Our Fierce Women series celebrates inspiring women who have carved out their own path and done something remarkable against the odds. In this second article, Tara Gould interviews the wonderful Cammie Toloui; mother, artist, altruist, cat lover, therapist and American living in Lewes.
You have won awards for your photography and been exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious galleries like Tate Modern, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What excites you about this medium? What are its challenges?
I’ve always loved capturing some sort of truth about people, like an anthropologist searching for clues about what makes people tick. I love getting to know people who live on the edges of society and ideally, would follow them home and photograph them in their natural environment.
Street photography is much harder than it looks. I try to capture a moment of pure humanity on the street, or a humorous or geometric juxtaposition. It’s a challenge, capturing these unguarded moments, up close and in focus and without causing a scene with a giant camera. I spent a year wandering around London and Brighton, like a hunter, stalking these fleeting moments.
I spent 17 years as a single parent, raising my son Ziggy alone, living in San Francisco, then Iowa City, Iowa and then Portland, Oregon. I was a photo editor for the San Francisco Chronicle’s website as well as a wedding, portrait and event photographer. Eventually I also studied to become a massage therapist to try and make a bit more money, especially in winter when weddings were sparse. I also wanted to do something that more directly helped people.
Life at that time was always a struggle and rarely did I feel as though our heads were above water, but in retrospect we did have food and shelter and most things we needed. Plus we were happy, so that’s worth a lot despite the intense stress of raising a child alone.
All of those years of working so many jobs meant that I didn’t have much time to shoot the projects that I wanted to, which needed much more time than I had to give. Eventually Zig flew the nest, after earning a full scholarship to study engineering at Harvard. I was just one month away from moving to Southern California to live with my boyfriend. I sold most of our things and gave our dog to a friend, gave up my massage studio, gave notice to the landlord when the boyfriend decided to break it off.
After long, tearful conversations with my mom, she convinced me to see this as a blessing, to see it as an opportunity: I had gone from being a struggling single mom to suddenly having absolutely nothing to tie me down. I could do anything!
As an American in England, how have you adjusted to life here and what instigated your move to the UK?
I had been in London a few years before when I had some photos in a show at Tate Modern (Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, 2010) and I had felt so excited by the faces I saw on the street that I made a mental note to return some day to do street photography. So when this crisis of sudden nothingness appeared, I decided the time had come.
I raised money through crowdfunding, and in October 2012, flew to London, still shellshocked and lost, with a small case and a very small Panasonic Lumix camera. I landed on a particularly stormy day and washed up on the doorstep of an old friend.
I was going to stay in England for three months and had planned to house sit a place in Lewes for a man I had never met. After a week in London, he and I met up for a wander and some lunch, and lunch merged into dinner, which then became three days of passionate getting to know each other and lots more dates until the time came for him to travel and I moved in to do the house sitting and then kinda never left. Jonathan and I got married and I’ve been here six years now.
Being madly in love has been easy and wonderful, but everything else about being here has been challenging.
Living so far from my son and family and familiar food and culture — all very hard. Suddenly becoming a stepmother after finally launching my own son after years of parenting — very hard. Trying to start up my massage and photography business in a culture I barely knew – very hard.
My massage business has taken off well here. I have some great clients who come to see me for relief from pain and stress and I absolutely love helping people to feel better. It’s such a rewarding job.
My photography business in Lewes has been a lot of actors’ headshots, business headshots and event photography. I’m steering it towards doing more cat portraits, where I go to your house and follow your cat around. So much fun but challenging. If I could do only that for a living I would be really happy.
You’re able to confidently turn your hand to an eclectic range of subjects. What are some of the most radical things you’ve photographed?
Very early in my life as a photographer, I started to photograph my fairly wild life as a punk in San Francisco, and then again when I went to Soviet Russia, and when I moved to Moscow as part of the punk scene there. I was in a radical feminist band called the Yeastie Girlz (pre- Riot Grrrls), singing about our periods and yeast infections (vaginal thrush to you), oral sex and the like to crowds of teenage boy punks who were shocked as hell that we dared to grab the mic and sing about menstrual cramps and vulval empowerment. And I photographed all of that too.
I wanted to document everything. I lived with my camera around my neck, never went anywhere without it. I befriended people who lived on the street and did portraits of them; I rode around in an ambulance documenting the work the paramedics do; I met an older man who paid women to show up at his house to pose for nude photos and I took pictures of him taking pictures; I photographed the Rodney King riots in SF and the huge anti-Gulf War protests of the early 90s – and so many other events in the subculture…all while getting a degree in photojournalism at San Francisco State University. And in order to afford all of the film, photo paper and life as a student, I became a stripper in a peep show called the Lusty Lady Theatre.
The money was good and it was plenty exciting as far as jobs go and eventually I started photographing the customers who came in. Those are the photos that have had the most interest and were the ones shown in the Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and many other places. At the moment I’m writing a book about it all and will be having a solo show of the photos in London soon.
Your cat portraits really tell a story about the unique character of each cat. Can you tell us a bit more about the work you do at Raystede Animal Shelter and Sanctuary?
I’ve been at volunteering Raystede for over two years now, I go there every week to photograph the cats for the website and promotions. It’s something I’ve done for years, everywhere I’ve lived, so when I moved here I found this incredible place that happened to also need a cattery photographer.
Photographing cats can be challenging because, as we all know, cats don’t grin and do tricks on command and often they are busy being grumpy or scared or napping or grooming and can’t be bothered to stop for a portrait.
But I’ve worked out a little system: I spray catnip on my hands before I enter their enclosures, and then I greet them in a culturally appropriate feline manner (the slow blink) and we have a little chat about why I’m there and what the pictures are for. I ask them how they would like to pose and if they’re game, they show me how they want to be seen. Sometimes I’ll even show them the images on the camera screen; they usually pretend not to care.
It’s my favourite day of the week. I always feel so happy spending three hours giving and getting love from cats – heaven for me as a cat lover.
My life growing up was cat-ful. My parents even named me and one of my sisters so that we would have the initials C.A.T. I feel like I understand cats deeply. As a teen I thought I would grow up to become a vet, but photography took over my interests and never let go.
I’ve managed to raise money for Raystede by showcasing my cat photos every week on Facebook, where it’s possible to add a Donate button. Friends have been so generous and I’ve raised hundreds of pounds, which makes me happy.
I’ve also started writing a cat column for Viva Brighton Magazine, which features a photo of a cat and a humorous description like a personal ad. Hopefully this brings people to the shelter in search of a kitty who needs a home.
At home, I have just one cat.
There were so many years in my life when I wanted to help people and just didn’t have the energy or time. So now that I have more time I volunteer as a Befriender for Syrian refugee families and have volunteered with Fare Share the local food banks scheme.
Volunteering is so satisfying and doesn’t have to be a huge time commitment. Even when I was raising my son I did a few hours a month at the cat shelter and though it wasn’t much, it was what I had to give and it made a difference.
Do you think being a woman has made a difference to the way you’ve been perceived or treated in the places where you’ve worked?
In some ways, being a female massage therapist is a bit easier, as I’ve heard my male therapist friends grumble about finding it harder to get clients.
I’ve run into some trouble with male clients who think I’m going to wank them off, despite all of my publicity saying otherwise. I’ve had heavy breathers down the phone, and one man in particular who showed up, went to use the toilet before the massage and shaved his balls in the sink, leaving all of his pubes for me to find. That was the most ridiculously inappropriate customer I’ve ever had.
Even here in Lewes I’ve had some phone calls from men looking for a ‘sensual’ massage. So now I just don’t see men at all unless they’re friends or have been referred to me by a woman. It’s too bad I have to do this but honestly I’m just tired of dealing with men who have poor sexual boundaries.
Sexism in the field of photography is notorious, and especially so when I first started out. But there are so many more female photographers now that I don’t feel so outnumbered and, perhaps because I’m older, there’s a lot less mansplaining that goes on around camera gear. As for being a woman stripper, well you know, the sex industry is a clear mirror of the patriarchal system, where women are meant to be looked at and sexualised. I feel like I had a pretty good time of it at the Lusty Lady, all things considered, because it was run by women and was a safe place to work. Also I turned it all around when I started photographing the men who were watching me, and have always felt good about the way I took control of the situation for my art.
And finally, have you any advice to offer young aspiring female photographers?
Never assume that you can’t do something. Take risks. It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
See more of Cammie’s outstanding work here: www.cammiet.com
You can book a massage with Cammie here: www.cammiemassage.com