What's Your Word - The Photographer

Marissa Southards


This history of The Awakenings Project STL is rooted in this word, photographed in late 2016 on the back of a woman whose husband taught her how to use a camera.

That woman is Marissa Southards.


 In the two completed cycles of The Awakenings Project, and in the middle of a third as of 2018,  in all the local buzz and attention paid to The Awakenings Project, Marissa still sees herself as a working photographer whose duty is still to her husband and children. However, that duty does not define her, and is quick to correct anyone whom calls her, or anyone woman, ‘just’ before a selected noun. Marissa often says as an almost knee-jerk retort, “Women are not defined by their roles.”

However, what can really be said about Marissa?

Marissa has been called a teacher, a healer, and a favorite, ‘a leader of a tribe of warrior women.’ In spending any amount of time with her, you see a light in her which you have the sense she had to fight to get and maintain. There is a toughness to her that is identifiable to other women, too - women that have had to fight to get back and maintain their sense of self. 

In almost two years, two hundred sessions, and over one hundred and eighty participants, and now a book of writings about this path known as womanhood, Marissa is still in awe of The Awakenings Project and its influence on and in the lives of its participants.  Indeed, what can you say when you birth a movement with the power of a single camera? Well, Marissa has a ready answer in the interview below.   


The Awakenings Project Media Team:
"Why did you use the word complete?

 Marissa Southards : I chose the word complete and it was photographed at the end of A1 simply because I was able to see myself in all of the words that had previously been chosen by the prior fifty participants. By being able to see myself, I realized that I am complete as I am, no matter what previous label had been given to me.


TAP Media Team:
Awesome. As far as clarity, what made you choose that?

 MS:  I choose clarity also at the end of Awakenings 2 when it was photographed—the word came to me somewhere in the middle. And that’s when my path became very clear to me—that this was not just a one-off photo. It had now become a vision that this [The Awakenings Project] was not just going to end at a specified day and time. The clarity that I received in photographing an additional 101 participants—not including myself ensured my path was now clear to me, and I needed to stay in that message and in that word as I move forward. 

TAP Media Team:
And when you say clarity and moving forward, what do you think that means for yourself as an artist and for the project? 

MS:  As an artist it means staying— just staying in that artistic zone and not letting anything disrupt that. Having taken thirty plus years to acknowledge an artistic streak, and now I need to—have to have the clarity to stay in that artistic streak and not let it be taken from me again. 

TAP Media Team:
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not? 

MS:  I had considered myself a feminist when I began this project. I think as the project has evolved, I’ve really become more of a humanist. Or a womanist, which is a word I really hear coming up a lot.  Feminist can be a little exclusionary, and I think that really has kind of been appropriated and excludes so many especially our trans sisters. I think womanist really embodies not just female-born, but female and woman-identifying as well. So, I think I began as a feminist, and I’m definitely more of a womanist now, and really capturing more of that feminine spirit, not necessarily its parts biologically. It is really the spirit of that where I think womanist really is. 

TAP Media Team: 
Awesome! Well, we will throw this one in for fun. Did you think that The Awakenings Project, would do all its going to do and you see it becoming?  

MS:  Fuck no! (laughter) I never really saw this happening! I never envisioned this happening when I started! When I took the first image I never thought it would become a movement! I thought it would be a moment. It would just be a moment in time that I had for myself and a few other women would have that moment too. I never imagined in the fall of 2016 that I would be traveling to different cities, that I would be speaking on this topic [self-care, body positivity, therapeutic writing women’s issues, female centered activism], that I would be working with women the way I do now - I never thought that would come out of just one image. I thought it would be a moment - I never thought it would be what it is now, and continues to grow! I have several what-the-fuck moments a day! When I get feedback from the social media page, I get messages, I get inquiries - and it is humbling to know that there are people who believe in this - but at the same time I still have those moments where I go, “What the fuck did I do?” On a regular basis actually. But we’re just going to go with it, y’know? It’s at a point where I now I feel that it’s a message:  living authentically and limitlessly - and  acknowledgement of self is not a privilege. I feel it’s something that every woman and woman identifying person should be able to do without judgment and have a safe space to do that. I’m really humbled that I’m able to do that, to provide that. 

TAP Media Team:
I know that we talked about the words clarity and complete, but we know in doing all the editing, and compiling of images yourself, you say you get tingles when you know you have captured the moment of participants. How do you feel about being the first person to see these images, editing these images and being able to give these images to women whom may not see themselves as beautiful, or as empowered, or powerful as they are on film or photos? 

MS:  I use the word humble a lot because it is really humbling to me to provide the opportunity to feel safe so that they can be completely real. When I look through the images, especially because I take between 40-60 images, sometimes more, when working with different women and in going through the images, there may always be an image that is framed better, the composition may be technically better, but it may not encompass that moment where they really connected with themselves. When I go through these images -when I’m editing, I’m looking through the images and reviewing them again, when I see that moment again - I get that same rush.  Where I know this is it, this is their moment. The editing piece is easy from that point because that woman’s moment of connection to self is shining! All I’m doing is getting the right color, the right shading to ensure their spirit is shining through the way it did for me in person. 

TAP Media Team:
If you could offer one piece of advice to past participants of the project and future participants of the project what would that be? 

MS:  Live in your word. Just live in your word. There is so much soul work that is involved to get to the word, sometimes people have 2, and that’s okay, but moving forward you cannot let it be a moment, which why it is so important for me for people to have a copy of their print to look at. Moving forward after a session, after you’ve sat, you need to live in that. You need to stay in that space. All of that work you have done to get to your word, and to embody it, to actualize it, it's time to now stay in that, and remember that to keep it with you. Because that is how we truly remove our own boundaries. We are perfect at creating our own boundaries and getting in our own way. The process of getting to your word and having the image taken, is you getting out of your own way. That’s where you need to stay. Once you stay there, you have removed your own limitations for yourself." 

Marissa has found her work in her word.

The hope and life of the project lies in those whom she encounters willing to do the same:  in front of and beyond the lens.


Marissa Southards is the photographer behind The Awakenings Project, and the primary photographer of Southards Art Studio.  In addition to The Awakenings Project, Marissa also photographs events, portraits, and families and is a firm believer in co-creation between artist and subject.  She currently resides in Glendale, MO, with her husband Brian (the primary graphic artist of Southards Art Studio), her two daughters, Amelia and Haley, and two dogs.  She can usually be found with her camera, an iced coffee, and a box of Sprees candies and is currently experiencing life at several "what the fuck's" per hour.  

*The TAP Media Team is comprised of author Jennifer P. Harris, Massage Therapist Nancy Anna Lee, and Project Manager Jessica Ruby. 

Both Nancy and Jessica can be reached via The Awakenings Project on Facebook and Instagram, and Jennifer can be reached via Facebook at Jennifer P. Harris and on her blog: The Ideal Firestarter (found here).


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