institute for documentary studies

{Week 13: Photo}

Week 13: Photo

We’ve almost entirely completed our photo and multimedia projects for the semester. This week, I said goodbye to my subject family — next time I see them, it won’t be in their family living room but at the gallery show, watching them watch my work of them. There’s a sense of completion coming on, at least for the semester.

“How do you feel?” Nelson, my photography teacher, asked.

I felt proud — to have completed a long-term, intensive documentary project, my first. But I also felt something contrary to how I thought I was supposed to feel at this point in the semester: “I don’t know that I’ve completed the project,” I told him.

I wasn’t sure I’d accomplished what I set out to do, and was worried that ultimately my work fell under what Nelson had cautioned it might become: traditional photos of a non-traditional family. I didn’t feel that I had been able to veer away from that path.

It was a sense of accomplishment, hand-in-hand with a sense of wanting more.

To Nelson, that sense of incompletion wasn’t a bad thing. “The idea is not that you’ve created a finished piece,” he said. “It’s that you use that feeling to compel you to improve your work as you continue with it,” he said. He told me he hoped I’d continue working on my project, and expand on it after Salt.

Finishing projects and exchanging goodbyes with one’s subjects is a complicated thing. I’ve been incredibly lucky to find a subject family that was cooperative and invested in the work, but even more, one that I truly do care about. After two months documenting a person, there’s a real sense of intimacy.

I wonder sometimes how I’ve affected them, because my time with this family has truly affected me. My feelings about my subject family, too, play heavily into how I feel about my pieces. Sometimes I wonder, and other times I fear: What will they think of me once they’ve seen the final product? Will they like seeing how I see them?

But these are fears fueled more by nerves than reality: I think they’ll enjoy my work. Because there’s a larger question that I feel I can answer in good faith: Have I captured them truthfully?