Let Me Introduce: Jeannée Sacken

On her website, Jeannée Sacken describes herself as “Writer, Photographer, Adventurer.” Three passions – and I am always amazed how she manages to include time for all three in her life.

Which first? From my own perspective, I will start with Writer because that’s where I met Jeannée. She was facilitating a workshop of writers at Redbird Writing Studio in Bay View, Wisconsin.

Jeannee Sacken

Jeannée, would you speak about “the writer in you” and how this passion has played a central role in your life?

Jeannée: My fondest memories from childhood are of my father reading me bedtime stories. The next thing I knew, at age six, I was writing my own stories and plays. The kids in our neighborhood would stage my one acts, and my schoolteachers would have me read my stories to the class on rainy days when we couldn’t go out on the playground. Powerful reinforcement that led me to define myself as a writer.

But in graduate school and later as an English and French professor, my creative writing gave way to the academic monographs and articles needed for tenure and promotion. When my father died, I decided that the creative writer in me needed to come back to life. As did my inner photographer. I resigned my tenure and set out to pursue the vocations that make me, me. This current phase of my writing is inextricably linked to my photography and to my travel. Judy Bridges, my longtime mentor at Redbird describes my writing as “visual.” Robert Vaughan, a member of Redbird and Red Oak round tables with me, describes my novels and novellas as “cinematic.” That’s a direct result of my photography and the way my inner eye sees the world and composes images that I capture, which I later transfer to the written word. Felicity Librie and Barbara Kellam-Scott, two of my writing partners, described my work as “stories of social justice”—a result of my travels and listening to the stories of the people whose portraits I make.

*  *  *

In the Roundtable groups at Redbird Jeannée always kept her focus on the writers she was there to mentor. But we soon learned about her talent as a photographer. At one time, we were honored to have framed photographs of African women displayed on the walls in our meeting room.  We also were privileged to view public displays at various locations in the Milwaukee area. She has presented slideshow lectures at the Shorewood Library. Most recently, Jeannée was part of Milwaukee’s Art Gallery Night and Day, showcasing her favorite photos from a trip to Madagascar. These photographs and dozens of others are presented in five slideshows on her website: http://www.jeanneesacken.com.

Jeannée, many of your photographs feature people, but you also have a gift for photographing animals and landscapes. What personal and professional satisfaction do you get from photography?

Jeannée:  I’ve been incredibly fortunate with my photography. Galleries in Milwaukee, New Jersey, and New York have mounted my exhibits. The Shorewood Public Library featured a program on my trip to Madagascar. Having people view my images, listen to the stories behind the images, and then purchase a photograph to hang in their home—it doesn’t get any better.

Some of my images are the result of a split-second, but most take hours to capture. Hours of talking with people, getting to know them, putting them at ease until their guard is down and the real person emerges. Or hours of  studying how elephants or lions or leopards or penguins interact with their group and making sure I’ve become invisible. Those are the moments I treasure: when an elephant calf I’ve been watching for an hour goes running head-over-heels to the mud wallow once the matriarch bellows it’s his turn, when the Maya woman in “Stringing the Loom” brings her hand to her forehead in relief because all her strings are tangle-free, when “Maya Girl with Corndolls” offers her Mona Lisa smile because I turn my camera away from her brother and toward her, when a schoolgirl at L’école des Saphirs in Madagascar glances back at me over her shoulder, when 90-year-old Marie takes off her glasses so the camera can capture the wisdom in her eyes and reveal her life experiences on the Navajo Reservation.

And those moments inform my writing in all kinds of ways. In fact, I’m currently working on a novel about a photographer whose professional and personal lives are inextricably linked. May I also say that the incomparable Dave Blank (http://www.dave-blank-website-design.com) is the creative force behind my website.

*  *  *

Jeannée’s third passion – adventure – is often synonymous with world travel. As you explore her website, you will see references to Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Alaska, Japan, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, and Madagascar.

Jeannée, in your travels, you are no mere sightseer. What does the word adventure bring to mind when you reflect on these travels?

Jeannée: When my husband, Michael, and I travel, we follow our hearts and don’t hold back. We’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, sea-kayaked with thousands of seal pups in the southern Atlantic, trekked through rainforests in Madagascar and Panama, and canoed the Zambezi River through hippo and crocodile alley. On photo shoots, we’ve jumped off a train in the Honduran Mosquito Jungle, lived with the San in Botswana, and ridden horseback to mountaintops in search of images of women and children.

For me, meeting and photographing people with vastly different life experiences from my own is key to my travels, to my writing, to my life. People cultivating bananas on communal plantations in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania, a seamstress surviving the war years in Guatemala, or grandmothers and granddaughters throat-singing in Petropavlovsk, Russia, get me outside my comfortable life in Wisconsin and open me to life in other parts of the world.

Sometimes our adventures test us. Although we take precautions, things happen. We’ve endured a car accident in Costa Rica, our lodge burning down in Namibia, an emergency helicopter medevac out of the Kalahari Desert, and a hospitalization in Maun, Botswana. No matter what we encounter, we do our best to stay in the moment—and remember those moments. Adventure travel certainly gets our adrenaline flowing, but more important, it gives us the chance to see some of the most beautiful places on earth and the opportunity to meet and honor the people who live in those countries.

*  *  *

Jeannée, Could you tell us about your next adventure?

Jeannée:  We have two trips on the horizon. In a few weeks, we’re off to Mongolia: a week in the capital, Ulaan Bataar, then a week in the far-western reaches of the country for the Golden Eagle Festival, followed by a week in the Gobi Desert. Our reason for going is to photograph the festival where hundreds of nomadic Kazakhs will congregate to display their eagle-hunting prowess. Although this used to be an exclusively male undertaking, young women are starting to take part—as seen in the documentary The Eagle Hunter. We’ll also saddle up and ride with Kazakh hunters across the steppes! In 2018, we’ll be returning to southern Africa to photograph the great elephant migration from Chobe in Botswana to Hwange in Zimbabwe. I’ll be photographing these magnificent animals from toe-level blinds, kayaks, jeeps, and mountain bikes. This expedition is in concert with Imvelo, an organization that works with local Zimbabwean and Botswanan communities to ensure conservation of endangered species.

*  *  *

Thanks for the interview, Jeannée. We’ll follow you on your website.