Gillian Laubs Family Matters Explores the Tension Between Art and Privilege

The photographer captured her complicated relationship with her relatives in a remarkably candid series, now on view at the International Center for Photography.

Ways of Seeing is an interview series that highlights behind-the-camera talent in the fields of photography and film. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with photographer and filmmaker Gillian Laub, who has spent the last two decades of her career advocating for the lives of terror survivors in the Middle East (Testimony, 2007), and shedding light on the lasting effects of segregation in the American South (Southern Rites, 2015). In her latest work, Family Matters, Laub turns the camera on herself and her relatives, revealing a loving dynamic that met its greatest challenge during the 2016 presidential election, when Laub’s family decided to support then-presidential-candidate Donald Trump. The resulting body of work is one of Laub’s most astonishing, and easily her most honest. In the book, published by Aperture, she couples pictures of her loved ones with raw, confessional captions that reveal not just the emotional and political disposition of each subject, but also of Laub herself. The series is also on display at New York’s International Center of Photography from September 24th through January 10th, 2022.

Throughout your book, you explore the tension and occasional clash between your identity as a liberal artist and your privileged, more conservative upbringing in a remarkably candid way. You tell the story of watching your classmates at art school criticize an “elite” coupling of people walking down the street, who turn out to be your mother and grandmother; you photograph your Trump-supporting parents at a hotel bar in Washington, D.C. right after you attended the women’s march; you act as a broker between your fiance’s family, who want your wedding to be humble, and your parents, who want something more extravagant. Did you always want to turn these experiences into art? I wonder if it’s almost the only way one can respond to that unique existence.

When I began photographing my family over 20 years ago, I didn’t anticipate what the final form would be. I never do when I set out on a project. I’ve always been inspired by bodies of work about family, and all my work has been rooted in family and community, but only in the past few years has it crystallized for me as a book. I inherently knew there was something there that was necessary for me to explore, which is why I’ve been making this work for so long. But, like all of my projects, it took time to unfold. I wasn’t in a rush, trusting that time would reveal the narrative and emotional truth I was seeking. I kept working and working and peeling away the layers.

I am most interested in the complexity, nuance and contradictions that exist in all of us and everywhere. Although this is a photo book, the words are just as critical as the images. For me that was the only way to express all the layers.

Gillian Laub, Grandpa helping Grandma out, 1999, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub

Gillian Laub, Wedding dress fitting, 2008, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub

Considering your work has famously been about shedding light on the horrors of segregation and the consequences of hatred, I can’t help but wonder if you had moments during 2016 where you honestly just thought to yourself, how can my parents support Trump, but also support my work? Did they even read my first two photography books?

I was so devastated, confused, and flabbergasted when I discovered the passionate support they had for Trump. It just didn’t make any sense to me. What he stood for was so antithetical to who they are as people and what they care about. I always saw my parents as sensitive, good, honest, and generous, kind souls. None of it made sense to me. It was a true existential crisis.

Gillian Laub, Mom after yoga, 2020, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub

At some point all artists have to reconcile with the fact that their parents might not understand what exactly they’re doing for a living, but as someone who clearly loves their family, and has now made a phenomenal body of work about their family, what role does your family’s understanding of your work play in the way you experience and see it yourself?

Well, I think it’s a bit of a Rorschach test. You can’t control how people see or interpret art. Everyone brings their own lens and perspective to what they are looking at and experiencing. My parents don’t love everything I do, but they respect it and that’s all that I can hope for. I was very nervous to share this book with them, but was so relieved when my dad said, “What I loved most and what I am so proud of here, is your honesty.” It wasn’t about him, his ego, or how he looked, but he cared about and respected how I was honest in my work. The same with my mother: There were some hard things for her to read, but she supported my decisions 100 percent. That, to me, is the definition of unconditional love.

The way you characterize your grandparents, especially your grandfather, Irving Yasgur, is so beautiful. Irving built his own business, one that would lay the foundation for your family’s success. As you began your career as an artist, did you ever think about the parallels between you and your grandfather?

I can only hope there are parallels, as I so admired my family’s work ethic. The generations before me came to America as immigrants escaping antisemitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe. They came here to pursue the American dream. They worked their fingers to the bone and felt grateful and proud that this country gave them these opportunities. I feel the same, but the support and opportunities came from the life that they worked so hard to provide for me. I have always felt a deep responsibility to work hard because of the privileges I was given. I hope to pass this on to my children.

I noticed your husband, Tahl, appears in the book very rarely. I’m curious to know why that is.

It’s funny, because to me. he is all over this book. But I guess it’s because he’s been next to me while I’ve made the photos for so many years. It’s almost like we’re both behind the lens. He’s a writer and we are constantly talking and thinking about the work together, so he’s less of a subject.

You describe your sister Ali as someone who took a more conventional path in life: Married at 26, existing happily in the bubble your parents crafted. Do you feel that you and Ali formed in contrast to one another, meaning that her prescription to convention further inspired your outward-looking and rebellious perspective? As someone who has documented their family with so much fervor, what role do you think our sibling relationships serve in forming who we are?

The relationship I have with my sister is like no other. I think sisters have a special bond. Although we are and have always been so different, there is more connective tissue there than I can describe. I was certainly more rebellious and she’s always thought of me as the weird one. There are things we don’t get about the other, but we love and respect each other and to me, that is the most important.

Gillian Laub, My quarantine birthday, 2020, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021). © Gillian Laub

Technically speaking, I love that the lighting in your pictures suggests that you labored over the setup for hours, but the content of your pictures are captured with a sense of true transience—a viewer feels lucky to be seeing what you’ve captured. Do you shoot the same setup for hours, or do you find yourself working quite quickly when approaching a subject matter like your family?

There is actually no formula here for me. Some images are recreated snapshots that I have labored over for hours, but others are spontaneous moments. I love that it is sometimes difficult to tell which is what. You can set up, plan and choreograph as much as you want, but the magic of photography and real moments happening within the frame never disappoints. It’s this magic that has had me hooked on photography since the day I picked up my first camera.

What are you most proud of in your career, so far?

Trusting my own vision, gut, and instinct. There are so many times that I could’ve been creatively crippled by rejection and disappointment. There has been plenty of that throughout the years. Feeling misunderstood is an awful feeling. But I’ve picked myself up and just kept working. I am so grateful to the people who have gotten me and supported me along the way.

Family Matters can be purchased via Aperture.

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