With Images Of His Partner, A Kansas Photographer Focuses On 'Invisible' Illnesses

Sep 26, 2017

Samantha Beeson definitely does not like to be the center of attention. But that hasn't prevented her from being the subject of a photography exhibition.

Beeson lives with an array of difficulties that her partner, photographer Chris Ortiz, describes as “social anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD and panic attacks as a result of a past abusive relationship.” Her "everyday struggle to manage these disorders" is the point of his exhibit “Living With Sam.”

"We have decided to raise visibility of these 'invisible' illnesses to help increase knowledge and awareness," Ortiz writes in his artist statement.

Beeson and Ortiz met five years ago in an art class at Baker University and eventually moved in together. Over the last two years, Beeson watched as Ortiz struggled with the thesis project he was trying to finish for an online Master of Fine Arts degree at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

'Sam and Firecracker, the trouble maker,' one of the photographs in Chris Ortiz's 'Living With Sam.'
Credit Courtesy Chris Ortiz

“My main goal in photography was to document what it means to be Latino,” says Ortiz, a Lawrence native who had planned to continue working on a project called "Portraits of Latinx Identity" he'd shown at the University of Kansas last year. But Ortiz wasn’t happy with the images he was getting this time.

“He wanted to do some practice shots at home,” Beeson recalls. “I said, ‘I’m here. Do practice shots of me.’ When he turned in some of the photos, his classmates really liked them and the teacher really liked them.”

“With Sam’s help, we decided to focus more inwardly on something we both knew very well,” Ortiz says. “I wanted to document her world, and how she interacts in her world, and how it interacts with everything else.”

Many of the resulting photographs are images of Beeson’s reclusive life in their Baldwin City home, or at her parents' and grandparents' homes in Lawrence and Lecompton.

“She doesn’t like going out with big crowds,” Ortiz notes. “She works at night so she doesn’t have to deal with a lot of the daytime hustle.”

Beeson is the overnight manager at a McDonald’s where the lobby closes at night, so she only sees customers for a few seconds in the drive-through. Some of her co-workers know about her struggle but others don’t, she says.

Letting Ortiz photograph her, Beeson says, was a way to “bring light to the idea that someone can be outgoing at times, can appear fairly normal at times,” while still dealing with her illnesses.

“I think it can help raise awareness for people who think depression only presents itself as people who don’t leave the bedroom or get off the chair. Sometimes, while I can be incredibly depressed or incredibly anxious, there’s still stuff I have to get done.”

'Panic Attack Destruction,' one of the photographs in Chris Ortiz's MFA exhibition.
Credit Courtesy Chris Ortiz

Certain photographs might be uncomfortable for some viewers (such as one image resulting from a menstrual period that was more emotional than usual). But Beeson had ultimate control over what aspects of her life were revealed, and how.

“I told Chris, ‘If you’re going to be photographing me in most intimate ways – not sexual, but when I’m vulnerable – I want to have a say in how they turn out.’ That meant being able to stop a session if I needed to, and also having some say in how much was really shown.”

The photo shoots also depict Beeson's strategies for navigating the outside world. For example, there’s an image of her in the 4-H barn at the Douglas County Fair.

“She wanted to go out in public, enjoy the animals, the photography, and the crafts they have at the fair,” Ortiz says. “So we went on a Friday afternoon when she knew nobody else would be there.”

Samantha Beeson in Chris Ortiz's 'Friday Afternoon at the County Fair.'
Credit Courtesy Chris Ortiz

But it was the Friday of the annual Demolition Derby, which is traditionally a sell-out, so they made sure to leave before school and work let out that afternoon.

“As time grew on and I got more in depth with the imagery of this project, we’ve been able to work through a whole lot of things we wouldn’t have been able to,” says Ortiz. “I think our relationship has grown.”

He intends to return to his Latin identity project next year. And though he was initially apprehensive about this project because it wasn’t what he’d planned on doing for his MFA, he now sees its value.

Chris Ortiz and Samantha Beeson
Credit Courtesy Chris Ortiz

“I’ve had my own battles with depression in the past – thankfully it wasn’t permanent – and I know people who’ve battled serious depression and have ended their lives because of depression,” he says. “That’s why I wanted to go through it and try to document – not the science, because everyone has a different way of showing their emotions – but maybe something that could show the world what it’s actually like.”

Beeson admits to being “very nervous” about strangers seeing these pictures – but she does plan to attend the exhibition's opening on Friday at the Lawrence Community Photo Studio. She’s take the necessary precautions.

“It is a functioning photo studio," she notes. "I’ve talked to the owner of the space, and I can go into darkroom to get away from people if I get overwhelmed.”

"Living With Sam," September 29 through Friday, October 13 at the Lawrence Community Photo Studio, 720 E. 9th Street, Suite 6, Lawrence, Kansas, 66044, with an opening reception during Lawrence's Final Friday art walk, approximately 6:30-9:30 p.m.

Monday, October 23 through Monday, November 6 the Kansas Union Gallery at the University of Kansas Student Union, 1301 Jayhawk Boulevard, Lawrence, Kansas, 66045, with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m. on Wednesday, October 27.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.