Jenna Houston

Starting a Documentary

Chronic pain is extremely misunderstood. No, it doesn’t just affect older individuals. No, there is not one straightforward treatment. No, its not just in the individual’s head. Yes, chronic pain can be disabling, but no, it is not recognized as a disability by the government. Chronic pain conditions are as complex and nuanced as those who deal with them, something that is often overlooked when discussing the disorders. Imagine on top of the stigma above, for particular women dealing with chronic pain of the vulva, an added bias because of gender and the location of the pain.

As I begin my thesis project, I am out to explain and examine the various stigmas surrounding vulvodynia, a severe chronic pain condition of the vulva. Why is it underreported and under diagnosed? How does it affect regular functioning? What are treatment options? Why are they so limited and archaic? Why isn’t there more research? Once laying out these specific topics and questions, I decided on a video documentary as the format of my thesis. It makes the most sense because I have been working with imagery, still and moving, for several years now, and I feel I can incorporate both information and emotion. Emotion matters for chronic pain discussions; severe pain creates drastic emotion. Information is important because it will inform my audience about what is going on systemically, and what actions they could take to impact that.

There are many factors to consider when beginning to create a documentary video: whose stories get to be included and why, how the individual narratives are woven together to create a larger systemic critique, what topics are key to emphasize, what bias I bring to the film, what footage should be sought out and more. Hopefully in the coming weeks as I begin interviewing both individuals with vulvodynia and healthcare providers, I will start to uncover some answers and have greater clarity on the direction of the documentary.

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“Vulvodynia: A Documentary”

houstonI was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on April 1, 1996 in a quaint lake house. Soon after, I moved with my family to suburban New Jersey where I grew up, not too far from New York City. During my teenage years, I discovered a webcam aesthetic used by other young girls on Tumblr and Instagram that has influenced my video and photo work. Today I am a BHA student majoring in gender studies and art.

The conceptual nature of Carnegie Mellon’s art program coupled with the spread of online activism has inspired much of what I work on now – primarily experimental video work, analog photography, accessible zines and found-object installation.

I created a duo-exhibition with artist Kate Werth titled “Guaranteed Fresh” at the Frame Gallery in March 2017, deconstructing femininity in the context of sexual dysfunction and online intimacy. I am a regular contributor to Crybaby Zine and Polyester Magazine, where I illustrate sex-ed comics for marginalized populations, and my work has been in both of CMU’s literary and art magazines, Imprint and Dossier.

As an intern with Anthropologie, I created visuals for multiple stores, developing sculptural installations and working on catalog photo editorials at their home office in Philadelphia.

My current focus is on experimental filmmaking branching off into documentary, and recently, I finished a photography book, “Paradise, Home from Work,” documenting young individuals with chronic pain in their homes with funding from a CMU Undergraduate Research Grant.

Learn more about my project.