Using her practice as a way to reflect on and heal family trauma, Naomieh Jovin works intimately with her family album, intervening in the archive and adding new perspectives with her own photographs.

Gregory Eddi Jones: Naomieh, to begin I’d like to ask about your past. What is your background and path of growth as a photographer?

Naomieh Jovin: When I was younger you could always catch me taking pictures. During the rise of social media, I was living in a house full of 20-year-olds who constantly asked me to photograph them for their pages. If it wasn’t my siblings, I was tasked with photographing an aunt in front of fake flowers or posed laying down on a made bed. My images were non-aesthetic to say the least. They were so bad but I loved every aspect of them.

In high school, I was introduced to the technical side of photography and lighting. I spent most of my free time trying to understand basic camera functions. Around that time, I admired Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz, mainly because they were who I was exposed to. I started to think more about fashion photography and these artists encouraged me to see a space of my own as a photographer within fashion.

In college, I learned to understand the conceptual aspects of photography as an art form. This led my direction in photography to change completely. I went into college thinking about going mainstream but I ended up with something unorthodox. My work became minimal and spoke strongly about my personal experiences, drawing on what I went through as a CSA survivor. Moving away from home to living on my own in college, my perspective changed and I realized that I had been abused. So my time and art in those years was trying to figure myself out and work through some things.

GEJ: You’ve written that your work is influenced by the absence of your late mother, which is very touching and reminds me of photography’s power to reconnect the past to the present. I love how your project Gwo Fanm borrows from family albums in a way that tries to recreate moments. Can you talk a little about your impulse to work in this way?

NJ: As a child I would revisit my baby album. When I think about it now, I really believe that it was some form of coping mechanism. I was able to see images of my family pre-death. I’d find myself trying to piece together stories across the images.

As a result of my parents immigrating from Haiti to the United States, a lot of my history was left behind. My time with my mom was cut short when she passed away from breast cancer and my father followed just months later. What I’ve wished to know now as an adult could have only been answered by them.

GEJ: Have you shown this work to your family? And if so what has their response been like?

NJ: I’ve got a huge family so not all have seen what I do. Most just know that I do photography. I’ve only shown it to some of my immediate family.

Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
First Communion © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
The Lovers © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Rejoice © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Madame Lucien © Naomieh Jovin
Noel © Naomieh Jovin
Manmi © Naomieh Jovin
Grann © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Marenn © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin
Untitled © Naomieh Jovin

GEJ: I’m curious, what does the title of this project stand for? It’s really intriguing how it almost gives the work a sense that it’s written in code that must be deciphered.

NJ: The title of this project is actually in Haitian Kreyol. But if you know French you might be able to read it. ‘Gwo Fanm’ translates to ‘Big Woman’ in English. For me, ‘Gwo Fanm’ stands for being strong in vulnerability. A ‘Gwo Fanm’ is a woman who stands out in life and stands up for the ones they love. But a ‘Gwo Fanm’ is also a woman who takes more than their fair share of the slings and arrows this world throws at them, absorbs hurt and pain that could crush less resilient or determined people. A lot of the women in my family are ‘Gwo Fanm’, women who have shouldered burdens beyond most people’s imaginings.

GEJ: I think what I like most about this work is its sheer playfulness. You’ve written that you see your artistic practice as a way of both unlearning and transference of power and trauma within family. I’m wondering if you can help connect the dots on how these various ideas come together in your pictures.

NJ: Although I do utilize these bright playful colors, not all of the works are playful. Much of the Caribbean aesthetic is filled with vibrant colors in architecture, textiles, and the overall culture’s use of bright colors are meaningful, and that was my inspiration. The use of color in Haitian culture gives life to the mundane, making the everyday feel like celebration.

Referencing the images from my family’s album I’ve come to the realization that there are many parallels between my mother’s family photos and my work. These similarities highlight a spiritual connection to my familial history and my present self, which has led me to see meaning in not only connecting my past to my present but also hoping that this project can resonate with others with similar family dynamics, leading them to re/discover the gaps within their family history as well.

It’s an intuitive process, looking at the photographs, listening… creating intuitive gestures of memories of the people in them.

GEJ: Lastly, what’s coming up for you over the next year?

NJ: I have been casually working on organizing what will be my first photo book, for the Gwo Fanm project. Over the next couple years I had envisioned the publication of Gwo Fanm, an exhibition and since getting the PEW Fellowship, I can speed up the process a little bit.

This work was selected as a winner of LensCulture’s Critics’ Choice Awards 2021. See all of this year’s Critics’ Choice winners.