There is a South African word that I recently came across, Umbuntu. It translates loosely as “I am what I am because of what we all are.” This important and beautiful word reminds me that we are all not just connected, but dependent upon each other for the most basic act of defining ourselves.
Over Memorial Day weekend, my family visited my in-laws in Stowe, VT. Every year there is a party on the Sunday before Memorial Day at the old farmhouse that belonged to my husband’s grandparents before it was handed down to my mother-in-law and her nine siblings.
The farmhouse has been a gathering place since my mother-in-law and her siblings were children, and now the Memorial Day party is a gathering of four generations of the family, from my husband’s grandparents who are in their 90’s to my own children’s generation, or the great-grandchildren.
I honestly don’t know a lot about the history of the house, this is something that I will be working on as I continue to document it, but I have been lucky enough to witness the gathering of this gigantic tribe for many years now, and it is always such a moving experience to see how they all love and care for each other. My favorite part of the party is when there are announcements made about certain family members and the things they’ve achieved; new pregnancies or births, graduations, awards, retirements, etc. The awkward sweetness of it always brings tears to my eyes.
There is so much research about how relationships keep us happier, healthier and cause us to live longer, and this family is definitely an amazing and rare example of how a tight-knit family that spans generations, can support each other through all things good and bad, and hold each other accountable at the same time.
I am drawn to spaces, places, people and objects that are in their own way, almost a “photograph” in and of themselves, meaning, they contain physical, visible records of moments passed. This farmhouse is steeped in artifacts of a time that was somehow different, analog, slower moving and less frantic than ours, but full of the memories, stories and physical traces that pull it along into the present, keeping its history alive, and its function relevant.
I photograph a lot of interiors for my commissioned work. There is an expectation in commercial interior work for even lighting, staging, and perfect exposure and focus. I sometimes have to force myself to turn off that side of my brain when I am shooting for my personal work. One thing that I love about film, is that you cannot see the image until much later, you don’t have the ability to scroll back through your images and zoom in, making sure you nailed the focus and exposure. You also can’t shoot thousands of shots (unless you are made out of money;)) you have to be more deliberate and less wasteful with your energy.
This time, however, I brought my new digital medium format camera, it was the first time I’d used it for personal work. As an exercise, I tried not to spend too much time fretting over the images on the screen, hoping it would help me to consider each shot as if I was shooting film. As many old houses are, it was quite dark inside and I had to embrace the available light. It was a really great exercise in allowing the dramatic quality of the light to bring my attention to things I may never have noticed.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I am so drawn to these types of subjects. In this particular sense, I have personal stake in the family who has occupied these walls, but I think in a more general sense, I feel a need to slow down and pay attention to the tangible things in my own life, including the people around me, to really notice and see them and commit them to my own memory, having experienced them as fully as I can. I also feel compelled to understand the history of my family, the great kindnesses, triumphs, disappointments, cruelty and mistakes that are all a part of my story. I think there is a lot to be gained from taking the time to examine the things that you know and love, visually or internally, without judgement or defensiveness.
I only had an hour to spend in this lovely little house, but I enjoyed the opportunity to experience it in a rare moment of quiet and stillness. I hope to continue this little project the next time we visit.