Who’s in the Box?

January 5, 2015


I had a somewhat unexpected request recently. It was my sister, asking me to do a photo session for her. She is a vibrant, vivacious, beautiful 55 year old…just like so many of the women I have photographed over the years. And I hesitated. 

It was only a brief moment, but it registered somewhere deep inside me. Why?

I have photographed literally hundreds of women, from all walks of life and all ages. Why on earth was there any hesitation? I said, “Of course!” but I couldn’t quite shake the disconcerting feeling, no matter how brief. It was like cruising along on an easy paced run and tripping on something you didn’t even see was there. It bothered me and I didn’t know why.

What is it about family? About the boxes we put each other in, and the roles we strangely, unconsciously adopt when we are with them? Of course I have thought about this before, but this was a whole new context. What was different about shooting my sister?

After it bugging me for a few days, I realized something. All the women who have been in front of my camera have been at least to some degree anonymous – I am looking at them with fresh eyes….I see none of their history, hang-ups, insecurities or stories….and I don’t have any of my own in relationship to them. 

Just as we have, as children, created stories about who our parents are, or who our siblings are – as adults we do the same with who our children are…and the fact is those stories are created through a limited lens. It is only through my experience as a daughter, a sister, a parent that I create those stories. With any one else who walks into my frame, the story has yet to be told – and there is an innate understanding that they are in fact a multitude of stories. Anything is possible. I have no box to put them in that limits me, other than the synergy that is happening right then between us. Familial history can act as a strange scrim between you and the subject…unseen, but the effect is undeniable.

So… I realized that as close as we are, and after 50+ years of trials, tribulations and joys together, I don’t actually know the full story of who she is – and I have a wonderful opportunity to write a new little chapter with her….from scratch. What would happen if I did that with everyone I think I know, every day? What if we all felt open and confident enough to allow for all of the potential of each person we come in contact with – instead of putting them in a box that we have prescribed for them?

Lesson to self: Throw away the box.