Inessential views of art and photography.
In our series of family photography by female photographers, first we had Kayo Ume from Japan, and now we cross the Atlantic to explore South Providence, a urban neighborhood in Rhode Island (USA), where many families live well below the poverty line.
has been featured in some of the most influential photography publications. It is a very moving body of work, whose power resides in the honesty and intimacy it conveys without falling into visual cliches of what life for disadvantaged families looks like. The photographer behind the lens, Louisa Marie Summer, is a young German-born artist, who believes that working WITH people is the perfect way to deeply explore collective imaginaries. Her immersive approach can produce serious doubts as to how intrusive her photographing presence is.
She was talking to the kids, the kids was really friendly, like all over her and stuff, it dropped my heart, you know what I’m saying. I was kind of like in a piss mood, threw on my hoodie, when out there. I was speaking to her and she was explaining to me. At first I didn’t want to hear it , I really didn’t care. But then when she explained to me that she was a student, I said, Alright, I guess I can do it, you know what I’m saying? Tompy was awkward with her. Like Nah, no, heck, no, what are you crazy? You don’t know what she is. She’s probably an undercover just checking up on you. Trying see what’s going on in the house. Trying to see if the kids are find our not, you know, stupid stuff. And I was like You know, I don’t care, she can check whatever she wants to, I don’t have nothing to hide. […] afterwards, after we got to know her real good, and I was fine with it because I always wanted to – like I can’t read, everybody that know me knows I can’t read, to save my life, you know. […] I think it’s going to be a great book”, Jennifer.
Quote extracted from a longer one on the back of the book.
As we go from one page to the next in the book, it becomes clear that Louisa Marie completely understands the nature of participative work, the process of creating a relationship of trust and rapport and the importance of BEING there. Using the research vocabulary to describe this work seems futile because expressions such as negotiating access, content release and ethics protocol belong to a different realm. Here, we are living IN THE MOMENT with Jennifer and her family.
While working on the project, I became an integral part of the family’s daily life, whom I developed great affection for. The precept of Jennifer’s partner “Respect goes a long way” not only provides the title for a short movie, but also describes the relationship between Jennifer’s family and myself – a relation based on trust, comprehension and mutual respect.
Family Photography – Sommer and Ume
Two posts ago we talked about Kayo Ume and her book “Long Live Granpa”. She looked at her own family from within and let us glimpse at candid humorous moments and other more mundane ones. Some of the photographs were posed in a similar fashion to the family portraits that inhabit our own photo-albums, mantelpieces and shoe-boxes. It took her a decade to complete her work and the book does strongly reflect a sense of time passing and of family roles evolving over the years. Louisa Marie Summer’s vision has a more snapshot-like character. It is clear that we look into a period of Jennifer’s life but a rather short-one. However, there is a sense of completeness, which is probably the factor that makes the whole work compelling and ultimately very human. It presents a low-income/beyond-the-poverty-line household in a very personal way without abdicating to show the downs of the ups. There is humor, there are tears, there is chaos, there is discipline, there is material lack but there is emotional abundance.
Belly, Andrew and Ny-Ny stare at us page after page and we know that only by continuously being there while continuously leaving, Louisa Marie Summer was able to scratch the surface of contemporary American poverty and face us with what it really looks like. The mistmached furniture, lack of kitchenware, worn down carpets and piles of clothes become a backdrop to narrate a very intimate story: that of Jennifer’s, a first-generation Puerto Rican woman. She lives with her Native American life partner Tompy, their children and her nieces and nephews. And for two years, they had a regular guest: Louise Marie Summer and her camera.
Presenting the work – Text and images
The texts of the book are compiled and structured by Mairéad Byrne, one of Summer’s lecturers at Rhode Island School of Design. She took Jennifer’s down-to-earth, casual and broken language and transformed it into incredibly moving little pieces about struggle, dreams, realities and emotions. We’d like to finish the post with one of them. It reveals another side of Jennifer’s, which, to me, presents her as a very forward-thinking feminist woman, who above all is herself and true to herself. It is a poem about beauty, femininity and fat-shaming. It also deals with some stereotypes associated with low-income families: nutrition, overweight and education. And it could be a starting point for a broader discussion on these topics.
I don’t have a problem with
my weight. I like it. I’m the
chubby girl who can go
anywhere, wear anything.
There’s chubby girls and
they don’t like to show
themselves. That’s not me.
I wear shorts. I wear booty
shorts. I could go out there
with little mini shorts that a
skinny girls would wear.
I could wear mini dresses.
I don’t have a problem with
it. And that’s what I’m
teaching my son. But my
son is too comfortable with
his weight. I want him to
lose weight because it’s
not good for his health.
I seen my brother, eight
years old, had a heart
attack. You know?
My brother Angel had a
heart attack real young.
That scares me. Jennifer.
And remember, this is the second post in a series of three showcasing female photographers working on the topic of family photography.