As a young girl, Susan Mah inherited a passion for photography from her father. “He was a fantastic photographer and my first mentor,” said Mah, who delved deeper into the art form in a ninth grade photography class. She learned how to process film in a darkroom and shoot manually on her first real camera. Like her architect father, Mah enjoyed taking pictures of buildings as well as places she visited. She even dreamed of becoming a photographer for National Geographicone day.
But in addition to instilling a love of photography in his daughter, Mah’s father also encouraged her to pick a career that would let her help others. Throughout college, she volunteered at a variety of organizations. Moved by the struggles of the people she encountered, Mah heeded a professor’s advice to major in sociology. She graduated with a B.A. in the field and then earned a master’s in social work.
“I was very driven by wanting to make a difference in people’s lives,” Mah explained. “My father always taught me that we are our brother’s keeper.”
She spent the next 13 years working as a psychotherapist. Eventually, the stress of the job and the emotional burden of hearing so many traumatic stories began to weigh on her. In her early 40s, Mah had a self-described midlife crisis.
“I realized I’d been living my entire life for others and had left myself behind,” she said. “I made a conscious decision to change that and focus more on what I wanted for myself.”
Her yearning to be a professional photographer resurfaced. Though others had always praised her photos, Mah wanted an objective measure of her abilities before plunging into a career change. She applied for a scholarship offered by L’Ecole Parsons in Paris, telling herself that if she received the money, she’d quit her job and move there to study photography. The scholarship came through. Mah spent six months in Paris where her enthusiasm for photography and learning flourished.
Upon returning to the U.S., she wanted to continue her studies. She looked at several schools but chose Academy of Art University’s School of Photography because it offered an M.F.A.
She also liked that the Academy’s curriculum emphasized the technical aspects of photography she wanted to strengthen while other programs focused mainly on concept.
As an Academy student, Mah became increasingly enthusiastic about environmental portraiture. “I always thought portraits were a little boring and didn’t tell much about a person,” she remarked. “But I love environmental portraits because when you catch someone in their natural surroundings, especially in their home, you learn so much about them.”
For her thesis, she expanded on a class project in which she’d created images related to some major losses she’d experienced—most notably, the death of her father and the end of a long relationship—by taking environmental portraits of others coping with loss.
“I was glad to have a reprieve from social work, but I missed helping people,” said Mah. “I wanted to do something to help others through my photography, to find a way to bring my two worlds together.”
She achieved that goal with the powerful series of photos she titled the Loss Project. Mah shot her subjects—friends, family members and acquaintances—in their homes in a moody, black and white style. The compassion and empathy that served her as a psychotherapist helped her models feel comfortable sharing their stories and being vulnerable in front of the camera.
Mah wanted the photos to be therapeutic for her subjects and also hoped viewers would connect to their own grief in a meaningful way. The process of creating the portraits was also healing for her.
“It took me a while to realize that every time I worked with someone else on their grief, I was working on my own,” she noted. “The project provided me with a kind of cathartic experience.”
After graduating from the Academy last May, Mah sought a venue where her photos could reach other people struggling with loss. She found HealGrief, a nonprofit dedicated to erasing the taboo of talking about death and validating feelings associated with loss and bereavement. She contacted Fran Solomon, the organization’s president, about the Loss Project.Solomon loved the series. She not only featured the Loss Project on HealGrief’s, website, she also opened the project to the public to submit their own images and stories related to the death of a loved one.
“I thought it was a fantastic idea,” said Mah. “We just launched in December, but the hope is to build a gallery of hundreds of images and create something similar to the AIDs quilt.”