Friday, March 2, 2012

Happy (Photographic) Friday!

I usually keep Search for J Street pretty lighted hearted. A gushing food review here, a little self deprecating humor there, and a splash of pretty landscapes or shoe pictures just to keep things interesting. But I've been thinking about sharing something a little more personal. As you know, I had to do a project centered around portraits for my photography class. The inspiration from my project ended up coming from my grandmother's funeral, which I attended right before I began working on the project. I've attached the explanation of the photos below, but (if I may) I would encourage you to look at the photos for a few minutes before reading the explanation. (Also, the explanation is not a quick read, so it maybe more fun to just consider the photos if you are short on time!)


     My portrait project began as a response to one of the class readings. There was a very small section in the article "Investigations of a Dog" where the author described photographer Daido Moriyama's perspective on photographyit is just not able capture the world. At the time, I had recently returned from my grandmother's funeral, and this idea of photography not being able to convey what is in the real world struck a chord.
     At the funeral home before the mass and at the reception afterward, a slideshow played. It was filled with photos of various family members with my grandmother at holidays, at graduations, on summer vacations, etc. There were even a few staged portraits of my grandmother as a small child in the 1920s and at her graduation in the 1940s. But the eulogy that my uncle gave at the mass did not mention a single one of these moments captured on film. And my conversations with my mother and other relatives after the mass did not mention any of these moments either. I was struck by the fact that the things everyone remembered about my grandmother were not the things anyone took pictures of. My mother talked about how, contrary to those staged portraits, my grandmother's father was sometimes angry and drunk. My grandmother's mother would sneak into my grandmother's bedroom, lock the door, and sleep beside her daughter to hide. My uncle talked about how my grandmother almost single-handedly cared for her son John when he died of brain cancer while still raising her other children that were still living at home. But I have never seen photographs from when my uncle John was dying. My aunt talked about her worry that my grandmother might have died believing that her children loved their father more because he was the one who would always make the grand gesture (that the family could not afford) and she was the one who would have to impose cutbacks in response. That instantly reminded me of another story: One morning she found several brand new cars in the driveway. My grandfather had bought them the night before while intoxicated. My grandmother woke him up from his hangover, marched him and the car back to the dealership, and shamed the salesman into rescinding the sale. There are, somewhat understandably, no pictures of that moment either.  But I treasure all of these stories about my grandmother. To me, they communicate her strength, and they make her sweet disposition all the more impressive. I don't think I could be the same good listener and loving person she was after living through some of those experiences. And I wish someone had captured even one portrait of my grandmother in one of these defining moments.
     As a result of my experience at my grandmother's funeral, my idea for my portrait project is based on the dichotomy between the pictures we take of and the things we remember about our loved ones. As my grandmother made me realize, those two categories seem to rarely overlap. I then set out to photograph the defining but untold experiences in other's lives. At the start of my project, I asked my friends to think back on their lives and guess at what their loved ones might remember about them. I wanted to try to recreate those experiences with environments, clothing, or objects, but I found that I could not communicate my vision to them. I could not elicit something other than traditional memories that many people have with a loved one, to those memories which were unique to and defining for them.
     In the end, I chose to be my own model. I chose three un-photographed experiences from my life that I thought, when trying to remember me and describe who I was, friends and family might look back upon. I chose a family holiday party from when I was nine. At that party, my cousin whispered to me that our uncle was gay. To anyone even a few years older than me, this would have seemed a silly revelation since my uncle had been bringing my "other uncle" with him to family events my whole life. But at nine, I had only heard the people use the word "gay" without really understanding what it meant. When I could finally associate the word with a real life relationship, it forever defined what I thought gay was. To me, it became just another piece of my mother's large, crazy side of the family, no more or less odd than any of the other relationships in the family. The second memory I chose was from when I was twenty. Matt, a good friend of mine, was killed. None of my group of friends nor I had ever suspected, but his father was seriously mentally ill. And then one day his father broke and shot the whole family before killing himself. My friends and I were all so young, too young to understand how such a bad thing could happen. The experience both bonded us and at the same time made all realize how fleeting those bonds can be. The final experience I chose was my break up with the first boyfriend that I loved, which happened just a few years later. He was a terrible boyfriend, and I was an idiot for dating him. But like lots of people in their early 20s, that did not stop me from sticking around and being hurt and disappointed over and over again. The break up was a very painful moment, but in retrospect is was also a moment I am very proud of. A few friends and my mom had been encouraging me for months to demand better, and at some point, I was finally able realize that they were right. I would be better off alone.
      In sequencing the photographs in each series to tell the story of that experience, I tried to reflect my emotion response to the experience at the time. When I was nine, I remember distinctly feeling confusion, disbelief, and then a sort of silly awkwardness, as if I had invaded someone's private world, when I came to realize my Uncle Teddy was gay and my Uncle Aaron was his partner. So I ordered the photographs in a way that I thought corresponded to the confusion-disbelief-embarrassment development. When I was twenty, I remember feeling completely surrounded by a community of mourners when my friend and his family were killed, but the community faded. Sometimes I wonder if even my closest friends still think about Matt or if have pushed his short life from their minds. Sometimes I fear I have pushed him from my mind too. So I ordered this series with the camera moving away from a sole mourner and then removed the mourner too. And when I was in my early twenty’s, I remember calling that boyfriend completely heartbroken (or so I thought) because I was sure we were made for each other. But then his nonchalant reply to the ending of our relationship (he had clearly moved on long before) was when I felt truly inconsolable. It was so much more painful and disorienting to realize that the decision to break up was not, in fact, mine; he had just been waiting for me to formalize it. So I ordered the photographs with the animated portraits first and then the out of focus portrait last to try and represent that final blow.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

Really enjoyed this unusually introspective post. Lovely photos and an interesting concept.
Stephanie S