When she was a photography student in New York, Gillian Laub was chatting with classmates when one of them pointed derisively to some people coming towards them: “Look at those vulgar women in their fancy fur coats”.
Gillian nodded in agreement, noting the brightness of their lipstick, but was shocked when she was addressed: “Gillian, oh my Gawd, what are you doing up here?” It was her aunt, out for a day with Gillian’s mother and grandmother. They kissed and hugged her, she smiled back and hid her shame.
Gillian worked through her shame by photographing them in all their extravagance and silliness, coming to love them ever more for the way they gave themselves up to her intrusive camera.
As she got closer to them, other conflicted feelings came to the surface. Her Ukrainian ancestors, escaping the killing of Jews by Nazis and anti-Semitic Ukrainians in World War 11, fled to the US and built up new lives for themselves.
Through property purchases, they became wealthy. Gillian came to learn about the violence inflicted on Palestinians and the racial injustice in her own country. Her family remain wilfully blind to such facts.
Perhaps it was the poverty of their origins that made them love to dress up in fur coats for a trip to the theatre or just a day out in Manhattan.
This, though, does not explain their bigoted views of the world. One of the photographs shows her mother lying on a yoga mat, listening to a rant by Trump. “Try to listen with an open mind if you can, Gillian”, her mother says to her. ‘It was all so absurd, I burst out laughing’, says Gillian.
She had to either laugh, cry or, as on other occasions, get angry. Arguments with members of her family were common but, as the title of the last section of the book states, “Being wrong is not a sin”.
In the midst of family rancour and division and when Gillian has her own family, her parents drove hours on her birthday to just see her through a window and leave a cake outside the door. Her heart aches as family members grow old and pass away.
Her struggle with conflicting feelings about those closest to her is the subject of “Family matters”. In this sense, the word ‘family’ in the title is an adjective that specifies her topic – matters to do with her family – but the word can also be read as a noun and ‘matters’ as a verb – her family is of concern to her, she loves them, they matter to her.
Her photographs convey her family as a broken world, one where you ‘don’t give up on your own beliefs, or on the people you love.
The trick is to end up with both. Families can be complicated and Gillian Laub has looked at hers with unflinching honesty.
“Family matters”, by Gillian Laub, is published by Aperture.
(Photos supplied by the publisher)