did it all myself. I learned it all myself, so I knew I was making a lot of mistakes that I probably needed corrected. And so a photography VAWAA was perfect for me, because I knew that was something I wanted to do. So when I got there, I was ready to just take any information Sehera could give me and get really hands-on with it. And she was super ready to just throw things at me, and we just went for three days straight. Just me asking every single stupid question in my brain and her being like, “Oh well, I think you got that wrong a little bit,” and then redirecting me a little. 

This was your first time being totally solo while traveling. How did that go?

It was cool. There was a lot of really amazing art stuff going on that weekend by chance, and I really liked it. It was very meditative, if you will. Just very “do your thing.” I would be in the studio all day, on my feet all day, working all day, and then I would just leave and walk around and try to take pictures so we had more to develop, and then have a romantic dinner for one of Indian food. The first day I was in Berlin by myself, the morning that my friend left, I had one full day before I started with Sehera. So I went to a spa, this really cool spa where they play music underwater. You can go for two hours, they have different pools and sauna. And then I went to a Rolling Stones concert by myself in Berlin. It was crazy. It was funny. 

Had you been to Berlin before? What did you think of it?

I hadn’t been to Berlin before. I had heard many, many things about it, people telling me that I had to go to Berlin and that I would love it. The first day my friend and I walked around and were kind of like “What are we missing? Everyone is gaga, obsessed with this place, what are we missing?” Then the next day, 24 hours later, we were like “We’re converts! We get it now! We’re sorry Berlin for ever doubting you!” 

My favorite part about Berlin was the art. The city’s love of art and its artists. I was there for the summer solstice. And in Berlin for the summer solstice, in the evening, all of the local musicians will go out to the parks, or streets corners, or outside bars or in bars, and just play whatever their music is. And they’re all out there just creating and sharing their work. They don’t have to be there. They’re just there to have a good time with everyone else. It just has a lot of art and culture and contradictions. It’s a very interesting city, and there’s a lot there. I really liked it. 


Working on cafenol development in the studio

Making the cyanotype prints

What was it like once you started learning and working with Sehera?

It was really cool. I think when we started, Sehera wanted to get a feel for what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to go with it and what my focus wanted to be. So we talked for a while, and then she showed me her work as well. And we walked around and just started shooting and talking. Funny enough, she actually lived in the town I lived in in Northern California for college. She knows it quite well, and it’s quite a small town. So we had a lot in common. 

What were your days like? What kind of a routine did you get into?

I’d make my way over around 10am or 11am. And then we would just pick up where we left off. The first day was more shooting and getting ready to develop. The second day was really developing the negatives and getting those going. And then the third day was just printing, printing, printing, printing. Just on our feet all day printing.

What was Sehera like? 

She was very cool. She was really sweet, friendly, very welcoming. She’s very similar to me. Having lived in Santa Cruz, there’s a culture there that’s a little hippie-ish and very about people. It teaches you that and kind of infuses it in you. So we had that in common, that mentality. And she really liked what I do, and my methodology when I teach and the way I try to practice. She really appreciated that, which I really appreciated, that she thought that what I did was important. 

Gabriella's printed photos

Revealing the images

Tell us more about the cyanotype process. 

There’s two parts. There’s the cafenol development, which is the actual negative development. It uses a developer called cafenol, which the ingredients are very easy to find. It’s like coffee, Vitamin D, and washing soda. It’s very easy, and you make it yourself with ingredients from the story. Very eco-friendly compared to other developers. It’s a black and white developer. So that’s the cafenol. That was day two, developing negatives. 

And then the cyanotype development is printing. It’s the process of taking the negative and blowing it up to a larger negative. And you actually print the negative on paper. So what you basically do is mix these powders and chemicals to create the emulsion, which is the layer that reacts to the light. And then you cover the paper with the layer. And you put the negative on it and expose it using the UV light. When you pull it out, it’s light, but you can see it. And then you spray it with the peroxide. And the blue really pops. It’s cool, it comes out of nowhere. The whole process to me is very cool, and it’s a really special process. I mean, black and white printing, you usually need a bulb, like the red light bulb, like in the dark room. This one you don’t. You just need the UV light, so it’s very doable. And it’s very cool. I’ve never seen that.

Talk a little more about the work that you did during your VAWAA. What inspiration did you draw upon? 

I don’t think I really had an intention. I think I just wanted to create. All the photos I took were photos that I took there in Berlin. So my work is really about Berlin. And me exploring Berlin on my own. Most of those pictures were me when I was walking around in the evening looking around and trying to entertain myself and not look like a weirdo walking around in circles. From my shots, you see what comes out of it. It’s reflective in that way. 

What was your favorite memory from your VAWAA?

The whole thing was memorable. I don’t know that I have one favorite memory. Just hanging out with Sehera was really cool, and talking to her. And her showing me places that I would have never found on my own. Places that she goes with her friends. We had pizza at this place, and literally I’ve been dreaming about this pizza ever since. And this really cool artist co-op place with this really amazing pizza. And I was just learning. I was deep in my mode of soaking up everything I can. Because I knew I only had three days, so I kept going over it in my head. I was basically studying at night. 

How has this experience impacted your photography now that you’ve returned home?

I think it gave me more tools to work with, and I took a lot out of it. It gave me more ability to understand how to create my image, my photograph, and how many different stylistic choices I can make at every moment. There are so many different things that can affect it, that it’s always unique, and that process is interesting to me. And I just learned a lot, and I just soaked it up. And have been learning a lot since. I’ve been trying to keep the momentum as much as possible.

Sehera corrected the things I had been doing wrong, because I taught myself. And when I came back home, someone actually gave me a C41 developing kit, which is a color developing kit. Which I had never worked with and didn’t really know anything about. So I’ve been processing with that. I’ve got a whole dark room going and I’ve been processing negatives and working with the C41. And then once that runs out I’m going to switch to black and white and do that. It’s funny. I work until like 12:30 at night, and every night I’d come home and just still keep going in the dark room for hours. 

*Comments have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

If you’re interested in a Cyanotype VAWAA with Sehera, contact us 

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