© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Finding herself through the lens: Eckstine's 'With Love & Rage' at ISU art exhibition

Sarah Eckstine, dressed in black with black-rimmed glasses, stands in front of her exhibition.
Lauren Warnecke
Sarah Eckstine is a graduate student in the Wonsook Kim School of Art at ISU. Her thesis exhibition runs through March 28.

Photographer and MFA candidate Sarah Eckstine presents With Love & Rage as her final thesis before graduating from Illinois State University. She’s joined by three other graduate students in the Wonsook Kim School of Art whose work is on display now at University Galleries.

The exhibition also features work by Alan Atkins, KAELIN (Ian Cooper) and Jade Minh Hà Nguyễn.

Eckstine’s contribution to the exhibition explores self-portraiture motivated by chronic health conditions she first encountered at puberty.

“I started taking self-portraits all the way back during high school,” Eckstine said. “I think looking back, at the time, I wasn’t considering it a fine art thing. As I have been doing this for the past 10 or 11 years, I realized that I started doing it as a way to document myself and the changes happening in my body. I think of it as an archive of myself.”

Self-portraits, not selfies

The proliferation of smart phones has made it easier than ever to take pictures of ourselves. Eckstine, 25, loves selfies. But her self-portraiture is different—most evidently in the choice to shoot most of them on film.

“Film required me to slow down,” she said. “Rather than holding my phone where I can see my reflection, shooting film requires a lot more time to sit with the camera, knowing the technical aspects of using different types of cameras. It takes a lot more time to focus and frame everything.”

She's used everything from point-and-shoot cameras to large format, and is a graduate assistant at ISU, teaching darkroom techniques.

That attention to detail forced Eckstine to think more intentionally about how she framed herself and which parts of her body she chose to reveal. Much of her work is intimate; she poses nude or in lingerie, often mimicking boudoir portraits.

As photographer and subject, Eckstine finds more agency than vulnerability in the process.

“There’s a lot of history with voyeurism and the gaze, especially with nude women in photographs,” she said. “The fact that I’m the one taking the picture is a huge part of it.”

Eckstine also consciously includes the camera in many of her self-portraits.

“You can see, 100 percent, that I’m the one taking this picture,” she said. “It’s different than having my camera on a tripod pointing back at me. It’s like the camera is my companion, my partner; I’m working with it, rather than something that’s being ‘taken’ of me.”

With love and rage

Eckstine has a condition called vaginismus, causing involuntary contraction of the vaginal muscles during penetration, and chronic nerve damage characterized as vestibulodynia.

“It makes things like inserting a tampon, having a pelvic exam and, of course, penetrative sex extremely painful if not entirely impossible,” she said.

Sexual dysfunctions among women often go unreported or undiagnosed. For years, Eckstine struggled to find a doctor who believed her.

“As you can imagine, growing up as a young woman, I was not able to have the sex that I felt like all my peers were having,” she said. “I wasn’t able to go swimming on field trips if I had my period because I wasn’t able to use a tampon. It was extremely alienating as a young woman to be left out of these things."

In addition to her MFA in art, Eckstine is working toward a graduate certificate in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at ISU. As a Gradbird Scholar, she hung informational flyers on vaginismus in restrooms on campus and has written extensively about experiences with doctors and partners. She shared her experiences openly on social media and has been encouraged by responses from other women online.

“It’s not discussed a lot—female sexual health in general, let alone female sexual health when it deals with pain,” Eckstine said. “I thought for the longest time I’m the only person that deals with this."

‘Words on paper feel more vulnerable.’

Eckstine’s senior thesis pairs two central themes. On one side of the gallery is a curation of slightly blurred self-portraits awash in red and orange tones. On the other is black and white images, including several close-ups of specific areas of Eckstine’s heavily tattooed figure. Between them is a print with white text on a black background, reading “it all passes someday for sure certainly,” in what has become a signature font.

Self-portaits hung on white gallery walls with a print between them that reads "It all passes someday for sure certainly."
Jade Nguyen
University Galleries
With Love and Rage, part of the MFA Thesis Exhibition featuring four ISU graduate students, continues through March 28.

“For some reason, my writing, words on paper, feel more vulnerable than a naked photo of me on a gallery wall,” Eckstine said. “I’ve been trying to wrestle with that because you would think it would be the opposite. I’m pulling from my lived experience and talking very explicitly about having very horrible and traumatic experiences with partners.”

Near the beginning of her self-portraiture catalog, Eckstine placed herself in sterile, clinical environments.

“Being naked in doctors’ offices and having old gynecologists that could be my grandfather looking up my pants, I felt really alienated from my body,” Eckstine said. “Slowly, I started photographing myself more in sensual positions, in bed, wearing underwear and lingerie I felt super confident in—using photography as a tool to build confidence in myself.”

Sarah Eckstine’s With Love & Rage is part of Illinois State University’s MFA Thesis Exhibition, through March 28 at University Galleries, 11 Uptown Circle, Normal. A reception is scheduled for 4-6 p.m. March 27. The gallery is free and open to the public. Details at galleries.illinoisstate.edu.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.