We Create Birmingham: Mary Fehr

"I’ve always felt that we all are deserving of great love. It might not look how you or someone else imagined or it might take a long time to find. Sometimes, it might not be the first time. But I really do believe there’s a fairytale for everyone. My work is about telling those stories."

Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Mary Fehr

Photographer Mary Fehr spends her time looking for what the rest of us don’t see at first glance. Whether it’s an architectural detail on a centuries-old building, the wisened determination in the eyes of veteran small business owner, or a tender touch between a couple, Mary captures the moments that tell our stories. In her most recent series of personal work, those images are a collection of love stories. Titled How We Love, Mary’s portraits focus on honest depictions of love, partnership, and the common thread that binds us together.

When you started this project in 2019, what was your personal goal? What do you hope others take away from your photographs?

I wanted to explore how we express love to each other. My goal has been to photograph 100 couples — of different ages, ethnicities, races, sexual orientations, and backgrounds. It’s a privilege to get to share in this very personal moment — sometimes they’re friends, and sometimes they’re strangers. What I found through this project is that we really all express affection, connection, and love in the same ways — closeness, kissing, laughing, and touching. That’s documented in this series — that common thread.

You began this series of portraits before COVID-19 and social distancing changed how we interacted with each other. As you shifted to continue this project, you asked subjects to compose love letters to each other as an accompaniment to their portraits. 

COVID challenged me to think about how I could continue this project. This past year has allowed me to consider how to add this other layer without physically being in the presence of other people. For me, photography itself is such an intimate practice, and these portraits in particular are so close up. The love letters bring additional context into what I’m able to capture visually.

In addition to this project, you spend a lot of your time shooting weddings. Watching people who are in love for a living must give you a unique perspective on human connection. How do you think nearly a year of social distancing affects us in that respect? Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? 

Yes, but kind of at a cost. I believe we all really want and long for connection. It’s hard to be alone — truly alone, and I think that the past year has emphasized what it means to be together and how it feels to be lonely. That’s really tough.

Where did your interest in photography begin? What inspired you initially, and what continues to inspire you?

My mom was always taking photos of our family when I was young. At the time, I hated it! Like, “Mom! Stop!” But now, I am so thankful for these moments that were documented. Life happens so fast all around us. It can be hard to remember where we were and how we felt in these moments that won’t ever happen again. Documentation matters. 

I consider myself a “hopeful romantic.” I grew up in a family that’s very close, and they set a foundation for love and authentic connection that has been an example for me. That has certainly inspired my work! I’ve always felt that we all are deserving of great love. It might not look how you or someone else imagined or it might take a long time to find. Sometimes, it might not be the first time. But I really do believe there’s a fairytale for everyone. My work is about telling those stories.

You are celebrating four years as a full-time photographer. What challenges have you encountered as a self-employed creative? What advice do you give yourself that you would share with other creative professionals?

It’s hard to live in an age where everyone’s work lives so much on the internet. It’s challenging, at times, not to be constantly comparing myself and my work to other photographers. I think it’s probably natural for creatives to feel this way, and we already put so much pressure on ourselves. I try to remind myself to stay true to my personal style and what really moves me. There’s room for creativity everywhere.

View portraits from How We Love here.