“Seven Years” was made between 2001 and 2004 and was the first time I used myself as the subject. When I began the work, it was not my intention to put myself in front of the camera—it came about through process of elimination. I had tried using my four siblings to recreate moments from our childhood using the tropes of the traditional family album; my aim was to talk about things like family relations and the roles that parents impose on their children. Over time, I discovered that the best model was my sister, as she could hold a pose without questioning the character’s motivation. We worked as a pair, moving between genders and generations, blurring the line between fact and fiction. In more recent projects, I am the only person in front of (and behind) the lens.
The medium of the late 20th century is fading: now that people share photos digitally, snapshots are rarely printed—instead, they live on hard drives or social media accounts. As such, long-held rituals are fading as well. In the past, looking through albums required a ritualized oral dialogue of storytelling, descriptions, memory-making, nostalgia and celebration—as well as denial, absences and secrecy. Family snapshots follow cultural conventions. Much of this is in flux as a result of digital intervention.
The family album presents an idealized version of family life that often belies the truth. Everyone has a special face they wear for the camera. When we pause and pose for a snap, we usually smile—but the unconscious often leaks out into the body, bypassing the face, which stands firm behind its mask. The instantaneous nature of photography isolates the small gestures that often go unnoticed in real life because they are too minute and commonplace to be discerned.
My personal research has always been at the root of my work; it includes fields such as psychology, philosophy, biography, fiction and film. In the last 15 years, my work has played with the idea that photography is a language that can be translated and understood in different ways. I often play with the tropes of certain genres of photography and distort them to produce new meanings, and I sometimes use existing photographs as templates to make new work that transcends mere re-enactments. I try to embody real individuals who are more than just their snapshots.
The photographs in “Seven Years” are the awkward pictures: fingers in front of the lens, eyes shut, unattractive body language. Pictures that would have normally ended up down the back of the sofa, or burned so that they would never see the light of day.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like one of these previous features: Photos-Souvenirs, a series of family photos that artist Carolle Benitah altered with beads, thread, and scissors; La Famille, 22 additions to Alain Laboile’s fantastic portrait of his family; and Kitchen Gods, altered family photos that build meaning with each additional pattern or sewn element.