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StoriesKelly Burgess ’09

An empathetic eye

A photographer draws out and documents the quiet emotions of people and places

Photographer Kelly Burgess stands by a shady green Vermont swimming hole.
A move to Vermont put photographer Kelly Burgess closer to the natural world. “I feel very lucky that my life brought me here—it’s given me the space to really think about my art practice in a critical way.”

Whether she is photographing an ancient maple tree, a Medicare patient seeking dental care, a waterlogged meadow, or a friend taking a dip in a local swimming hole, Kelly Burgess seems to look at the world with a tender and thoughtful eye. Emotional narrative, she says, and her own personal experience, are the threads that connect her work.

As a teen, she started making experimental self-portraits using her family's scanner and webcam. When her grandfather gave her a digital camera for Christmas, she took it everywhere, documenting everything she and her friends did together, a habit that she has kept.

After two years studying photography at a community college, Kelly transferred to the Art Institute of Boston, now the Lesley University College of Art and Design, where she received her BFA in Photography in 2009. She later earned an MFA in photography from Massachusetts College of Art.

“I loved my time as an undergrad at Lesley. I really developed the vocabulary to articulate not only what my work was about, but also how it exists within the greater context of photography.”

At Lesley she found a close, tight-knit group of classmates and faculty who helped her to push herself creatively and become a more critical observer.

“I was lucky to fall in with a group of people who pushed me every single day to be better, to think more critically, to read this book, see that movie, read this article, and to seek out new ways of seeing.”

In 2018, after 12 years in Boston, Kelly moved to Barnard, Vermont.

“I had finished my MFA, left my full-time job, and started a 3-week gig in Vermont that summer. I ended up falling in love with the state and up and moved my entire life a month later.”

Rural life and being more connected to the natural world has had a profound effect on her work. Her photographs of trees and landscapes carry a surprising emotional tension.

“I feel very lucky that my life brought me here—it’s given me the space to really think about my art practice in a critical way.”

A Kelly Burgess photograph of a misty meadow


She began to do more editorial photography, documenting local places and events for publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Kodak's Kodachrome Magazine, GROW Magazine, PDNEdu, and Art New England Magazine, where she was featured as one of their 30 Photographers Under 30. Her photographs accompanied stories on subjects ranging from a tranquil lakeside hotel and the quirky roadside Museum of Everyday Life in tiny Glover, Vermont to new treatments for COVID 19 and a cheating scandal at Dartmouth Medical School.

“When I was in college I remember thinking that I would never want to be a photographer for hire because I felt like it would squash my creativity,” Kelly says, “but it’s actually been the opposite experience. Doing more editorial work has allowed me to explore different ways of pushing myself, and has given me more confidence about using my own photographic voice to tell stories.”

In 2020, Kelly became involved with the Too Tired Project, founded by photographer Tara Wray. Too Tired offered a platform to allow people to use photography to engage with each other's experiences around mental health. Kelly brought ideas to expand and deepen the scope of the project, engaging with more photographers from underrepresented communities and creating a platform, Too Tired Press, to push for more equitable photo book publishing.

“Mental health and my struggle with anxiety has always been something that has flowed through my photography work in one way or another, so the Too Tired Project’s mission is something I’m very passionate about,” Kelly says. “It’s given me an opportunity to engage with other people's work in a way that I didn't previously, and to use my own experiences and privileges to make room for more photographers from marginalized communities.”

The current iteration of the Too Tired Project is winding down, but Kelly is hoping to launch a platform with a similar mission later this year.

“I think the project has helped to destigmatize the issue of mental health in the photography community, and help people be more open about the things they struggle with.”