Kristin Herbster ’91 began writing poetry as a child, majored in English literature, and always knew she wanted most to be an artist or creative person of some sort, she said. But it was in 2000, when she took her first photography class, that Herbster began creating in a new and inspiring way.
Since that first class, Introduction to Black and White Film, at Rhode Island School of Design (while her husband, Jonah Willihnganz, was finishing his Ph.D. at Brown), Herbster has forged ahead. Last year at Stanford University she exhibited a word-and-image exploration titled Re:producing Motherhood.
At RISD Herbster was asked to photograph people, and photographer Stephen Smith set strict rules to push her out of her comfort zone. Initially she sought to emulate renowned street photographer greats such as Winogrand and Cartier-Bresson, but she was uncomfortable with street photography for its lack of connection with the subject. “To me, it always felt like I was stealing something,” she said.
Today she views her process as co-creative with her subjects. It’s a collaborative approach that has worked in other parts of her life, too.
Since graduating from Colby Herbster has moved around the country and among professions, from Seattle to Providence to the San Francisco Bay area and from banking to teaching to counseling and consulting.
Recently her day job took a more metaphysical path. Today she does “energy-clearing,” a therapeutic process that she says involves the identification and permanent release of blocks, beliefs, and limiting emotions that cause confusion, unhappiness, illness, and dysfunction of all kinds. Through extended conversations, Herbster helps clients identify and overcome their fears and limitations.
Re:producing Motherhood was a word-and-image exploration of how women negotiate the belief systems that define motherhood in America. Herbster’s inspiration for this project is deeply rooted in her interest in belief systems. “It starts with one another,” she said, “what we learn from our parents, our culture, and the beliefs we create through our own early conclusions about the world, which are not always accurate or aligned.” Conceptualizing her project required trying to make sense of the “baby fever” that was spreading amongst her friends.
“Everybody I knew was having babies. Some of the most intelligent, ambitious, career-minded women I knew were stopping what they were doing to bring about another human being.” Curious as to why she did not hear the ticking of her own biological clock (a clock she considers to be yet another belief system), she aspired to examine modern motherhood. “I was wrestling with my own beliefs, and I realized that the best way to understand motherhood was to start photographing it and to hear from these women directly what this experience was for them.”
The intimate nature of her 80-photograph collection, she thinks, is a result of her work being somewhat collaborative, or at least consciously participatory, which made the women feel comfortable enough to allow her to occupy their space. All subjects volunteered and invited her into whatever aspect of their “real life” they wanted to share.
“One of the best things I found in doing this project,” Herbster said, “was that every woman mothers according to who she really is. And she enjoys being who she truly is when she is not handicapped by beliefs of how to be or what to do that aren’t truly her own. The truth is, there is no one or best way to mother. There are at least as many ways to mother as there are mothers.”
Both Re:producing Motherhood and a second project, titled Inheritance, which examines the world we produce for our children, are being developed as multimedia art installations that involve light, sound, text, and image and are also intended for book publication. Herbster is working on these projects in France, where she now lives with her husband.
—Sarah Gagnon ’04