By N. Elizabeth Schlatter
(Publisher’s Note: This story was published in August 2007)
No matter the location, date or specific subject, the theme of families—immediate, extended, blended and makeshift—appears throughout the work of Gillian Laub. Her images of residents in Israel and the West Bank depict the horrors of war, the bravery and determination of survivors and the familial bonds common to humanity, even when the “families” are comprised of fellow soldiers. Her series on the Miss Hemisphere Pageant, a beauty competition for infants through teenagers, centers on a specific family whose legacy of pageant winners informs the direction of their everyday lives. Likewise, Laub’s own family has been a continuous subject and source of inspiration and is the focus of a recent solo exhibition at the Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York.
Born in Chappaqua, New York, Laub is also a noted commercial photographer, having received assignments from the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, New York Magazine and Details, amongst many others. A few of these assignments have taken her overseas, allowing her to begin and continue her portrayal of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Lebanese and Palestinian families living in the Middle East affected by the violence that has marked the past decades.
Laub, who describes herself as a secular American Jew, first visited Israel in 1990 as a teenager to attempt to understand the concept and connection to the “Jewish homeland.” While she was discovering and enjoying the country’s varied landscape, culture and society, the first Gulf War began. She observed the country, populated by people with extremely diverse backgrounds, especially religious and racial, and that the connectedness of its citizenship seemed to be palpably divided by these differences. She also realized that her immediate future as an American high school student preparing to attend college contrasted with that of her Israeli peers, men and women who at age 18 faced mandatory military service.
Her experiences and observations from this initial trip fueled her later portrait series in which her photographs are presented along with statements or quotes by the people in the images, who discuss their lives primarily as they have been affected personally by the wars. This series has received critical acclaim and is the focus of a recent book, Testimony: Photographs by Gillian Laub, published by Aperture Foundation.
Your images of people in Israel and the West Bank show their suffering, but also reveal so much beauty, not to mention tenderness, which is a very different view of life in the Middle East than what we may be used to seeing. Did you have this in mind from the very beginning?
I’d been to Israel before, but when I went in 2002, after 9/11, I knew that I wanted to find the stories of people there that we didn’t see in the media. I felt there was something missing from the whole story. When I got there I pretty much talked to anyone about his or her lives and current events. People were incredibly responsive. It seems like everyone has an opinion about Israel, but it was important to me to see and hear firsthand what was going on. In a way, I sort of became a vessel for these opinions and for people to tell their own stories. If you respond to the beauty in my work, then I feel like I’ve succeeded because it’s almost like I’m trying to celebrate the beauty of these people who may have been seriously injured. The young woman Kinneret, for example, suffered severe burns over 70 per cent of her body. I photographed her in the pressure suit that covers part of her body. People don’t think they want to look at a burn victim, but when you see her photo, you see how really beautiful she is.
What else would you like the viewer of your photographs, of this series in particular, to take away with them?
My incentive for Testimony was first and foremost a way for people to look at this conflict in a new way—not black and white—hopefully for a moment to forget about sides, just taking in the individual stories and being open to hearing the stories of people from all sides. This is not about who is right or wrong, but to show how many people are suffering the consequences of the situation. Also, the subtle identity and tribal issues that exist in this part of the world are so layered. I think when one reads the testimonies, hopefully that is revealed. From the very beginning of this project, the interviews, journals and text were intricate to this work. The photographs function as only half of the work. The subjects in their own words were necessary from the very beginning.
How involved are your subjects in creating their portraits, and do you ever stay in touch with the people you portray?
We decide together on the pose and setting. I photograph a lot of people in their homes or in their favorite locations. And every person I photograph gets to keep a Polaroid. I feel like photographers in general are always taking from others, and it’s the duty of the photographer to give something back. With portraiture, there’s a special intimate exchange going on. The quotes that accompany the photographs are from what the person either wrote in my journal next to their picture or from interviews that I conducted. Everyone reads what I include. If someone can’t read English, then I get it translated. I do stay in touch with several people and visit them when I go back. In fact I was just on the phone with Kinneret. I’m very committed to the people I work with. And Israel will always be a place to return for me. My goal is to spend about one month of every year there.
Do you feel like people’s attitudes towards you or your presence in Israel has changed with more recent events?
Well, often I agree with their perception of America. But I also think that people realize that individuals are very different than their governments, so they can look beyond that and relate on a personal level.
Do you think being a female photographer from America in any way affects how your subjects relate to you or in how they want to be portrayed? Do you ever find yourself challenged or perhaps viewed as an outsider because you are a woman professional from the West?
Actually, being a female photographer is an advantage. I think a woman can be less intimidating than a man. Also, I believe a male photographer would have a more difficult time if he were photographing children and religious women, which I did. In this case I think women have it easier. The fact that I am American was a bit frightening at times in the West Bank and Gaza. Americans were not seen in a very positive light, but I felt that people opened up to me as an individual, not just an American, and felt comfortable voicing their opinions.
You have an undergraduate degree in comparative literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. How did you end up switching to photography as a career?
I don’t think of them as being separate. For me, photography is just another way of storytelling, where I’ve become the narrator. I’ve always appreciated the narrative quality of photography and been taking photographs since I was nine when my grandfather gave me a camera, and I started taking photos of my family. As soon as I received that camera, it felt like “home” to me. My grandfather would tell me stories about how his uncle survived Nazi Germany because he was a photographer. His family was killed in the concentration camps, but because the soldiers liked his photographs and could use his skills, he lived. Later he came over to America with absolutely nothing. At that time, my grandfather owned a sleep-away camp, and his uncle became the camp photographer.
So has your family been a subject for you for a long time?
I really started focusing on my family while I was in the full-time program at ICP (International Center for Photography in New York). I was working on a few documentary projects with Robert Blake as my advisor. I’d always felt that families in general are an endless source of narrative dynamics, and telling their stories through photography is pretty challenging. The series that will be at Bonni Benrubi’s Gallery is called “An American Life.” It’s about my extended family, which I’ve been documenting about the past seven years. My family lives in New York and Westchester, and I’ve been photographing them for such a long time that it’s just become second nature for me. It’s only recently that I saw this as a body of work. I picked the title because I thought it sounded sort of like a drugstore greeting card, and these images are so NOT of the greeting card type. They aren’t meant to be a representation of life in America. But at the same time, when I show photos of my family to people in other countries, they always say, “They are so American.” They don’t really articulate what they mean, and I can’t always picture what it is exactly that they are picking up on that seems so American to them.
What does your family think about your photographs of them?
They think it’s great, but also puzzling, as in “Why would anyone want to buy photos of us?” As long as they like how they look, if they don’t think they look ugly, fat or old, then they pretty much approve. Otherwise the images look pretty commonplace to them. I’ve always had a camera and have been photographing them forever. Right now my family photos aren’t accompanied by text, like my images from Israel. But I’m thinking about starting to include quotes from my grandparents. My grandparents are the stars of the show!
Why would you focus on your grandparents?
I photograph my grandparents because I admire them immensely. I aspire to be like them when I get older. They are in their 80s and live life so fully. I think they inspire everyone around them, and I try to capture their spirit in my photographs.
What do you think about the work of Larry Sultan, whose “Pictures from Home” depict his aging parents and the notion of the American Dream?
I really admire his work, and in fact I think we are both products of this idea of the American dream. But our work is very different, and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that our families are so different. Sometimes his photos seem sad, tragic, but also beautiful. The photographers that influenced me from the beginning are the “usual suspects”—Arbus, Sander, Weegee, etc. These are the people that I studied early on, and it’s their work and books that I return to. I’ve also always liked Swedish photographer Anders Peterson, who is better known in Europe than America. He has this incredible series called “Café Lehmitz” that is beautiful, expressive and conveys the stories of the people in the pictures.
How did your “Miss Hemisphere” series develop?
I’ve always been interested in children’s beauty pageants and looking at this concept of beauty that is unique to our culture. I met and followed this one family in which the grandmother, mother, and now the children were all pageant competitors. I was kind of wary of the project at first—so were they, especially after the JonBonet Ramsey tragedy, and pageant people were concerned with how outsiders would view them. But I found there was something remarkable in how these family members spent so much time together working on this project—it sort of formed their rituals and lives together.
Why do you think you are drawn to portraying children in so much of your work?
First of all, I am just fascinated by children and childhood. So much of who we are as adults stems from our childhood, except we weren’t conscious of it then. Of course we can never turn back the time, so now as an adult, I am endlessly captivated by the development of a child’s mind and how it is formed. Perhaps it’s also nostalgia.
How does your commercial work relate to your own work?
I think they go hand-in-hand. I get hired because of the qualities I display in my own work, and I don’t really see them as separate. Whatever my subject, such as a celebrity portrait, I’m still trying to tell a story with the photograph. And it’s the assignments that allow me to explore my subjects. For example, the New York Times sent me to Israel to photograph Ariel Sharon, and I was able to stay for two months and do my own work.
N. Elizabeth Schlatter is Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the University of Richmond, Virginia, as well as a writer on the visual arts and the museum profession.