"I think the real magic happens when the universe drops something
in front of me to see if I'll pick it up."
—KAITLIN TOTO, photographer and former teacher
Kaitlin, let’s start with your notorious rum-running paternal great-great-grandfather...
Part of my genetic cocktail comes from my great-great-grandfather, Danny Walsh, who was the East Coast’s most prominent and probably most successful bootlegger in the 1920s and into the early ’30s. It turns out, his bootlegging was tremendous competition for Al Capone and his operation, so it’s not hugely surprising that after a meeting with some of Capone’s “associates” at a café in Warwick, Rhode Island, on the night of February 2, 1933, he disappeared.
His brother, Joseph, received a ransom note a few days later demanding $40,000 in exchange for his return. Although the money was delivered to Boston, Danny was never seen again.
For a long time, whenever human remains were found (like skulls washing up on shore, because I guess that was more common than I care to imagine), they were checked against Danny’s dental records. In 2016, remains were found on what was once his property in Charleston. At first, they were believed to belong to him and some of his victims (not really a real warm and fuzzy sort of guy, my great-great-grandfather); however, the developers had unearthed a 19th-century burial plot.
There’s actually Black Duck, a young adult novel written by Janet Taylor Lisle, about the bootlegging operations in Rhode Island. The Black Duck was one of Danny’s rum-running boats.
Where in Maine did you grow up?
I was born in Waterville and moved to Windham around my first birthday.
I attended the University of Maine at Farmington, graduating in 2013.
What led you to become an English Language Arts teacher?
In first grade, I was identified as having a sort of learning disability. I don’t know if an official diagnosis or label was ever offered up, but I definitely struggled with reading. That same year, I was pulled from my mainstream classroom for part of the day to receive some additional support with literacy; I’d go to a tiny room that was decked out with bins and bins of books. The chairs were hard, textured plastic in an assortment of primary colors; they were placed around a short table with a fake wood grain vinyl covering. The program was called SPIRE.
Being taken out of the mainstream classroom and getting support in a small-group setting was probably one of the best things to ever happen to me in an academic sense. What at first felt like a punishment became my favorite part of school. It was in this tiny classroom that I met some of my favorite characters, like Mr. Putter and his cat Tabby and Henry and his mastiff Mudge. I was taught how letters are sound shape-shifters and one word can have multiple meanings depending on how I chose to use it. It was in this seemingly isolated classroom that I formed an intimate relationship with English.
During my high school years, my home life was tumultuous at best. I’m sure they don’t realize it, but my teachers cast a safety net for me during what was a pretty dark time for my family. Actually, I’m certain they don’t know it because, with the exception of a few people, I never told anyone at school what my life was like. This was in 2004, long before I was cognizant of the fact that people have energy that they wear, almost like clothes. I think there were teachers that I was drawn to because of their energies. I had one teacher, Mr. Riley, who would let me stay after school. Over a period of time, he learned that I just didn’t want to go home and eventually I started sharing what life in my house was like. We’d play card games, like SET, and he’d let me talk and unload; occasionally he’d offer advice or relevant anecdotes. Mr. Riley was the first teacher to really show me that teachers are people. He told me about his sailing adventures and how he adopted a kitten he found in a coastal village during his travels. He was also a competitive salsa dancer.
My sophomore year, I had an English teacher who had a nose ring, a couple tattoos and always wore the coolest wide-legged pants. Her love of our shared language was palpable and she understood that none of us wanted to read A Tale of Two Cities or Wuthering Heights (not that those don’t have their place in the literary canon, but those weren’t the books to engage a group of millennial 14- and 15-year-olds with). She encouraged me to write and was quick to applaud my risk-taking. The way she offered feedback and guidance didn’t necessarily make me feel like a student, but like a writer working on her craft. The way she taught us made me feel empowered. By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher.
You’ve said that the public education system hampers a love of books and writing for too many students. How so?
Maybe I should start by listing books and plays I was assigned to read when I was in high school: Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, Things Fall Apart, The House on Mango Street, Julius Caesar, The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, The Great Gatsby, Much Ado About Nothing, The Canterbury Tales, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, Animal Farm, 1984, Ethan Frome. I’m sure there are plenty of others I’m missing. Here’s the list of the above titles I actually read: Of Mice and Men, Things Fall Apart, The Crucible (getting to watch the film adaptation in class and seeing Daniel Day-Lewis in his unbathed imprisoned Puritan glory was the highlight of junior English class for me), Ethan Frome and The House on Mango Street.
Before you start sending hate mail, hear me out. All of those are tremendous titles and to the right audience have the potential to have a profound impact. To a group of pubescent 14- and 15-year-olds, the impact is going to be underwhelming because, and this probably won’t be very surprising, they don’t connect to the text. I mean, have you read Ethan Frome? One of the symbols is a pickle dish and when the cat knocks it off the table, watch out!
I understand why American education has stuck with these classic titles for so long—they’re the products of some of history’s greatest minds. But what’s the point if we’re pushing them onto students who just aren’t developmentally in a place to digest them? I think we’ve all been in a classroom where the teacher had put the desks in a circle and asked students to volunteer for roles in a Shakespearean play. We’ve all sat quietly, trying not to make eye contact as the teacher asks, “OK! What do we think line 138 means?” None of us had a single clue what line 138 means, or line 137, or line 136 ... Then our teacher would launch into their own theories about line 138 and how Shakespeare’s placement of an owl in the scene is a clear indication of wisdom from a character.
When I was a freshly graduated 23-year-old struggling to find a teaching job, I worked in the cafeteria at a local university. It was a hugely uneventful job, one that gave me an ample amount of time to read. During one particular shift, I stood behind the register devouring The Great Gatsby. I had been assigned to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book about five years earlier, when I was a junior in high school, but I was 16 then. I didn’t understand it then; I couldn’t connect with the characters, the writing was too dense for me, it felt wordier than I could work through. But reading it at 23, while participating in clear work avoidance, I loved it. I went on to read a biography for Fitzgerald and started to see how his novels were semi-autobiographical.
All I’m saying is, let’s offer students books that they’ll connect with. When we do, I think we’ll see less reluctance in reading. Students will be able to make meaning from what they’re reading and will be able to have conversations about inferences they’ve made, symbolism, themes, etc.
Name three books that were special to your students.
I’ve purchased upwards of 20 copies of Thirteen Reasons Why. At this point, I think most people know that Thirteen Reasons Why is about a fictional girl, Hannah Baker, who takes her own life, but leaves behind seven cassette tapes, each side containing a reason for choosing suicide. While the book is obviously heavy, it’s a conversation starter about the complexities of mental health and how what we say and do can and does have a deeply profound impact on the people around us.
At the end of the novel, author Jay Asher includes resources for people struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts. Undoubtedly, it’s a book that has saved lives. It’s also a book I had to fight to keep in my classroom. When the Netflix series came out (which is pretty different from the novel), my school board at the time raised the red flag and told teachers it needed to be removed from our shelves. I have a lot of issues with the Netflix series but I never removed it from my classroom because I know, like most banned books, the people trying to censor them have never actually read them or they’ve read them and missed the point entirely.
Another book students loved was Stolen by Lucy Christopher. While it’s not necessarily a book with deep and moving themes, it’s gripping from the very beginning. I’m not exaggerating … I’ve never met a student who didn’t like it. It’s fast-paced, engaging and just an overall page-turner. It’s a book I used to get my students to buy into the idea of independent reading. When a student tells me they don’t like to read, my response is, “What you’re actually saying is you haven’t found the right book for you yet,” and then I hand them a book like Stolen.
A third book my students really loved was Everyday by David Levithan. The main character, who goes by A, isn’t a person, but rather a being that switches bodies every night. A’s gender is never discussed, so whenever I book-talked this one, students would always ask about A’s pronouns (which is kind of what Levithan was getting at with his book, but in a subtle way). A would jump from one body to another at the end of the day; this “jumping” was out of A’s control (there’s a section of the book where A discusses all the different things they’ve tried to stop jumping from person to person). It’s a beautifully written book and because Levithan has written so many titles, it’s a great place for students to start because they’ll most likely enjoy his other books, too. Like Stolen, no one has ever told me they didn’t love Everyday.
I would encourage everyone to read Thirteen Reasons Why and Everyday, even adults.
Your teaching philosophy seems to be as much about life as lit, and your students love it. What are you up to?
I met my students where they were at; together we practiced tools that ensured personal growth and discovery. I used to say that English is the vehicle through which I taught compassion, empathy, tolerance, creative problem solving and critical thinking. How many times have you had to write a persuasive essay or thesis statement as an adult? Not many, probably, if any, right? How many books has your company asked you to read and then requested an outline on the themes? None.
How many times has life called on you to be patient, to be compassionate of another person’s needs, to find a creative solution to a problem or conflict? Probably daily. I needed my students to walk away from my class being better communicators and thinkers, who valued curiosity and exploration, who had a better understanding of themselves and their needs, and who knew how to begin advocating for themselves. I was trying to prepare my students for whatever experiences and opportunities presented themselves down the road, as well as for their next big test or essay.
After teaching English for seven years, what prompted the change to art?
I’m deeply passionate about the arts. I’ve always been drawn to visual arts, and sharing that passion and need for risk-taking in creativity has been wonderful in ways it’s hard to articulate. Art is therapeutic. Today’s students are riddled with anxiety and depression, and are in desperate need for healthy outlets. Schools don’t have the resources our students need when it comes to mental health; they’re short on guidance counselors and social workers to an alarming degree.
For many students, art class is a place where the pressures of school and maybe even home* can take a backseat and they can just enjoy the process of making and creating. That’s the sort of teaching and learning I want to be a part of.
* I can’t even tell you how many students come to school who haven’t eaten since lunch the previous day, who saw or experienced domestic violence the night before, who were without heat or running water, who share a bedroom with four other people (some of whom they might not even be related to), who slept in an ice fishing shack or a car, whose parent sold their kid’s ADHD medication for money—the list of traumas my students have experienced before even losing all their baby teeth is astronomical.
Are your students open about expressing themselves?
I’ve found this harder in art just because I have my students for only a fraction of the year and only I see them every other day; we just don’t have that much time together. When I taught English, I had my students for both their seventh and eighth grade years; I saw them every day for two years. Within the first two or three weeks of school, I start sharing certain things about myself, things that model what being vulnerable looks like. Whenever I ask my students to write, I write with them. I always model what it is I want them to do. Through my writing, they learn about the substance abuse I saw as a kid; they learn that things started to escalate in my family around the time I was in seventh grade and by high school, my home was a pretty explosive place. I don’t usually go into deep detail, but they’ll know I’ve had family members who have been arrested and incarcerated. I share with them what healing looked like for my family ... that I needed extra support as an early reader and had been pulled from class to be in a literacy program from first to fifth grade.
If I expect my students to express themselves and to allow themselves to be vulnerable, then I have to do the same. I have to prove to them time and time again that our classroom is a safe space and that we all have some level of mess in and around us. After we have a level of trust and a rapport, most of my students start to share bits and pieces of themselves, some beautiful, some heartbreaking. It’s just another reminder that, as a teacher, I am in the human business and that everything educators do has to be for our students.
When did you begin your photography career?
Right before the end of my first year teaching, in May of 2015, I started my business She’s A Teacher Photography. While my business is still relatively young, my love of photography goes back to when I first discovered I had body hair and that hygiene had to be a daily endeavor. I’ve always loved taking pictures, especially of people. In middle school, I was always buying disposable cameras; they’d come in packs of three. I’d go through them so quickly because to me, everything was worthy of being captured. In high school, I got my first digital camera—a Canon point-and-shoot with a modest zoom feature. It became part of me.
In 2013, after graduating college, I got a refund from my university. Instead of putting the money into repaying my student loans (because why would I do that?), I saw a Nikon DSLR on sale at Target. Without much hesitation, I bought it and informally started taking pictures of my family and friends, my friends’ kids, and day-to-day happenings, like my parents working in their garden and my niece playing in the sprinkler.
One afternoon, I was taking pictures of my friend’s daughter. My friend, Kelly, said, “You know, you should make money doing this.” I hadn’t thought of it before; trying to make money at photography honestly had never crossed my mind. I went home that afternoon and created a Facebook page, called it “She’s A Teacher Photography” and clicked “publish.” And here I am six years later.
So many of your documentary photo images express great emotion. Do you seek these types of situations or do they find you?
I’d say it’s a combination of the two, or maybe more of an “ask and you shall receive” sort of thing; maybe it’s even the Universe conspiring with me in my art. I don’t know. There have been times when I had an idea for images I wanted to create, I just needed to find the people willing to let me photograph them. I’ve never had to look too hard; the people I need always seem to show up right when I’m ready for them.
At some point, I realized I wanted to find my way onto a lobster boat, but even as a woman raised in Maine I didn’t know any lobstermen. In the spring of 2018, I was hired to photograph a wedding in Cundy’s Harbor in Harpswell. Guess what! The best man was a lobsterman! By the end of the night, he had agreed to let me photograph him and his crewman out lobstering.
A handful of months after shooting on the lobster boat, in December of 2018, I had headed to Portland to have dinner with friend, Orson, and his son, Leo. When I walked through the door, Orson said, “Don’t take your shoes off. We’re heading to Leo’s drum lesson. You should come. And bring your camera.” We headed for The Shoestring Theater on Brackett Street. The Shoestring isn’t a traditional theater or performing arts space. Once inside, it’s disguised as a questionably built warehouse. We climbed a few flights of stairs to a large, open space filled with massive handmade puppets covering the walls. There were work benches and tables littered with tubes of acrylic paint, repurposed tin cans filled with paint brushes, barrels filled with wooden rods, and an old but still functional piano. The Shoestring Theater is beautiful, magical chaos. I photographed as much as I could in that 60-minute window.
Leo’s instructor, Rion, turned out to be the creator and drummer of a band called el malo (which means “the bad” in Spanish). The week before, Orson had played el malo’s new album for me; it wasn’t like any music I had heard before. It was instrumental and horn-heavy, with an incredible, electric rhythm. Rion would later describe it to me as “salsacore”—a fusion of Latin, funk, jazz, plus something a bit allusive and hard to pin down. Something inside me said, “You need to photograph them.” I didn’t know what it would look like. I had never photographed musicians or live music. A few weeks into the new year, Rion invited me to a house party to hear his band play. I think it was some sort of test or something, because after that night, the band agreed to let me sit in on a rehearsal just a short time later. About a month after that, I shot their usual gig at Blue on Congress Street.
As an artist, I’m open to what may come. I’m happy to make plans and seek out the experiences I’d like to have to create certain images, but I think the real magic happens when the universe drops something in front of me to see if I’ll pick it up.
What would be your dream photo assignment?
I’m drawn to the types of photography that underscore the seemingly more mundane aspects of our lives—the smaller moments, the unsung heroes of our day-to-day lives, the ones we meander past without much notice, so much so that 10, 20 or 30 years have passed.
Documentary and lifestyle are my favorite types of photography—to take in as a viewer and to create as an artist. To say that all of life is worth documenting isn’t hyperbole, at least not for me. I want people to see their lives in a new light, from a different perspective. The things happening around us every day are beautiful in their own right—a carpenter loading his truck with tools for the day, coffee mug resting on the tailgate; a shop owner turning on the lights, taking and stocking inventory, prepping for a day of sales; new parents traversing their new life with their baby—early morning feedings, baths, in-laws babysitting so the parents can catch some uninterrupted sleep, loved ones stopping by with meals; a mechanic, under the hood of a car, oil smeared on his face and hands; a farmer milking a cow, collecting eggs, fixing his tractor.
There’s so much magic in the day-to-day, but it’s hard for us to see it. We have so many responsibilities, tasks to get done, errands to cross off our lists. For many of us, our days are a blur of obligations from the minute our feet hit the floor. Wouldn’t it be nice to see it all as an experience and something to celebrate?
My dream assignment would be one that offers authenticity and vulnerability; one that is raw and unscripted. One that captures people as they really are.
Roger, the lobsterman I mentioned earlier? His wife reached out to me after that shoot to thank me for the photographs of her husband. They've been together for well over a decade and she'd never seen him in this light before. That's what lifestyle photography is all about: giving people the gift of witnessing, allowing them to see the different facets of their lives from a new perspective.
Do you journal?
Nearly every day. My journaling has definitely evolved over the years. I first started journaling in fifth or sixth grade. I actually shared my middle- and high-school writing with my students (don’t worry, I was a pretty G-rated teenager); my journals from my adolescent days are packed with ultra-awkward social choices, unreturned crushes on boys and generous helpings of teenage angst. You know what I’m talking about—the “no one understands me” stuff.
There have been times in my life when I’ve been less consistent in my writing, but the older I get, the more and more I write. My journals also double as scrapbooks. I tape a lot of things into my journals. I have a one-a-day calendar of r.h. Sin and Samantha Holmes poems; if one resonates with me, I peel it off and tape it on a page. I recently opened a fortune cookie with the message “Don’t panic.” That’s decent advice, so I taped that in my journal, too. I found a Post-it note that read, “What makes you feel alive?” and another one that says, “Where have you gotten used to beauty?” They’re in my journal now, too.
I purchase journals that have paper suitable for mixed media— watercolor, oil pastels, charcoal and India ink. Over all, my journals are a messy place. By the time one is filled, it’s probably a bit tattered with pages taped back in, things sticking out of it. Maybe the physical appearance of my journals is indicative of how uneven and messy life is.
It’s kind of a trip to go back and read my journals. It’s wild to see the different iterations of myself over the years. The woman I was at 23 does not at all resemble the nearly 31-year-old woman I am now. It’s a gift to be able to appreciate who I was then and watch myself traverse my 20s on those pages. It can also be a bit uncomfortable to read my writing from years ago. Time softens feelings, but because I don’t censor myself in my journals, the rawness of whatever I was experiencing, those feelings are always waiting for me on the pages.
You’re on an interesting journey … Any thoughts about what’s next?
On June 1st of this year, I resigned not only from my position at my current school, but from teaching entirely. My main focus, especially over the next few months, is my physical and mental health and begin practicing looking after myself again. I want to create more balance in my life.
Over the summer months, I’ll be volunteering at a small farm in Durham and working with horses, goats and sheep. I’m super jazzed to be connecting with animals and supporting a local operation.
In terms of a job, I’m definitely going to be focusing on my art as a photographer, including rebranding. I mean, it’s probably a bad move to call your business “She’s A Teacher Photography” when you’re not actively teaching anymore, right?
I’ll also be collaborating on a podcast with two of my closest friends, both of whom have a background in education and one of whom also resigned from teaching a few weeks ago. We’ve purchased all the equipment and are working with a local audio engineer to learn how to use it. We’re hoping to have two or three episodes done by the end of August.
I definitely have moments of fear, but I’ve been working hard to flip the script and remind myself that I’ve just embarked on a new adventure and that so many things are possible.
I’ll be doing some freelance writing and offering English tutoring and private art lessons over the summer and into the next school year. Honestly, for now, I’m taking this little by little and slowly piecing it together.
. . .
Trader Joe’s makes these gluten-free sweet potato crackers that I love pairing with Maine’s Fredrikson Farm goat cheese.
I love Hermit Island in Phippsburg in the fall and early spring.
Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, which is a small German market and café.