capturing breath: an interview with catherine just

In Conversation, Film, Guest, Inspiration, Portraiture, Travel
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Today we have an interview with artist Catherine Just. I came to know Catherine’s work through Instagram and was immediately inspired by this tour de force talent. She wears many hats including artist, photographer, writer, teacher, world traveler, mentor and mother. Her work has graced the cover of National Geographic Magazine, won numerous awards, and has been exhibited throughout the world. Catherine is currently in the midst of an ambitious new photo project called Capturing Breath on Film, which we touch upon in today’s interview.

When I was first introduced to Catherine’s work I was drawn to her textural black and white self-portraiture, as well as her expressive and intimate writing. Last year I jumped at the chance to take her 6 week Fine Art Master Course. When that course finished, I enlisted Catherine to be my fine art mentor. We Skype monthly and our conversations are wide-ranging —- from the nuts + bolts of developing a fine art series, to juicy topics such as intuition, creativity, spirituality, travel and so much more. I am excited to share her insights and her wild new journey with all of you. —– Deb

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live and create?

Normally, I live in Los Angeles. I currently don’t really have a zip code. I decided in August, 2016 to put everything in storage and travel the world with a year-long art project (which is turning very quickly into a life-long project). My son Max goes to school in Los Angeles so that’s where you can find me when I’m not on a plane or in some other country.

When did you begin your journey with photography?

My artistic expression started in high school. I loved painting and drawing but was suffering from massive drug addiction. I was deeply uncomfortable in my own skin and in my life. I got sober at the age of 18, the summer after I graduated. When I got to art school and was asked to pick a major, I picked photography, film, and video out of the blue. I was newly sober and ready to dive into a new creative outlet and find a way to process the new chapter in my experience. Many people ask “is addiction a disease?” and the answer is yes. Addiction is a brain disorder and it uses things like drugs as a form of reward for suffering, sadness, or insecurity and then it eventually builds up this need for the substance, which makes you want more and more to feel some kind of happiness and comfort. However, what makes it a disease is what you are putting inside your body for this reward is not healthy and it could just kill you. Getting sober is a difficult challenge for many and some take things like a fentanyl drug test to prove they’re off drugs if they’ve been admitted to a rehab center. I have to admit that rehabilitation facilities have come a long way in recent years. Nowadays, it is relatively easy to find a rehabilitation center in california or any other state that can help someone to tackle their substance abuse issues. Ultimately, drug addiction can have serious consequences and therefore it is vital that people living with drug addiction seek out help as soon as possible.

Let’s talk about that big year-long project you mentioned — Capturing Breath on Film. I’d love for you to share with us how this very ambitious idea came to you and what you are currently doing with it. Take us from that first “seed” of an idea up to today.

I was getting ready to celebrate my 29th year of sobriety. I realized that after I celebrate that date I would be living inside my 30th year. I wanted to mark this year in some way for myself. I’ve always used photography to mark the moments that matter and to create evidence of the space between the words —- the unspoken, non-linear story that lives underneath the surface of my life. Up to this point, I had been creating self-portraits with long exposures to try to capture my own breath on film. I was looking for clues in the spaces unseen. What is it that existed that my naked eye cannot witness? I was interested in the emotions and in the internal landscape. It was ( and is ) self-portraiture as medicine. It helped me to process and express. In some ways it saved me. I decided that for my 30th year of sobriety I would turn my camera around and offer this experience to other people around the world, that I would do 30 photo sessions in 30 cities. In AA they suggest going to 30 meetings in your first 30 days of sobriety to get yourself into the “middle of the boat” and I decided to use that metaphor for my own project. Before taking the portraits, I ask people to consider what is it in their own lives that they want to mark? What is it they are ready to release and let go of. What are their intentions for themselves? When we do this long exposure, what thoughts, desires, dreams, and prayers will they want to be considering as the shutter is open? All of these things . . . the breath, the heartbeat, the thoughts will all be on this one piece of film. I’m co-creating evidence of a moment that matters to them. They don’t have to share anything with me. They can write it down and slip it underneath the camera. They can just be thinking about these things as they close their eyes and breathe in and out and become present to the essence of who they are and to the connection they feel in that moment. It’s truly up to them.

Over time this project has become even more profound, in ways I didn’t see coming. It’s changed me. It’s expanded my own sense of what’s important and what’s possible as I’ve witnessed others owning their own greatness in some way. It’s felt like a collective deep breath. It’s a collective heartbeat — this soul that connects all of us. A collective prayer . . . Oh I could go on and on and on. This project is a living breathing being.

Can you tell us where you have traveled to so far and where you plan to go in the coming year?

So far this project has been to: Paris, Cannes, Chateauneuf-Grasse, Rome, Los Angeles, San Diego and Marrakech.

In the coming year I will be heading to: San Francisco, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Vancouver, B.C., Nashville, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, Boston, NYC, Kenya, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, London, plus returning to Marrakech, Cannes, and Paris.

More locations to come!

What are some things you have learned this last year about thinking big and executing your dreams?

When I think that something is impossible . . . it becomes impossible. It really IS impossible. But when I let go of limiting beliefs and thoughts . . . my life expands. I’ve learned a lot of practices along the way that I incorporate into my life. These practices help me to see when I’m thinking small and how to work through that to the truth. A lot more IS POSSIBLE than my mind usually believes at first. For me it’s not just deciding. It takes a shift in my perception, my attention, my willingness to let go of control and to be open for the unknown to swoop in and support me in a bigger way than I could have imagined before. There is a LOT to it. I’ve been just absolutely amazed that the mountains I thought existed just don’t exist at all. I constructed those mountains in my head. But now that I have made the mental shift, I find it entertaining to brush up against my own limiting beliefs, ask myself if those beliefs are actually true and then take action towards what I really want. I employ a number of different techniques and practices to do this: future writing, reverse engineering, relying on mentors, Toltec practice, changing my physical/emotional/spiritual energy and aligning myself in new ways. Each part of my process has been such a gift in my life and I love sharing it with others so that they can bust through their own imagined ceilings.What have you been most surprised by as you travel the world for Capturing Breath on Film?

I’m most surprised by the willingness that people have to go within themselves, to show up fully for these moments on film. The beauty that they exude in their truthful expression of where they are at emotionally and what they are willing to show the camera in their eyes. I’m surprised by how emotional it’s been for ME to be there and see how so many people are really ready to make declarations of deeper devotion to themselves which in turn has a ripple effect on the planet. All of this is so much bigger than me and my life, my sobriety, my creative expression. It’s taken on a life of it’s own. I didn’t expect it to be a project that shifts and changes and grows along the way. I didn’t expect it to touch so many people or to get requests to go to Kenya, Portugal, Morocco…. I didn’t expect people to be reaching out to me to tell me how much this is needed. I didn’t expect the friendships that happened, the connections that have been made on such a deep level and the collaborative nature inside each long exposure. The camera, the film, the participant, the lens, the light, the air, all of my senses, the unknown and unseen all conspiring together to create something out of what may appear to be nothing. It brings our focus to what truly matters and it sharpens our dedication to what’s needed and necessary in the world.

Can you tell us a little more about the camera and film you use for Capturing Breath on Film?

I’m using a 4×5 large format camera and the New55 film. I’m currently having a love affair with both! I love this new film so much that I actually get emotional when I talk about it. Using this camera and this particular film is so incredible on so many levels that every single image feels like a full body/mind/spirit connection and experience. It’s hard to put into words and I think a documentary film may be created in the future to share the unique process I’m having with it. I didn’t learn how to use this camera in school. It’s a camera I have always wanted to work with and now I don’t leave home without it. You can find out more about this film at

Clearly you are at a point in your life and career where you are dreaming big and making those dreams a reality. Is there one piece of parting advice you would give a photographer wanting to expand or stretch themselves in a new and potentially scary direction?

I think it’s important to make the work that’s inside of us. To follow our big dreams and to not worry so much about failure or how others may judge us. We have no idea how our projects, our work in the world and how our big dreams might be needed to help another person. It may help one other person to feel connected, to feel inspired to break free from limiting beliefs and take that big risk or try that seemingly impossible dream. Our bravery can have a ripple effect beyond our imagination. I believe that creating our work and getting it out there to be seen and felt . . it helps heal the world in ways that we cannot expect and really, it’s not our job to know why or how that might happen. It’s our job to listen to the internal whispers and act on behalf of those inspired thoughts, dreams and desires. Don’t give up on any of your creative dreams. They all matter. They all lead you to the next unexpected awakening and could lead someone else to theirs.

If you are interested in learning more about Catherine’s work you can visit her site or Instagram. There you will find updates about where in the world she is on any given day, her current course offerings, and how you can participate in Capturing Breath on Film.

xxoo Deb


  1. What a wonderful interview and awe inspiring project. Thank you for this meaningful and important testament to the human heart and soul. Beautiful. Xo

  2. Oh my goodness! What an incredible project. But my favourite line of the interview? “I’ve been just absolutely amazed that the mountains I thought existed just don’t exist at all. I constructed those mountains in my head.” Perfect.
    Thank you so much to both of you for an incredibly inspiring interview. x

    • I know right? She is moving mountains and it is so inspiring. I am delighted you enjoyed learning more about her. xoxo

  3. Thank you Deb for such an inspiring interview! I love the timelessness of these images and learning all about the project. Amazing!

  4. Love Catherine’s work and I am so glad you interviewed her here. thanks for sharing with us ladies!

  5. I really love how you have inspired yourself into using the blur in your photos, it really makes people think. Love your work.

    • Thank you for your comments Nicki. I will be sure to pass them on to Catherine. (And I completely agree!). xoxo Deb

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