The United States can at times appear to be in the midst of a familial tug of war. Various family members, each armed with a narrative, cry out their respective ideals with greater and greater conviction. Family members examine each other from afar, squinting through a lens not of their own making, the divide deepening as they can’t let go of the rope. To examine each other closely, as though in fact a family, is a rare and difficult thing.

Katerina Vo’s Fatherland brings current national conversations into the intimacy of her family’s home. Vo finds her family steeped in the American myth: her father is a military man and her brother follows suit. With the immediacy afforded her by family, she examines the cultural roots that have shaped their paradigm, and, inevitably, played a role in the shaping of her own.

A finalist for the 2021 Lens Culture Art Photography Award, Fatherland is an investigation into a national conversation as expressed in Vo’s family. In the following conversation with Justin Herfst for LensCulture, the artist delves deeper into this collaborative process.

Never Forget © Katerina Vo

Justin Herfst: The title ´Fatherland´ is fraught with meaning. It’s nostalgic, it puts space between generations, and, in the context of your work, its symbolism is undermined through observation. Why this title?

Katerina Vo: My series Fatherland explores the intertwined relationships with father and with nation, looking at the U.S. and my own military family. The series explores the blurring of fantasy and reality in the mythology of the American Dream that motivates U.S. nationalism and militarism, the parallels and overlaps of relationships with one’s father and the Fatherland, and how these myths and family relationships create the national subject.

For the longest time, I couldn’t find the perfect word to sum up the work, so it was untitled—all of the documents and files related to it labeled simply with ‘nation and family’. I actually came to the title by reading back through a journal entry I’d written on a past Father’s Day about the different ideas and relationships to fatherhood, one of the lines of thought relating to the idea of ‘patria’, the Spanish equivalent of ‘motherland’, which derives from the Latin root ‘pater’, meaning ‘father´. I definitely owe this connection to studying Latin American history and politics, where the word and concept are key to historical and contemporary political discourses. I felt the masculine version of the word worked well as a title because neatly tied up the connections I was making between the relationships with father and with nation. Additionally, the fact that it is much less commonly used in English than ‘motherland’ gives the audience pause when reading it, giving them time to unpack the meaning of the word and what it implies.

La Pietà (Portrait of my mother and brother) © Katerina Vo

JH: I am fascinated by the subject matter in your project and how it provides a microcosm for a broader national conversation. How did you first approach your family with this intent?

KV: In shooting Fatherland, I directed my family to act and reenact scenes, some based on actual moments (like my dad scuba diving in the pool), others based on a looser, more subjective recreation of family dynamics. At first, you could tell that they thought some of the pictures we were making were ridiculous, and weren’t too thrilled about being stuffed into costumes in temperatures of up to 100º, occasionally shot in public spaces.

Often, I felt ridiculous explaining ideas I had for shots, though at some point in the process I came across a conversation Larry Sultan had with his father during the making of his famous family series, which resonated with me, as his father expressed many doubts that resonated with my own experience making work around my family—his father was doubtful of the images, sometimes unsure of their point, sometimes complaining that they were heavy-handed.

But as the project progressed, my family became more interested in the work, and took even the most campy scenes more seriously. In a way, in this series, I think of my family almost as actors playing themselves, and all of the tension between fact and fiction that that implies.

Father as Marlboro Man © Katerina Vo

JH: Tell me more about the process of working together.

KV: While I often come up with the concept and my family members collaborate in acting out, creating the scene, many of the images use how my father—my eternal muse!—either sees himself or wants to be represented in pictures, as a way of exploring (white, suburban) US masculinity and its relationship to the nation. Sometimes he would say things like “take a picture of me like Popeye,” or “take a picture of me with my motorcycle” that informed the work. Often there are several versions of an image: one for the series and one less ‘weird’ one for his own use, though in a similar setting.

The series has sparked conversations that maybe otherwise we wouldn’t have had. We definitely don’t have the same perspective when it comes to how we view topics such as the nation, military, and politics, and we’ve disagreed on the final result of certain images at times. However, it’s allowed us to have deeper conversations about the topics at hand and for our opinions to evolve.

My family has been a key part of this work, both in front of and behind the camera. Not only are they/we the subjects, but I’m grateful for their support and their assistance with the behind-the-scenes, such as props and lighting.

Portrait of My Father in the Swimming Pool © Katerina Vo

JH: How did collaborating with your family influence the usual dynamic? Is this your first time taking photos of them?

KV: My family members have been great sports as models for lighting projects and assignments, but this was my first time seriously shooting with them. In part, it was very comfortable to create together with my family as the subject, as that sort of intimate relationship allowed me to experiment more in the work itself. At the same time, I had to navigate the commitment to the themes of the series, which doesn’t necessarily always portray a glorified image of U.S. and family life, unlike the more simple and flattering family photos that my parents might rather hang on the wall.

JH: Has your experience making this work, and the conversations it’s led to with your family, given you hope for the nation?

KV: While it would be ideal to come to some clear, optimistic idea of where we’re headed over the course of making this work, it’s been more of an investigation of the different roots of how the nation in its current state has come to be, and how individuals come to identify with and participate in it.

Untitled (Family portrait) © Katerina Vo

JH: You write in the notes to this project that: “At an absolutely critical political moment to investigate the roots of U.S. nationalism and militarism, it is vital to dwell in that space between attraction and repulsion, to hold in both hands the humor, allure, and nostalgia of nationhood, as well as its violences.” What have you learned from operating between those spaces in such an intimate environment?

KV: I’ve found that exploring the family at such an intimate level is deeply relevant to understanding and questioning nationalism, as nationalist rhetorics generally present the nation as a sort of family, with a common origin and/or common destiny. This rhetoric sees the nation as composed of many (heteronormative, nuclear) families that act as microcosms and building blocks of the national ‘family’ as a whole, where citizens are educated and molded into national subjects. Seeing how this plays out on an intimate level is key to understanding the nation as a whole. Additionally, it is impossible to separate major political events and the bloodiest of wars from the most mundane domestic moments—dinner table discussions and movie nights—that shape their actors.

JH: Can you elaborate on addressing these big, entangled topics through the medium of photography?

KV: I came to see how exploring these ideas through photography addresses a key component of nationalism and militarism; the way in which imaging and aesthetics are central to their existence. To start, there is an intimate connection between (photographic) imaging and war-making—after all the verb ‘to shoot’ applies to both the camera and the gun. Something must be visualized to be targeted, carried out through imaging. In large part, this project was sparked by making connections between my father’s consumption of war movies and his involvement in the military.

Untitled (Father as Superman) © Katerina Vo

The U.S. in particular has mastered the use of the photographic and film image to mobilize the American public and exert influence globally, with the massive Hollywood industry that has played a major role in defining the American lifestyle and American Dream. Cinema and militarism are not coincidentally linked—at the beginning of the history of cinema, the military aided US cinema in creating realistic portrayals of war, and in turn, the cinema industry produced action-packed films, often glorifying the U.S.’s military presence. This continues to this day—for example, the classic movie Top Gun was created in collaboration with the Pentagon, and led to a recruitment boom.

Growing up, my father always had a set of catchphrases, which I assumed were his own quirks. It wasn’t until I became interested in these topics and started watching a lot of war movies that I realized many were lines straight from these films, so assimilated into his own vocabulary that I’m not even sure he remembered they were quotes. Noticing the way that fact blurred into fiction in the context of my own family, I began to see how this was a recurring theme in militarism. Take for example, mock military cities used to train soldiers, where actors dress up like warzone locals, and even the smell of the streets and bodies are pumped through the set, further mixing fact and fiction. Or consider the use of video games to train soldiers and treat PTSD, war reenactments, or the long history of staging war photographs, dating back to the Civil War, with examples such as the controversy over Alexander Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter.

Immersed in the family environment, and seeing it through the photographic lens, I was able to notice themes key to understanding the roots of U.S. nationalism and militarism.

American Dream © Katerina Vo

JH: You hit a lot of key points of influence for this particular work, but tell us a little more about what’s shaped you as an artist. What mediums, artists or pieces of work have most contributed to your development leading up to Fatherland?

KV: This work has been greatly influenced by both U.S. pop culture as well as artists working inside and out of the U.S. A major influence have been popular movies, especially war movies, such as Top Gun, Forrest Gump, the Rocky series, and Westerns, that were always playing at home, as well as propaganda posters and books like Death of a Salesman, Of Mice and Men, and The Great Gatsby. Stylistically, I’ve been impacted by a mix of classic American artists like Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper with camp aesthetics, as seen in the work of John Waters and Tom Rubnitz.

Beyond that, the work of Marcos López, who applies an exaggerated pop art style to scenes of Argentine daily life, Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, and Marlboro Man ads (as well as Richard Prince’s take on them), have been hugely influential. Finally, the somewhat ‘off’ portraits by photographers like Deana Lawson, Diane Arbus, D’Angelo Lovell Williams, and Joanna Piotrowska have contributed greatly to the development of this work.

Untitled (Portrait of my father in the yard) © Katerina Vo

JH: And finally: is this project ongoing? What are your plans going forward?

KV: Absolutely, this work is ongoing! As an emerging artist, I feel this is just the beginning of work on a topic that I could explore for the rest of my life, and feel my particular positions in the nation and in my family can provide insights that can hopefully provide some value to viewers. Going forward, I’m also looking to continue exploring U.S. nationalism and militarism from different angles. While this series centered around national and family dynamics, particularly as it relates to the relationship with one’s father, I’m also working on other projects that explore the intersection of nationalism, women, and sexuality, as well as using 3D imaging and other techniques to continue pushing these themes.

Editor’s note: Katerina Vo was a Finalist in the LensCulture Art Photography Awards 2021. To discover more inspiring photographers, check out the rest of the winners!