Interview with Joanne Savio

Interview with Joanne Savio

February 2017
Joanne Savio talks with her former student Roland Folkmayer about the retrospective of her dance photography and about what she seeks to achieve in a photographic portrait.

RF: What does it feel like having a retrospective of your work?

JS: It’s a very emotional experience. Each of those images have some kind of memory, some more than others. As I looked at the negatives down in my basement—surrounded by, you know, the washer, the dryer, the water tank–working on this very tiny, light table with an old magnifying glass—it wasn’t just picking out images for a show from thousands of negatives of dance, but it was also a visual memoir. I shed tears over some of those images. Some of these subjects are not with us anymore. Some of the assistants that helped me create this work are not here anymore. Awam Amkpa, a friend of mine who is a scholar and artist here, said, “Don’t think of it as a retrospective. Think of it as an introspective,” which I thought was excellent, you know, a good way to look at it.

RF: Absolutely. When you were going through your pictures, how did you know what to exclude, and what to include?

JS: In the film department, as you know, we have the expression “Kill the darlings.” And I had to do that for this show. I kept editing, editing, editing, taking things out, and trying to stand back in my mind, to see how these images converse with each other. Do they have something in common? Is there a gesture? Is there something that would make the images live together as a family? [Laughs.] I still mourn some of the images that I couldn’t fit into the show.

RF: So you were looking for—something more like an emotional attachment for you, or some other sort of quality?

JS: I had to say to myself, “Okay. Is this [image in the show] because I’m so attached to this person, and I’m really remembering that moment shooting them? But how will an audience react to this image?”

RF: Why did you choose this twenty-year time frame for your exhibit? Why not shorter, or longer?

JS: That’s a great question. One way to think about it is 1986 was the first dance project I ever photographed, of Merce Cunningham. And there was no budget. I had gone back to school later in my life, at 33, I had already graduated with a degree in English Literature–

RF: Great. [Laughs.]

JS: —and I was then studying at Cooper Union, which is an amazing art school, and engineering, and architecture school in New York. And almost all of the students there were appropriate college age but we became friends. There was one young man there who later became an extremely famous designer and writer, Abbott Miller, who ended up art-directing and designing the beautiful magazine called Dance Ink. He called me and said, “I have this project, a portrait. I think you’d be perfect for it. But there’s really no budget.” When he said the subject was Merce Cunningham, I said, “I’m ready. I’ll go.” And my husband, Jim, went with me as an assistant. So that was the beginning. And even though I didn’t stop shooting dance in 2004, it seemed like the bulk of my work, including my book Vital Grace, as well as most of the work I had done for Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Ink., seemed to finish up at around that point. So it seemed like a perfect chapter to try to illustrate. But I intend to continue shooting dance and taking portraits for the rest of my life.

Portrait of Pina Bausch, Italy, 1994.
Photo by Joanne Savio

RF: How does dance keep you inspired? Why do you think it’s an essential and important topic in your life?

JS: Because for one thing I’m so clumsy. And these incredible, beautiful beings can do something that I cannot do. So the ones that are performance based, it was exciting to shoot. There is some kind of gut reaction about when to press that shutter. Someone who came to my opening said, “That’s a perfect moment with Baryshnikov and Trisha Brown. How did you know to shoot that moment?” But it was the instinct of seeing a beautiful form. I would hear myself gasp behind the lens. For that moment in time I also feel like I’m flying through the air, I am these dancers. But when I stop time for that second, it forces the viewer to study that image. So the image appears important, or it appears that it’s something that needs to be looked at.

RF: That’s very interesting. So you weren’t necessarily capturing a particular moment but could, sort of let it happen?

JS: I’m usually working with these people not as they’re performing for an audience. So I can say, “I want to make sure that I got that jump. Can you try it again?” No one’s saying, “Oh, you should get that.” You know, there’s just something inside of you that feels a moment you connect as human beings, something about that person that’s reminding you of yourself. Like, I’m looking at you now, how you’re holding your hands. I’m looking at your gestures, your eyes. If I were taking a portrait of you right now, I’d be looking for those moments where it would feel right to take that picture.

RF: When I look at these pictures, I wonder—how do you bring out the vulnerability in people?

JS: You know, the first thing is that you try to establish a sense of trust and respect between you and your subject. If it’s someone famous I do research before the shoot, because I want them to know that they’re not just another project to me, that I’m interested in who they are, what was there upbringing like, where were they born. I also feel when a camera is on you, you can feel vulnerable. And I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty. Also, I don’t rush them. It goes back to the class you took with me [“Sound, Image, Story”], when I tried to stress slowing our world down, looking at tiny moments of light, little gestures, a look in the eye, expressions on a face.

RF: How can we practice slowing our world down?

JS: That’s—I’m still— [Laughs.] I’m still struggling with that myself.

RF: Interesting.

JS: When I slow my world down, I don’t tend to fall as much. [Laughs.]

I want my subjects to know that they’re in good hands. I want them to know that I am going to work with them to make an interesting and beautiful portrait of them, no matter how we define beauty.

RF: Your exhibition is called Grace, and your images were featured in a book called Vital Grace. So I wondered, what is grace to you, in your life?

JS: Even in this context, it’s not just grace in the sense of being graceful, but also in the sense of giving blessings and giving thanks to something. These photos are a way also to honor the people that were willing to sit in front of my camera and willing to show themselves to me. So it’s also a grace in the sense of giving back to these people a blessing of gratitude.

RF: Putting together this exhibit was a long process. What will you take away from this whole exhibition?

JS: I’m still processing it all but it does feel really good to see my work around me. Because it’s like being almost in the company of friends, subjects, memories in my own life. So I walk away from the exhibition feeling very grateful for the life I have.

Joanne Savio’s exhibition Grace: A Retrospective of Dance Portraiture and Performance 1986-2004 continues at the NYUAD Project Space gallery through February 25.

Top photo: Trisha Brown, archival digital print from film negative, 156 x 111.8cm. Choreography, If You Couldn’t See Me, 1994. Images courtesy of the artist.




Eid Postcard Contest Winners

Eid Postcard Contest Winners

We asked community members who had traveled during the 2014 Eid al-Adha holiday to submit photos from their trips that would make good postcards. Here are our top submissions. Scroll down to find our winning three postcards:


Copy of AK1

Aiman Khurram, Those Who Don’t Jump.

“Those who don’t jump will never fly.”- Leena Ahmad Almashat

Arabian Adventures- Overnight Safari.

Eid ’14



Copy of FL1

Feline Paula Lange, Not the Occidental Way or The Three Graces. Saadiyat Public Beach, Abu Dhabi.



Copy of JD1

Jack Dickson, A Secret Retreat.

A secret retreat behind the concrete facade. Sofia, Bulgaria.


Copy of KT2

Khadija Toor, Bastakiya, Dubai.


Copy of SR2

Sam Ridgeway, Ocean View from the Corniche.

It’s funny, there’s a part of me that wishes I wasn’t here right now looking at this view, that I could be thousands of miles away next to you. Yet I also imagine you being here to see for yourself what I can only now capture with a broken iPhone.

The sun is setting over the Corniche and I’m knee deep in water. If you get low enough, the orange glow flows from the horizon and appears to kiss the crests of water. The sea is so calm; the only noise is of the water washing around my feet and children calling to their parents for attention. The sun seems to refuse to set and my mind wonders about how you are.

I wish you could see this right now.


The Winners

Congratulations to Feline Lange, Harshini Karunaratne, and Sam Ridgeway for submitting the top three postcard photos and messages, below, which will appear in the January print issue of Electra Street.

Moon Landing, Abu Dhabi Desert

Feline Paula Lange, Moon Landing. Abu Dhabi Desert.


Oryxes seen in Ras al Khaima

Harshini Karunaratne, Oryxes Seen in Ras al Khaima.


NYUAD Campus Interior

Sam Ridgeway, NYUAD Saadiyat Campus.

Dear Saadiyat,

It’s been difficult getting to know you. I know you have everything I need but I still hope for something more. You don’t feel like home for me yet and I think you’re a bit ugly on the outside. Yet, through my friends I see the beauty in you, Saadiyat. Whether it’s the peace one can find sitting at the amphitheater or the reflections from the glass creating a grandeur that I did not notice before.

Hopefully I will get to know you better and appreciate you fully.

— Sam




In December, we challenged NYU Abu Dhabi students to use their phones for photography – without using any filters of any sort.  We had so many submissions that it was difficult to filter out three winning photographs, but filter we did and here are the results! Stay tuned for upcoming contests and remember that all submissions will be considered for possible inclusion in the first-ever print publication of student creative work, which will feature work from students at NYUAD and the GNU.

Congratulations to the winners!

Caroline Cobena, “Yorkney’s Knob, Australia”



Tom Taylor, “On Break”




Agustina Zegers, untitled

Zegers 2


MultiMex: Manifestations of Mexico

MultiMex: Manifestations of Mexico


This photo essay explores the various manifestations of my Mexican identity. There are many stereotypes and assumptions that people have about Mexico, and my project attempts to visualize these stereotypes. The assumptions about Mexico that people have create masks through which others see me; in this project I wanted to transform and “fit” the masks that might be placed on me by others.

Mexico’s involvement in the drug war has made drug-related crime a widely spoken topic in the media. Sometimes, when I say I come from Mexico, people ask me about the drug situation, and I have to explain that the entire country is not drowning in violence and crime. Even though I don’t have a personal connection to the drug war, many people in my world do have a connection, a theme I portray in photo seven.

People also know Mexico because of the immigration problems that Mexico has with the United States. But not all Mexicans are immigrants. I portrayed myself as an immigrant to explore another image that might mask my identity, and that affects how people look at me, whether I like it or not (photos 2 & 3).

Other images in this series are not related to precise stereotypes but play with Mexican folk traditions and artwork. For example, the “calaca” or “catrina,” shown in photos 4 & 5, is a folk representation of death in Mexico used in celebrations like “Día de los Muertos” (“Day of the Dead.”) The artwork in photo 6 is typical of Mexican homes, created by a group of indigenous Mexican people, the Otomí. These are things, along with my family, seen in photo 1, that I associate not only with Mexican culture but also with personal memories of Mexico.

This photo essay is meant to show the way that I, as a Mexican, embody not only my own memories, but also the memories and experiences of my country.

I am Mexican because of my memories and my nuclear family in Mexico.

I am Mexican because of my memories and my nuclear family in Mexico.
2 & 3
The stories of Mexican immigrants to the United States, whether they directly affect me or not, form part of my Mexican identity.

The stories of Mexican immigrants to the United States, whether they directly affect me or not, ...

4 & 5
I embody a “catrina” or “la calaca”. Even though foreigners think the “calaca” might be scary, it can be found in many Mexican homes, representing something that is actually a joyful celebration.

... it can be found in many Mexican homes, representing something that is actually a joyful celebration.

An Otomí piece of artwork. The Otomís are indigenous people from the center of Mexico.

I am recreating a drug-related crime. Frequently, victims show signs of torture, and have a sign with some sort of message stabbed to their bodies. The sign in the photo says, “So you learn your lesson motherfuckers.”

In this picture my reflection is not my face but another face, with darker skin. This picture represents the assumption that all Mexicans have dark skin when, in fact, there are Mexicans with dark skin, and there are Mexicans with fair skin.