Roughly once a month, we pose questions to artists about their work and lives. We recently asked a group of artists, What special challenges do you face when incorporating real people from your life into your art?
Paris Visone, photographer
I feel to photograph truly, you should be engulfed in your subject. I have always felt more comfortable photographing people I know. The realest moments can be captured when they forget the camera is even present. I try to make photographing the least intrusive as I can, but still consider it a collaboration between the subject and myself.
I guess the biggest obstacle is them not liking themselves in the photos. As much as I am here to document and tell the truth, I don’t feel good about releasing a photo that the person doesn’t approve of. Once you lose that trust, you lose the real moments. I don’t like when taking photos gets in the way of photography.
Whether photographing my family, friends or bands that I tour with, I treat it all the same. They are all just people I’m happy to be around.
Steven Edwards, writer
When I write, I’m searching for the truth of an experience. My allegiance is to the work itself and not necessarily to whether it might hurt someone’s feelings. But sometimes it does – and it always has the potential to – so as I write along there are questions I have to reckon with. Is this my story to tell? Is what I’m writing something I would have the guts to say to someone’s face? Am I writing from a place of generosity or from a place of judgment? This question is especially important, I think, because every portrait is a double portrait. When you write about people from your life, you reveal your character. Whether kind, cruel, or indifferent it’s you on the page – your innermost life – as much or more so than whomever it is you’re writing about. The challenge, then, as I see it, lies in committing yourself to a process that leaves you totally exposed and vulnerable. But if you can do that, and do it well – hey, who could stay mad at you?
Christine Rathbun Ernst, poet & solo theatre performer
Respecting and honoring the unwitting participants in the story can be tricky. My work is all autobiographical – peopled/informed/illuminated by the family/friends/random strangers in my day-to-day – do I tweak her age? Do I use his real name? Have I overstepped? Should I ask her permission? Does it matter since he will never hear this poem?
I strive for candor – to accurately but compassionately portray folks (and myself), warts and all – not always flattering. I have many pieces that I needed to write but can’t perform – too upsetting, too scathing, too soon.
All personal interaction is fodder – rich stuff – where else does story happen? Mostly, I try to cull the funny bits, the bald fact, the crux (if I can find it) in these relationships – verbatim is best – never embellish – write true – sometimes mundane is sublime. The guy in the Salvation Army who said “nobody ever talks no more.” The neighbor who called me a fat ass cancer b****. The man who asked me which of my breasts was “the fake one.” The 5-year-old daughter who had an epic tantrum. So much material! So many leaping-off points! I just have to listen for the right stuff.
Molly Segal, painter
For the last year, I’ve been working on a series of portraits of men in my life. Each sitting begins with an uncomfortable conversation about sex. Then I paint their portrait.
I sat on this idea for about five months because I was terrified of incorporating real-life relationships into my work in this way. I feared it would hurt people I cared about and wreak havoc on my personal life. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew that anything that hit such a nerve in me was worth pursuing.
The first portraits were definitely the hardest. I stumbled and stammered through them. But the more I made, the smoother things went. The process began to feel more like work.
One of my biggest considerations in incorporating real-life relationships into my artwork is being as upfront as possible. Because of the implicatory nature of the paintings, I try to be transparent with each sitter. I emphasize that this is more about my perception of men more than any individual. I don’t want to water down the work, but I don’t want to railroad anyone either. It’s a delicate balance.
Related reading: How do you incorporate the “true” in your art?
Steven Edwards is the author of the memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry. His writing can be found in recent issues of Orion, Electric Literature, AGNI Online, Terrain.org, and The Good Men Project.
Christine Rathbun Ernst is a poet and solo theatre performer who recently completed a string of performances at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.
Paris Visone is a documentary photographer whose work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions, locally and internationally. As a music photographer, she has traveled with performers including Marilyn Manson, Blondie, Toto, Godsmack, Staind and Limp Bizkit.
Images: photograph by Paris Visone (2013); installation view of Molly Segal’s paintings for The Man Project.