“SOME PEOPLE” (Every) Body
Interview with Kimberly J. Soenen by A.M. Larks
Kimberly J. Soenen is a passionate, intelligent, eloquent, humanitarian—a powerhouse . I met her for the first time when I attended the live group exhibition she’s produced, “SOME PEOPLE” (Every) Body, to work an event co-sponsored by the literary magazine Please See Me. Soenen was a gracious host, a caring Creative Director, an impassioned speaker, and an effusive curator that evening. I had time to study both her and the exhibition because when you work an event, you spend many hours there, often arriving before the doors open and staying after the visitors leave. The result of which was a deepening of my experience with works in the exhibition. We caught up over email to talk about “SOME PEOPLE” (Every) Body and art in the time of COVID.
(United States Army Sergeant Chris Kurtz in his home, Tennessee,
December 2018. Photo by Erica Brechtelsbauer.)
KELP: This exhibition centers around the question “How do people define health, health insurance, healthcare, and Public Health?” Were you always interested in this topic, or was there a specific incident that brought this topic to the forefront of your attention?
(Finn Swimming, age 10, Moosehead Lake, Maine, 2016. Photo by Heather Perry.)
SOENEN: Four key experiences have driven me to publicly address global health as the single most vital social, economic, ethical, and business priority.
Firstly, I have lived and worked in Europe on the EU economy. The healthcare I received in Ireland, England, and Germany was exceptional. As a young woman in my 20’s I noted the lack of worry citizens there had about healthcare. Although some Americans feel a false sense of security about their health, Americans are endlessly worried about the cost of health insurance and healthcare. That weight wasn’t expressed or demonstrated by the Europeans with whom I lived and worked. Still today, few of my international friends and colleagues feel the weight or worry Americans do. That is to say, it only takes a split second for illness, injury, or disability to alter the course of one’s life in perpetuity. And bankrupt you.
Secondly, in 1997, I interned at Harper’s Magazine in New York City. The five interns were unpaid, and health insurance was not part of the arrangement while working there full-time. I was aware those were the terms prior to signing on, but to me, there was a disconnect between the exceptional editorial and the magazine’s own business practices. The magazine was reporting on First Amendment rights, the morality of foreign investing, disparities driven by prejudice, the need for transparency in government and healthy workers’ rights, and yet…When you are young and witness those contradictory crevasses between mission and action, it sticks.
I began paying very close attention to the unparalleled rise of Managed Care in the United States and the staggering financial trajectory of private health insurance industry growth.
(David Floating. Photo by Cheney Orr.)
Thirdly, throughout the 1990s, even while working full time, I was repeatedly denied reimbursement for healthcare by my health insurance companies. They would frequently refuse to “approve,” “pre-authorize,” or pay for the most basic and inexpensive care related to my chronic illness as well as basic preventive and Primary Care.
Eventually, an overwhelming avalanche of “Out of Network” out-of-pocket costs, unaffordable deductibles, expensive premiums, uncovered medicines that were not on the health insurance formulary, and ongoing “Denial of Care” bankrupted me.
I feel an obligation to expose the fraudulent and criminal practices of the health insurance, biotech, and pharmaceutical industries, so others don’t feel alone when they are denied healthcare or unable to afford the unnecessarily high cost of medical care.
American health insurance companies and individual shareholders profit from illness, injury, disability, and death as a free market asset. It’s uniquely American. So it is important that dear readers learn and understand terms like “Medical Loss Ratio,” “Benefit Buy-Down,” “Denial of Care,” “Stock Buybacks,” “Roll Purging,” “Repetitive Appeal,” and many other terms and practices that have been coined by and executed by the health insurance industry to allow it to deny care to their premium-paying members. The less care they have to pay for, the better.
(Flag, Lower Wacker Drive below Michigan Avenue, Chicago,
July 2019. Photo by Michael Zajakowski.)
I don’t speak for everyone in our group, but our ongoing international group project illuminates the universality of fragility and vulnerability. In this very moment, the coronavirus is amplifying that universality. The COVID-19 pandemic is also amplifying all of the questions we are examining with “SOME PEOPLE” (Every)Body.
The unemployment rate in the United States will soon be higher than 25%. That number does not account for those who have been denied unemployment relief access. The current reality compares to the worst period of the Great Depression. That’s a record number of persons losing their employer-sponsored or spouse-sponsored health insurance. Triage Healthcare Policy has been enacted, but it is temporary and has not been sufficient.
This pandemic is forcing us to scrutinize unethical business practices, government priorities and our own nonpartisan values.
This project is as much about transforming our philosophy of, and approach to, health, as it is about business ethics, social values, and fiscal priorities. Does the health of strangers matter? What do we value? What are the barriers to healthcare? Should empathy and compassion be paramount across government and business
leadership? Who “deserves” healthcare?
COVID-19 is answering all of those questions if we listen.
KELP: That constructive creative spirit certainly resonates throughout the exhibit. I find that art has the unique ability to start conversation and alter perspectives in an unparalleled way, but I am never really sure how it is accomplished. Why is art suited for advocacy? Why is it our go-to medium for speaking out?
SOENEN: The photographer Stanley Greene died in 2017. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times, he said, “You want to sit there comfortably with your newspaper and blueberry muffin, and you don’t want to see pictures that are going to upset your morning. That is the job of a journalist, to upset your morning.”
That quote is on my fridge.
Art—no matter the medium—cuts through. As makers, producers, and physicians, we assign language with photographs, art, and essays to emotions and feelings that many are unable to articulate. Today, we are saturated by incessant disruption, frenetic energy, distraction, uniformed opinion, echo chambers, and statistics. World class reportage, work by high-performing artists, exceptional writing, and testimonials from physicians cut through all of that noise. Our intention is to produce, publish, and exhibit our work, then step back, and invite the viewer/reader/attendee to react and respond and then speak out in the way she wishes…or not at all.
I can confirm what coalesced our group creatively and journalistically was our collective weariness and pain related to unchecked bad actors and rewarded criminal intent at the highest levels of the private and public sectors. Our work serves as awareness levees intended to reduce trauma and mitigate harm.
I receive emails and messages daily about how our project is altering perspectives. But I can’t explain the how. However, I do know from experience that one frame, one sentence, one art installation has the power to redirect thinking and move people to take action which can ultimately change legislation.
KELP: Journalism, specifically photojournalism, is just one of the many forms of photography in this exhibit. Other forms include portraiture, head shots, fine art, candid shots, photojournalism, and street photography. What inspired this diversity?
(Boundaries, Sister. April 2018. Photos by Evie Scarborough.)
SOENEN: This is an extraordinary group. Every “SOME PEOPLE” (Every)Body contributor has a different Point of View and communicates that POV using a different method or medium based on her experiences. The variety of mediums, formats, and styles reflects the variety, depth, and expanse of our collective human experience. It was very important to me that the project include exceptional, emerging photographers as well as critically acclaimed, veteran photojournalists side by side. It’s about the collective we. Some examples of our depth, diversity and age span follow: Evie Scarborough, our youngest photographer, a twenty-year-old from Peterborough, England, who is currently a student at University Centre in Stamford; Eivind H. Natvig, a forty-three-year-old post-genre photographer based in northern Norway; Alyssa Schukar , a photojournalist currently living in Washington, DC; Liviu Pasare, a thirty-nine-year-old artist who is of Romanian descent and resides in Chicago; and the oldest writer in our project, Dr. Arnold Widen, who is ninety-one years old.
The art is also varied. From a Creative Direction standpoint, I wanted it to be 2D / 3D, very multidimensional and multifaceted. We also encourage all attendees to touch, walk through, and interact with the art. Metaphorically, because large companies don’t often see or feel the harmful impact of their business practices, we encourage people to Get Close, See Other, and Touch.
KELP: I love that you described the collective artists and the pieces that they contributed as having a dialogue with both the visitors and between the pieces themselves. At their core, conversations are dynamic and fluid rather than static as you point out. Walking through the exhibit and viewing photographs and essays on the digital exhibition on Instagram, this presence came through; it felt like a meditation on the topic of the body, simultaneously broad and individualistic. I felt the familiar refrain of seeing myself or people I love in the stories reflected there, just as you described. But with so many voices, so many pieces, I am wondering how you were able to make the exhibit cohesive? Were there themes or elements that you concentrated on?
(Floating. Photo by Ana Simonovska)
SOENEN: The overarching theme of the project is universal fragility and vulnerability. The strong undercurrent themes are Economic Dignity, business ethics, social values, fiscal priorities, health equity, respect for healthcare professionals, and the need to remove barriers to healthcare. That fragility knows no bounds as we are witnessing now at the writing of this interview with the COVID-19 Public Health crisis.
The installation process was elastic and fluid right up until 4:00 a.m. on Opening Night. The way in which the work is displayed is as vital to me as the image, essay, or art itself. The way in which my Installation and Design partner Philip Spangler and I sequenced the exhibition is very intentional. Rather than sequence chronologically or thematically, we challenged expectations and stitched in plenty of wit and love, and joy as well. We set out to communicate that this project is not about illness, it’s about interconnectivity and viewing the body as a universal living organism that transcends politics and prejudice.
The digital exhibition is ongoing on Instagram @SomePeopleEveryBody. But in the live exhibition, we begin with an ethereal photo by Ana Simonovska that recalls an adult in a womb surrounded by water. It is followed by a stunning image by Chloe Rosser that depicts bodies as matter, as living organisms. Marjike Thoen’s arresting birthing-in-water image follows. We all come from water, are made of water, and connect to one another like water, fluidly. That theme travels through the entire project. You can see that overtly in the video installations that are posted in the multimedia section of our website especially. The water theme evolved very organically.
During the live exhibition in Chicago, I saw people touch the wall of the Liviu Pasare interactive installation as if trying to climb into the multimedia; people traversed and zigzagged through the Modern Day Bible heads created by Erika Dufour. Attendees would sit in front of the photo collage by Mark Eric Trent, examining the details in each of the 4” x 6” photos patiently. People touched the typewriter in the How Numbers Perceive & Define Me installation by David McCauley while tearing up. People would read the essay by Cat Gwynn, step back to look at her photograph, and then read her essay a second time. On countless occasions I watched in silence as a person would stand in front of Jim Bovin’s work about children with terminal illness. They would then look across the gallery to get their spouse’s attention in silence. And with one silent exchange, the viewer in tears would convey, “We’ve been through this. This is us.”
People smiled at the images by Heather Perry, Alec Soth, Rubén Salgado Escudero, Robert Miller, and Ed Kashi, which celebrate compassion and joy. Then, they would lean in very closely to read every line in the work of artist Nikkolas Smith in agreement. People viewed the image about companies that perpetuate and exacerbate the diabetes epidemic in the United States by Dr. Chip Thomas and shake their heads and then one step away, while viewing the image of a veteran by Erica Brechtelsbauer, they would tear up. I witnessed visitors stare at Kevin J. Mellis’s black and white photograph of elderly hands for lengths of time. Veins, wrinkles, bones. In those hands, a story.
Many people asked me about the photography of Timothy Fadek and Justin Merriman whose work addressed Healthcare Refugees in the United States. Visitors could not believe such a reality existed within the borders of the United States. The photo essay by Cheney Orr gave us an intimate look at his family’s response to his father’s Alzheimer’s, and Nolan Ryan Trowe highlighted private/public moments of persons with disabilities. Misha Friedman gave us an intimate view of “invisibles” through images of a physician that does home visits in rural areas to people who never get out, are never seen.
When couples watched the art video by Michael Curry that with data illustrates the unparalleled rise in health insurance stock market value in the last decade, while the income of families has decreased or stayed flat, couples would look at one another and shake their heads in agreement and sadness.
The live exhibition ends with Dermot Tatlow’s sizeable and shocking photo installation about Healthcare Refugees in the United States. A cardiologist from Rush University Medical Center visited the exhibition, and as we stood together in front of the photo installation, he said to me, “This is it. This conveys everything that is wrong with our philosophy of, and approach to, healthcare. It’s all embodied in this installation, right here.”
The lengthy rope used in that installation falls loosely to the floor and wraps around the feet of viewers. Will we use the rope as a lifeline, or a noose?
KELP: You make a powerful observation that everyone is feeling vulnerable during COVID-19. I find art to be an empowering element especially combined with activism. But at times, societal problems can feel too big for us to take on individually. Are shows like these making a difference? What can one person do?
(Boundaries, Sister. April 2018. Photos by Evie Scarborough.)
SOENEN: It’s up to every individual to decide what they wish to fight for, contribute to, and change in our world. Taking care of your own family, family of choice, friends, business or community is enough. Not everyone needs to be engaged in global movements. Big isn’t always better. The tenets of taking care of your own are the true glue. Activism is an internal motivation and conversation. Those conversations can extend to your kitchen table, classroom, street, or the world stage.
What do you value? What is worth fighting for? What is Health Solidarity? I feel that gut has everything to do with knowing what injustice is. For me, what drove me to bring attention to healthcare disparity, healthcare inequity, and health insurance industry fraud and criminality, wasn’t an intellectual or emotional process. It was visceral. Again, words fail in trying to describe that fire, but for me it is not head or heart, it’s gut. When I know preventable death is all around, that’s an unfathomable driving force.
KELP: These are crazy times, and I know from following your Instagram feed that you are putting out new content that was not available during the original show and that your contributors are documenting the COVID-19 pandemic. I am curious how this new content interacts with the previous content? Is it another meditation on health, specifically focused on this virus, or is it more like an expansion of the previous discussion?
(Youth, Paul Michael at dunes. Photo by Kimberly J. Soenen.)
SOENEN: This is a long-term project with our core group of contributors that will feature select new contributors peppered in over the next two years or so. The newly posted photography, essays, and art in the digital exhibition on Instagram @SomePeopleEveryBody raise the same questions, address the same issues, and examine the same themes. After the global Public Health crisis winds down, we’ll continue showing the live exhibition internationally, and the new contributors will be included.
Our collective focus as a group has intensified because of this crisis. I think we all feel more responsibility to insert ourselves into shaping society with our voices, our work.
Photographer Adam Stoltman, who is a contributing writer/photographer in our group, recently wrote something to me that embodies our ongoing project:
“[The pandemic is] the beginning of the great unraveling and the laying bare of all the delusions we have allowed ourselves to live under. A lot of things are going to change, albeit in a less than smooth manner. But the end result will likely be efforts to build greater actual resilience, at least amongst people who understand the nature of the problem(s), and greater social protections ultimately…but there will be a lot of discomfort and pain as we move through it all. I liken it to stages of denial….as it is just beginning to dawn on many that things will likely never go back to “normal” and that our definitions and understandings of the forces at work need to change. There will be many entrenched interests, of course, however in the long run, I am optimistic, as you know…and it is a chance for humanity to grow.”
Regarding a specific focus on the coronavirus, I will continue our focus on the pandemic of preventable harm and death in the United States that has been caused by Denial of Care, delayed care, and intentionally erected barriers to healthcare. That invisible pandemic—the virus of speed, haste, and greed—has taken the lives of far more people than the coronavirus ever will.
The “SOME PEOPLE” (Every)Body group of artists, physicians, photojournalists, and essayists are going to continue talking about it. Loudly.
(It Used to Read Welcome to Pepsi Country. Highway 89 outside of Tuba City near the Moenkopi Arroyo, Navajo Nation, Arizona, 1987. Photo by Dr. Chip Thomas.)
Kimberly J. Soenen is the Creative Director, Curator, and Editor of “SOME PEOPLE” (Every)Body, an ongoing multiverse group exhibition about healthcare, health insurance, health, and Public Health.