CNN Photos

Painting portraits with water

When Wendy Sacks is taking a portrait of a child for her series “Immersed in Living Water,” the water is her paint. As a child she painted with her mother, who was an artist, and when she’s working today, she can feel the palette knife in her hands.

Much of the image happens before there is a camera between the children and her, Sacks said. Each photo shoot takes up to two-and-a-half hours.

They go on a walk together and talk to build a relationship beforehand, then they have the photo shoot in a tank outside in natural light. She tells them that this isn’t a photo shoot where you say “cheese.”

“They mostly want to jump in the water and do the photo shoot and think it’s fun to be in the water with clothes on,” she said.

They talk about how life is gentle, and the child then portrays the gentleness alongside props they pick out together.

“Children look at the viewer in a way they don’t normally look at a viewer,” she said about the subjects in the photos. “They don’t usually stop and look in an almost confrontational way.”

Sacks worked as a pediatric physician in an emergency room until arthritis debilitated her at 36. She says she prefers to work with children, who she sees as closer to nature - not yet as shaped by nurture as adults. She says she tries to channel the nature part of the children in her photographs.

“I’ve been with them at the point of death and the point of birth,” she said. “I have a strong sense of the preciousness of life - that it can be gone in a flash.”

When she’s looking through the camera lens Sacks says she thinks of the patients she saw as a physician and couldn’t allow herself to digest emotionally in the moment. She recalls being with children in their last hours when their parents were absent.

“I didn’t cry,” she said “I was holding their hands.”

Sacks documented some interesting cases while working in the ER, but she didn’t invest in photography until after leaving the medical world. Her arthritis that forced her to stop practicing medicine had pained her so much that she needed an occupational therapist to help her hold pots and pans. Photography was less straining and became a therapeutic outlet.

Sacks first got the idea to take photos in water after her therapist suggested she bathe with her daughter. She didn’t have to lift her daughter, and the warm water soothed her deteriorating joints. Sacks took photographs of her daughter during baths, then started photographing her daughter’s friends and neighbors as well in water.

At first she was embarrassed that she photographed children in a bathtub and just stored the prints in a box under her bed. Then, after mentioning she took portraits at her son's youth orchestra concert, an usher in invited her to an art group and told her to bring her photos. At the meeting everyone in the group went around and said their name and their work, and Sacks said when it was her turn she quietly mumbled, “My name is Wendy Sacks and I take pictures of children underwater.”

An art historian looked at her prints and pushed her to put a portfolio together to present at photo festivals and reviews. Despite her lack of experience and training, her work was quickly recognized by photography appreciators and won several international awards and appearing in different shows in a matter of months.

Sacks’ work isn’t done yet. She still feels like she has something to say through this series.

“I learned that what I’ve been doing is making a photographic journal,” Sacks said.

Sacks finds her art an emotional outlet but wants viewers to have a personal dialogue with the images.

“It’s important to have these open interpretations,” she said.

- Lauren Russell, CNN'

Sacks' project was shortlisted for the Terry O’Neill Tag 2012 Awards, which will be exhibited in Strand Gallery January 17-31 in London, England.