Willow Paule is a documentary photographer, educator and blogger currently living in Indonesia. As an introvert, she uses photography as a tool to connect and explore her curiosity about other people. Her photographs tell the intimate stories of everyday people and their extraordinary lives.
Willow leads photography and visual storytelling courses, and teaches her students how to create intentional photographic work, while following their natural curiosity to explore through the medium.
Willow’s blog has monthly interviews with insightful creative people, which include practical tips and insights into their workflow and artistic practices. She also writes about creative risk-taking, in order to inspire readers to broaden their horizons and make more compelling photo stories.
Carrie: When did you first realize the importance of art in your life?
I’m not sure I can pinpoint when I realized, it just was. My parents had their own clothing business when I was growing up and creativity was a big part of their life. My dad wrote, my mom sewed. As a teen, I really enjoyed watching the photo shoots for their clothing line. I was homeschooled when I was young. We did art projects and observed nature, watching ants work, or walking through our wood lot. After my homeschool experience, I started elementary school in an intentional community of art-loving interpretive dancers who hugged too long. My classroom was in a barn and we had our celebrations in an old mansion. Collectively, these experiences taught me that art was important.
Carrie: How would you describe your art?
My art is somewhere between pragmatic and feeling. I do documentary photography work and I get to know ordinary people and then document their extraordinary lives. The feeling part comes in when I decide how best to get across their story. I do have a lot of inner turmoil about whether I am doing my art ‘right’ and I am working on reframing my thinking, because I think it will make me a better communicator.
Lately, I’ve been enjoying making in-camera double exposures. They force me to relinquish some control.
Carrie: What does your workspace look like?
My workspace changes because I go out into the community to meet people in their spaces. Sometimes I spend time in other peoples’ homes, and sometimes I am at a performance pressed up beside other people trying to see into an arena. But when I am at home editing photos, writing or journaling, I use a wooden desk that was in my rental home when I got here, and an incredibly uncomfortable office chair I had the bad sense to buy. Sometimes, I lay on my yoga mat, and try to relax my back as I work.
I get to look out the window into my backyard and see lots of green plants and interesting insects like giant (2-3 inch) flying grasshoppers, hornets, butterflies, and my cat frolicking. One day, she chased a chameleon lizard down the steps, and that was wild…literally.
I know you asked about how my work space looks but sound is also a big part of living on the world’s most populous island. Although my office is in the back of the house, I get to hear vendors pass by the front and I can tell by the sound of their call what they’re selling. The morning vegetable lady, the raw chicken seller, the shoe repair man, the meatball soup vendor, and the fried rice guy with the loud drum; they all pass by my place.
Carrie: Can you describe your artistic process to readers? For example, do you follow the same pattern and track when you develop an artwork from idea to product?
I have no formula, but I guess there are some trends. I usually get curious about something first. Sometimes I write an idea down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper. I sit with it for a few days and if it stays firmly part of my consciousness, I will figure out how to make it happen, or save the idea for the future.
I’d like to do more short-term photography projects because sometimes the longer ones are hard to finish, or impossible to start. I have a wealth of ideas, and that sometimes feels like a huge burden. I feel as if I can’t possibly give enough time to each of the ideas I want to pursue.
I also take tons of photos and then, in many cases, wait weeks, months, or years to share them or work with them. In 2017 and 2018, I finally focused on creating blog posts to share some of my photography work from years past.
Right now, I am working on 2 projects actively but I have about 3 other major projects I work on only occasionally. Then, there are my “collection” projects where I photograph particular themes. For example, I’m interested in the way Indonesians store their money at businesses, as it’s very different from the way we do in the US. So I take photos whenever I visit a store and see an interesting money situation. Another collection I keep is of Semar, a Javanese clown character (who is surprisingly wise) found in different iterations all over the place. Whenever I see a Semar statue, I take a photo. I lack organization so later it will be interesting to see if I can put all my collections together.
I’d like to figure out a way to find a stopping point more often so I can share my work. I really enjoy longform photo projects where I get to revisit my subjects, so that’s what makes it difficult to figure out how to share sometimes. I am inspired by photographer Darcy Padilla, who spent two decades making a body of work called The Julie Project.
Carrie: What’s something you wish people asked you about your work?
Sometimes I wish people in the US saw more in my photos than just “people who are different and poorer than me” and didn’t assume that I was making some type of sacrifice by being in a different culture. I wish people would ask me more about the views and aspirations of the people I photograph. It makes me think I have to work harder to convey the sense of family, happy belonging and artistic passion that I often find in Indonesia.
Oh, it’d be great if people asked if they could exhibit my work more often, too! (haha)
Carrie: What do you wish you knew that you now know about your creative process?
That structure and routine are not evil things that inhibit my freedom, but rather, necessary to grow my creative practice. That I can still make room for experimentation or take a break from my routine if I want or need to but adhering to a routine can make me a stronger artist.
Carrie: What strategies do you use to help yourself when you feel “stuck?”
Usually leaving my house and getting out into my bustling city helps. I love observing people and I feel motivated to get back to my creative projects when I do that. Another thing that helps is going out in nature, or reading a novel, because both of those things take me out of my day-to-day reality.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
Only one? There are so many.
I started working as a virtual assistant this year. Owning my own photography business has taught me many skills that I can apply to helping other small business owners with my virtual assistance. This new source of income means I don’t need to take a full-time job away from my house, and also allows me to spend time photographing the subjects I want to explore. It’s hard work growing my VA business but I am really grateful for it.
Carrie: You also do some teaching. Tell us about that (and your free course!).
I’ve worked in the US, Thailand and Korea teaching art, photography, and English as a second language (ESL) classes since 2001. Now, I am venturing into the world of online teaching.
When I spoke with my blog readers, I found that they’re interested in photo storytelling like I am. So, now I offer a free one week email course called Create A Compelling Photo Story that my email subscribers get when they sign up. You don’t need a fancy camera to take this course, it’s totally up to you whether you use a phone camera or an SLR. My course teaches you to work with your story idea to make a compelling visual story out of your images and by the end of the week, you’ll have a completed project you can share in your portfolio, submit to an exhibit or print to hang on your wall or give as a gift. I’d love to have you join the class! Sign up here.
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
Above all, I value my connection with other living beings and nature so those are my two biggest sources of inspiration. More specifically, speaking with people from diverse backgrounds, learning about diverse cultural practices, interesting words, seeing other peoples’ creative work, taking a nature walk, or listening to some great music with my headphones all inspire my own creative practice.
Carrie: What does the word artist mean to you?
Everyone is a creative being, but not everyone nurtures their creativity. Artists play, experiment, and honor their creativity by making mistakes and trying again.
Additional Contact Info:
Uncover your unique ARTIST voice
Join the Soulbrush Sessions, ten days to guide you to your unique artist voice.
Enjoy small daily steps (15-30 minutes a day) to create an original artwork over the course of 10 days.
This free activity also includes access to our newsletter community where I share additional tips and tricks to develop your artist voice.
We honor your privacy - read more here.