Q&A Interview: Meredith Andrews’ Images of Single Motherhood.
kulcha! interviews Meredith Andrews, the Bermuda-born photographer behind Portraits of Power, the large-scale photographs of generations of single mothers and their families currently showing at the Bermuda National Gallery. We wanted to know how she gained the trust of her participant subjects, her impressions of single motherhood in Bermuda, why she’s drawn to photojournalism and why she’s just “comfortable” with the title Portraits of Power.The exhibition opened January 17 2013, and is showing until May 11.
K: You’re living abroad at the moment, ya?
M: Yes, I live in Sweden.
K: What made you want to come home to do this?
M: I had only ever worked with Bermuda National Gallery when I exhibited as part of Biennales. And in the last few years they’ve had some changes: a new Director and the curator, Sophie Cressall. So Lisa Howie, the Director, and Sophie Cressall, I think they’re doing a fantastic job with the Gallery and they’re quite inspirational figures.
They invited me to take part in the Biennale that was last year, the 2012 Biennale. I actually submitted work that was accepted by the jury. But then I discovered that I wasn’t able to do the work because I was abroad, and I had a newborn baby. But I really wanted to work with them still. And then this opportunity came up to be involved in the Eyes on the World exhibit. And because my background is as a photojournalist I was quite keen to do this. They don’t have that many photography shows so the fact that they were having a photojournalism show that’s…pretty much my area. So I was very keen to begin with – to work with them – and then when they told me more about the exhibit and how it was an open brief, basically looking at contemporary Bermudian society and social injustices on the island – well to be honest I was almost scared away by that. I don’t live there…
K: How long have you been away?
M: I’ve been away since 2007.I mean I’ve been home a lot, but I haven’t lived on the island since 2007. So because I’m not resident on the island. So I didn’t feel like I could comment on life in Bermuda, really. So I wanted to take part in the photojournalism exhibition, but was a little frightened at the idea of passing comment on a place I don’t live. But then I came to a place where as a mother of two, and both my children are quite young, the experience of motherhood was something that peaked my interest. So I thought that there was a place there for me to do work for them.
K: Ok, that is interesting. I just want to back up a bit before moving forward. You said that your background is in photojournalism -what intrigued you about that particular genre? I know every photographer kind of goes where they feel comfortable but what were you originally trying to get out of photojournalism when you first started?
M: I guess I’m a storyteller…and I’m not a writer. (Laughter) And I’ve always been drawn to photography and the visual arts, so it was kind of a natural fit for me. Also, my interest has always lay in real people, and real environments. So photojournalism was kind of a natural fit for me – [the idea that] you could use your camera to tell a story, and that there’s was also a little bit of power in that. And you have to be careful with it I suppose.
K: [Laughter] Ok, to move forward again. I was really curious when my co-editor and I went to the exhibition…The first thing that came to my mind was, How did you introduce yourself to these families? How did you gain their trust? How did you end up in their intimate space?
M: That’s a really good question. It was a mixture: I basically found – I knew my time was going to be limited because when I came to the island, I came without my husband but I took my children with me. So I was essentially a single parent, which was probably good for the process. But I knew that my time would be tight, because I only had two and a half weeks on the island to organize everything and shoot it and get it all done. So I did a little bit of work before I came home and I got in touch with friends, who I knew were single parents, and also put things on Facebook and tried to find some leads. I had a few friends who were really key in helping me find either their friends, or acquaintances, or family members, or in some cases clients, who were interested in the project. And because the focus of the project was a positive – it’s about celebrating these women, and celebrating what’s a fairly common dynamic in Bermuda.
This is what triggered my interest: every time I’m home, and even when I was living on the island and working at the newspaper, if I would go to events it’d just be striking to me that the participants in things, the majority of the time, seemed to be female. Especially if it was anything to do with children, it seemed that women were doing beyond the lion’s share of the work. When I would pitch the idea to the participants, I wanted them to understand that this was a portrait of pride, as opposed to a portrait of power. So that they should really be proud of themselves, and all the hard, thankless work that goes into being a parent. And so I think they understood that I was coming from a place that wanted to document life, but also maybe by framing it and putting it on the wall in the gallery it’s celebrating it more than your average day.
In my work I like continuity, I like collections, so I knew wanted to have continuity in the location, and initially I thought about doing it in the kitchen, at the dining table, you know? Because that’s the traditional family space. But I mean, I think most of us, even if we have a certain nuclear family with mom, dad, and the 2.5 kids or whatever, you know, we’re not eating dinner at the dinner table every night. And the sofa is a very democratic space, everybody has a sofa. Maybe it’s like, super expensive from Pottery Barn or, you know, off Emoo – a second-hand futon, but everybody’s got a sofa pretty much. But sofa’s also have a relationship, in most homes, with the television. And a lot of times as a parent, if you’re stretched, the television is a really good babysitter. So the point is that the sofa is a very important part of the photographs. And so I explained this to the subjects: “I want to come into your home and photograph in your living room on your sofa.”
K: Ok so there’s a very obvious commentary on – and I guess this was in the didactic too – on matriarchy. I’m interested in what are the implications for for masculinity, I suppose? I remember from studying Latin at BHS the images of the patriarch in his toga and then his family is poised nicely [around him] but in these images you’ve obviously replaced that with a woman. Maybe I should approach it another way – What were your biggest impressions of motherhood, or women, or femininity, in the context in which you were documenting?
M: Well, as an artist and portrait photographer I am drawn to simplicity and the cleanliness of images. But there’s also something about this stark, almost Victorian, posing that I really like. Going back to early last century, August Sander, a German guy who documented people. He sort of left people to – his camera did part of the job, and his subjects did the other half. And they’d meet somewhere in the middle. So I’ve always been drawn to that. And like you say, family portraits, where you have the patriarch in the middle…these types of things is something I was trying to get after.
But I suppose I don’t really feel like I’m in a position to state anything about …Well, ok I’ll put it this way: I wanted to be really careful to – because it’s limited what I could say because I don’t live there, and I’m not an anthropologist, I’m not a …I wasn’t doing an in-depth report of the situation. I didn’t feel like I could say anything about that which was absent, being men. And the reasons for that, the causes for it. But, what I was left with, was a very striking feeling that – in most of the cases, I didn’t feel that anything was missing. You know, everything was running and ticking along. No one seemed – no one was looking for sympathy, no one was looking to be celebrated. There didn’t seem to be any unhappiness because of the absence of men. But instead there seemed to be a closeness and a strength among participants. I don’t know if that answers your question…
K: No, that does. It perfectly answers the question. Two last random questions, were you able to be on the island for the curating part of it?
M: No, I wasn’t.
K: So I guess I have to direct my question about the red walls toward Sophie.
M: That’s Sophie, ya.
K: It was really interesting and really striking. That’s the first time I’ve seen the gallery have red walls. So that’s Sophie, then, alright…
M: It was a surprise to me. Because we had talked about… I mean the exhibition sort of came about in an odd way. Because originally there were going to be two shows: there was going to be “Eyes on the World,” which was going to be the [Alexia] Foundation’s work, and “Eyes on Bermuda,” which was going to be local photographers. But lots of local photographers either didn’t have the time or couldn’t get access to subjects or, for whatever personal reasons, people weren’t delivering stuff – either anything, or anything to the caliber that they were looking for. And then because I had kind of photographed two projects: I photographed the portraits but then I’d also photographed the Carla stuff – and Carla’s an old colleague of mine, so we’re friends –
M: But then we also felt a little bit uncomfortable showing “Portraits of Power,” which is the title that [Sophie] gave the show, we felt a little uncomfortable exhibiting those with “Eyes on the World” show because it’s not a case of social injustice. It’s documentary. These are portraits. They’re not – I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for these women. Or to even think, “Oh, Gosh, wow, that’s really hard-going.” So you know we felt we couldn’t hang it in there, so then basically Lisa and Sophie contacted me and said, you know, would you be willing to show this as its own show? And then in terms of the curating, I also think bigger is better and Sophie agreed. And originally the walls were going to be green. So she talked about painting the downstairs space in order to define it and separate it from the rest of the gallery, which I also thought was very exciting. And originally it was going to be a mossy green, so that it had the feel of a family room, a living room. I almost also wanted to get a sofa in there but [Meredith trails off into laughter.] But the night of the exhibition, which was about midnight here, the opening, my sister Skyped me and I saw the red walls – it was totally a shock to me. So her thinking you’d have to talk to her about. But it seems that it worked, so…
K: Yea, it was quite unexpected so quite striking and powerful. So it leaves an impression. It’s very bold. I like it.
I was going to ask you my last question but I noticed that when we were talking a little earlier you, kind of, preferred Portraits of Pride as opposed to Portraits of Power. How do you feel about the title?
M: I mean… left to my own devices, I would have titled it Mothers, because I always go for vanilla ice cream and simple and clear and [unclear] says it what it does on the tin. But I was…comfortable…with Portraits of Power. I think a little bit of the problem with it is that it sets something in the viewer’s mind before they even look at the pictures –
K: And what do you think that image is?
M: You know, that these women are powerful and that they are strong. Which they are but it might narrow the view a little bit.
K: Alright, you really –
M: But I’m happy with it. I don’t want to rock the boat too much.
Saw the exhibition and curious about the red walls? We caught up with Sophie Cressall – her comments here. (Coming soon).
Want to see more of Meredith’s work? Her wedding portfolio is stunning, and check her fine art work here.