institute for documentary studies

{Week 15: Photo}

Week 15: Photo

May 16th: Our first gallery show.
Seeing your subjects in the flesh, standing under images featuring them and hanging on the gallery wall lends itself to a complicated mix of pride and fear. Thursday night, I watched my subjects look at themselves as I saw them in their daily lives, in their living rooms and their kitchens, in their most intimate moments.  Kimberly, one of the girls I followed, was wearing the same clothes she wore in one of my framed pictures.
I recognized people from my classmates’ photographs and multimedia pieces: walking, breathing, observing their documented selves. It was like seeing reality stars out of the last two months of our classes come to life.
When the family I’d been documenting watched themselves in the multimedia piece I had spent over two months shooting and editing, it felt as if it were the culmination of my work. By showing them, I was now including them in the conversation of the piece.
During the screening, when the family got to see the work played in front of an audience for the first time, someone in the crowd raised her hand: “What is it like for your subjects?” she asked. We didn’t know how to answer on their behalf.
The mother from my piece raised her hand. She explained in her own words: “Liz integrated herself into our lives,” she said. “She came over to our house at 6:30 in the morning, she watched us eat dinner at night. And over time, you build trust,” she said.
“And you don’t necessarily want to be part of the limelight,” she went on, “but you realize the value of your story being told.  And you feel like it’s being told right because you’ve built this trust.”
Working with this family was the best creative project – and also the most intensive – that I’ve ever worked on.  I learned early into the semester that trust is one of the key elements to creating great work – that the people you follow will give you more access and more insight into their lives when they believe that you’ll tell their story with sensitivity and compassion. And when you have that understanding, they’ll allow you the time you need in order to tell their story best.