Fluid Roots, Pacific Style


July 31, 2012, Washington, DC: Growing up along the edges of the Pacific Ocean, Joana Stillwell moved around so much as a child she used to think she didn't have a hometown. Now she's certain she has many. The realization came this summer, fresh out of college and selected to participate in a global mentorship program with the Young Photographers Alliance. The theme of the project: Hometown. With guidance from Seattle photographer Stewart Tilger, the fine arts graduate went to work exploring a few of the places she's lived from behind the lens of her camera. The result: An eye-opening examination of her fluid roots and her fluid thinking about a topic many assume is firmly grounded in just one place. In typical nomad fashion, I spoke to Joana on a recent afternoon as she traveled by ferry from her former hometown of Silverdale, Washington to her current hometown of Seattle.

A Nomadic Upbringing: I was born in the Philippines but I'm a Navy brat, so I've lived all over the place: Hawaii twice, Japan once, Washington state twice, Guam once. This is my fourth year living in Seattle, but my family now lives in Silverdale a couple of hours away.

I lived in the Philippines as a baby. I've visited since, I have some relatives there. I haven't been to Japan since I left when I was 7, I haven't been back to Guam since I left when I was 12. I left Hawaii when I was 15 and I returned for a month when I was 16. Things were very different when I returned: a lot of my friends who are also military brats had moved, I had lost in touch with some people. It's actually really funny and bizarre how places stand still in your memory and when you're put back there, you realize that those places moved on from you even if you didn't move on from them.

I lived in Silverdale, Washington for three years, from 2nd grade to 4th grade, and came back for another three, from 10th grade to 12th grade, before going to Seattle for college.

Where She Is Now (Figuratively Speaking): I graduated from the University of Washington this May with a bachelor of fine arts. The Young Photographers Alliance was looking for young photographers to participate in mentorship program. Hometown is the theme. I've been reflecting on the theme for the last month and a half. I have about three to four weeks left in the project.

Some people on my team are traveling around the state and some people have stayed in Seattle because that's where they grew up. Our meeting's tonight; we're gonna have our first real critique of the photos we've been taking.

Defying a Rigid Definition: I've been thinking about how I've been processing "hometown." It's not that I have one hometown; it's that I have a lot. It's a definition that has changed a little bit... It's been a matter of me changing my thinking from, 'Oh, I don't have a hometown,' to, 'Oh, I have a lot of them.' That has really influenced things, created this openness, this richness. It feels really good to know. That simple realization was a kind of like breaking down a wall to access richer material that I could work with for my project. Hometowns aren't and shouldn't be definitive. I didn't want to commit to one when I had so many.

Each place has just become a lot more important to me and I'm trying to figure out why that happened. Not that they weren't important before, but now I'm a little more, not nostalgic... yes, I'm a little more sentimental about those places. Those were my homes.

Spots that Stand Out: There's this waterfront in Poulsbo, Washington, like twenty minutes from Silverdale. I remember spending many afternoons there. It's funny how those little places that you go to, you don't really realize how significant they are. It's one of those places that I keep going back to -- it's really beautiful. It's this really great waterfront and I've had good moments with friends there. I guess I just really like being around the water. I've never lived away from the Pacific Ocean.

Seattle's interesting. Of course it's a city, but it doesn't really feel like a city. It's broken up into really distinct neighborhoods. This is the first year that I didn't live in the University District, and the Fremont neighborhood has now become really important to me. I remember liking Fremont from the second I visited the neighborhood and probably because it is so eclectic. I fell in love with it for the vintage stores. Vintage stores and beaches were a big portion of my time living in Guam and Hawaii -- for some reason, the vintage stores were always near the beaches. Anyway, Fremont has great vintage shops and a lively Sunday Market and that similar ambience must have struck me. It's a nice mix of people. I also love the Fremont waterfront there.

Methods of Documentation: I like to take pictures first thing when I wake up. I'm refreshed and I want to go to these places. As the day draws on, things pile up. I like the beginning of the day.

I'm shooting with film for this project because I'm enjoying the lack of control I usually have with my DSLR. I like that it mimics how memory works in a way; you don't choose what to remember, the memories come to you as they are. That's what I like experiencing when I get my film developed. I can't photograph the past, but I feel like I'm deep in thought about hometown constantly, and whenever those moments of "I want to remember this" come up, I shoot. Those situations are being instigated by me going to those places as well as being with people I've known for a while.

Photo Credits: Joana Stillwell

Do you have fluid roots like Joana? Share your story with Neighborhood Nomads. This is one in a series featuring our neighborhoods, our hometowns, and the people who love them. 

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