'All of Me' - An Interview with Elinor Carucci
This interview was originally published in Hotshoe International, Issue #163, Dec./Jan. 2010.
ELINOR CARUCCI is an Israeli-born photographer, living and working in New York. She first came to prominence with Diary of a Dancer, a visual chronicle of her own experiences as a Middle Eastern ‘belly-dancer’ in and around the New York area. In 2001, she received the prestigious International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Young Photographer, and in 2002 was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has since continued to pursue projects that intimately explore her own life, and her relationships with her parents, her husband, and most recently, her children. A cross-section of Carucci’s work will be on exhibit at the James Hyman Gallery in London, from the 7th January-13th February 2010.
AS: When did you begin to take photographs, and when did you first include your family within your work?
EC: It was more or less at the same time. One afternoon when I was fifteen, I had nothing to do, so I borrowed my father’s camera. My mom was having a nap, and I took pictures of her as she was waking up. It really got me, so I took more pictures of my mom and my family. Then, after I did the Israeli army for two years, I started my BFA at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, in Jerusalem.
AS: While you were studying did you experiment beyond your family, or did you continue to concentrate on them?
EC: No, actually when I started I wasn’t taking pictures about my family at all; I didn’t think that it was serious enough. It was only after about a year and a half that one of my professors noticed that I was using my mom or aunt in all of my assignments, whether it was fashion or landscape. I’d been talking a lot about trying to bring intimacy and emotions into my work, and he remembered some of the images from my application portfolio, so he said, ‘You can bring this into your work through your family; you don’t have to avoid them.’ He gave me the confidence that it was legitimate to photograph my family, so I went back to it.
AS: Was that the first time that someone had responded so positively to those photographs?
EC: When I was sixteen I took a photography course in Jerusalem, and it was very meaningful. The teacher, Avi Sabag – who’s now the director of the Naggar School of Photography, and a very important figure in the Israeli photo-world – was very supportive of those images. After feeling so mediocre in the other things that I was studying – dance, drama, and so on – suddenly he responded to my photography, and told me that I was talented. So I owe him a big one.
AS: Have you ever found it difficult to reveal your personal life to others, or did it come naturally?
EC: It really came naturally. It’s weird because, not only does it come naturally, but also sharing those moments – even the flaws in our lives and bodies – is somehow comforting to me.
AS: Did your relationships change when the camera began to be a part of your life?
EC: The situations changed – the camera was there and we responded to it. I don’t know if the relationships really changed; if anything, it made us closer and communicate more, so maybe it enhanced what was already there.
AS: Do you feel that the resulting photographs are genuine, or are they performances for a camera?
EC: They’re really genuine. They’re so genuine that I myself am struck by the truths that they tell me. That’s not to say that they’re not planned sometimes; I will go back to a situation or shoot in a certain light. But if they’re false or we’re pretending to the camera – which does happen from time to time – it doesn’t work, and I don’t publish them. So they’re really honest, but not always spontaneous.
AS: There’s a long lineage of photographers who have famously focused on their family. Is that history something that’s informed your work at all?
EC: Of course I’m aware of other people’s photographs, and I really admire their work; Emmet Gowin, Richard Billingham, Sally Mann, Tierney Gearon and so on. I can’t name one person that’s been a major influence, but I love the work of many photographers, and that includes a lot of amateur work too. I respond to family images of all sorts, professional and vernacular.
AS: How would you define the difference between the two?
EC: The difference is in the quality – light, composition and so on. Not just anyone can take a picture like Emmet Gowin or Nicholas Nixon; those are great photographs, even if you don’t look at the emotional content of the pictures. But you can also see a lot of what’s happening in a family within a snapshot or family album. And sometimes, because of the naivety of the image, you just believe it more because the person who was taking it wasn’t thinking about lighting, or ISO, or the gallery where it will eventually be shown. The picture was just taken, and then allowed to come through.
AS: But the family album is certainly as much of a fiction as any other photographic construct.
EC: Yes. But even by seeing what someone is trying to present to the camera – which exists in both professional and amateur photography – you can learn a lot about a family.
AS: In recent years, you’ve shifted from photographing your parents and partner, to photographing your children. You must be aware of the controversies that have surrounded the photographing of children, particularly in recent decades. Was that a consideration, and did you find it difficult to resolve these issues for yourself?
EC: Yes, it was very difficult, and it’s still difficult. It was the first time I wasn’t photographing adults and I found it very different, in that as children they cannot understand the meaning of exposing our lives, and they cannot validly agree to it. So I found that I was censoring myself a lot more than before. I also had a lot of conversations, with my family and even child psychologists, about how and what to do. Eventually we came to the perfect solution – I must continue with my work and who I am, but I also have to alter the way that I edit the pictures.
AS: What’s an example of a way in which you’ve censored yourself in this work?
EC: Usually it’s nudity that can be problematic, so I censor some of that out of the work. I’m completely behind everything that I’m showing, but it’s not only about me anymore, so I’m trying to do it the right way. I accept that I’m a mother and therefore my children will eventually rebel against me, but hopefully they’ll understand that we all have limits and weaknesses.
AS: Your previous work was very much about you in particular – there’s a certain self-centeredness about it. But it seems that with the children you’ve expanded your vision quite a bit.
EC: I really do feel that I have expanded – physically, visually, and mentally. It is something different. They are all of me. It’s really hard to explain, but every parent will understand. It’s just what happens with motherhood, and I’ve followed what happens naturally. So I’m glad it shows.
AS: How do your children respond to your photographs?
EC: It’s such a part of their lives, so they’re really used to it. I had an opening in New York a few months ago, and many people said to them, ‘Congratulations on the show!’ So they came over to me, and were like, ‘Mom, there’s a show going on somewhere. Let go find the show!’ I tried to tell them that people were referring to the images on the wall, but because I’m a very silly mom and behave like a clown with them a lot of the time, they looked at me and were like, ‘Mom, you’re so silly.’ So they don’t really understand, and they haven’t yet discovered that other children don’t do the same thing. The beauty is that if they’re crying with a runny nose, it’s not something they want to hide. It’s a part of life, and when we’re looking at the pictures I tell them that I’m trying to capture the whole spectrum of emotions – our lives as they are, with both the good and bad moments - and hope that they’ll understand.
AS: Do you have a family album?
EC: No. My friends and family beg me to send ‘normal pictures’, so I sometimes take the ‘normal pictures’ with my cell phone. My husband is a photographer too, so he takes a lot of pictures. He’s responsible for the everyday pictures – school, parties, and so on – and I trust him to do the job.
AS: So you’re always photographing for your art?
EC: It’s embarrassing to admit, but yes. My husband is usually there too. Or if he’s not and something is happening, I do snap a few ‘normal pictures’, but not very often.
AS: What’s it like to be in a relationship with another photographer?
EC: He went to school with me for photography, but he doesn’t do photography for a living. That said, he’s a very big part of what I do, and I couldn’t imagine sharing my life with someone who wasn’t as involved. He’s the one person who sees the work before it’s edited, and for me, that’s really seeing me naked. He sees everything – the bad pictures, the ones that look false, those with bad light or bad exposures – all the horrible images I take. It’s a part of our togetherness. He also sees the whiny side of me as an artist – all the complaining about this and that, which is not the most noble side of me and what I do.
AS: Do you think that there is a difference in the way that male and female photographers make work about the family?
EC: There’s definitely a difference in the way that men and women parent they’re children. And what having a child does to a woman is very different from what it does to a man. But because I want to keep my male friends and avoid arguments with husband, I’m not going to go into this too deeply. It’s a different thing for men, so their work about it is different. For a woman it’s a total kind of experience; it really takes all of you, from your body, to your mind, to the erotic and sensual parts of you. It all goes to the children. So I think that it’s just more extreme for women, and it shows in their work.
AS: You became very successful at quite an early point in your career. Have you ever felt any pressure from the expectations that have been placed on you as a young artist?
EC: I don’t know, because I put so much pressure on myself that I don’t know exactly where the pressure is coming from, and it’s not necessarily connected to success. It’s just a pressure to do better, in that I really want to make images that are honest and meaningful; I want to capture those moments that I feel so strongly, before they’re gone forever. Of course, inevitably some of the pressure comes from the ego too – I want to have more shows, I get jealous that people are doing better than me, and so on. I’m an artist, and I’m a competitive person. So I guess that there’s the artistic pressure and the career pressure. Also, there’s the fact that I’m female and Jewish, and I guess that Jewish women tend to demand a lot from themselves; it’s part of the way that I was brought up. So it’s a mixture of all of these factors.
AS: You have an upcoming exhibition in London that includes selections from throughout your career – Closer, Crisis, Pain and now My Children. Is this the first time that they’ve all been grouped together?
EC: Yes. It’s a big gallery, and it feels like a little retrospective to me, with sixteen years worth of work represented. I feel old all of a sudden!
AS: Do you consider your various projects to be separate bodies of work, or do you consider them all to be a part of one, lifetime project?
EC: There are periods in my life that seem like complete chapters. I have Diary of a Dancer, which is my belly-dancing work, and that’s gone; it’s not in my life anymore. I have Crisis and Pain, which was a very painful period, and now that’s totally gone too. And in My Children, I’m a totally different person and have a completely different life. So they do seem separate. Of course it’s all my life – one long visual diary – but they do fell like different bodies of work.
AS: You do quite a bit of commercial work as well. How does that relate to your personal work?
EC: The commercial work that I do is very meaningful to me; it’s not something that I do just to pay the bills. It pushes me out of my zone – I’m not sure it’s a ‘comfort zone’, but it’s a zone – and forces me to take portraits of other people. I really like the fact that someone sends me to meet a stranger, and I have to find a connection with them in forty-five minutes. I keep it honest and truthful, and maintain as much integrity in my commercial work as I do in my personal work.
AS: When you talk about your images, you often use words like ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’. Those are quite strong words to apply to photography, and difficult to justify in this day and age.
EC: I know; people always tell me not to use them. But for me it’s pretty simple. I want the work to be honest and to tell something real, even if it’s limited. Something authentic happens, and that’s what I want to capture, however hard it is. I use these words a lot because, like any other photographer, I take a lot of images that are not very good or interesting, and it’s really hard to capture this thing; but when I do, it’s real. Even if it’s not ‘true’, it’s real. That’s the challenge, and ultimately, that’s what I’m after.