Kristen Emack: Cousins
Projects featured this week were selected from our call-for-submissions. I was able to interview each of these individuals to gain further insight into the bodies of work they shared. Today, we are looking at the series Cousins by Kristen Emack.
Kristen Emack lives and works in Cambridge, MA. She is primarily a self taught photographer. Kristen is a Mass Cultural Council Photography Fellow ’19. Her photographs have been accepted into The Griffin Museum of Photography, The PRC Exposure 2019 show, The Fence 2019, and both the Blue Sky Gallery and Pro Photo Supply in Portland, OR. Kristen is a 2019 Critical Mass Top 50 Winner, and the first Michael Reichmann Project Award Winner. This Fall Kristen was interviewed by the London based SHADE Podcast, and her interview in Vogue Italia was published this February. Kristen’s series Cousins was also recently awarded 2nd Place in the Lensculture Portrait Awards 2020.
My daughter and my niece’s involvement in each other’s lives is both gravitational and expected. We all grow up. The girls have each other to navigate this tender process, and I admire their innocent, confident relationships to themselves, their world and one another. Between them is an intimate and spiritual knowledge that is both ordinary and extraordinary, and I’m indebted to them for letting me capture the brilliance of their communion and kinship. As they have matured, they have begun to understand that the lives of Black girls are not well documented, and agree that one added intention of this series is to bring forward that perspective. My hope is that when they look back on this work, they will see the beauty of their childhood together, and when they look for everyday representations of themselves in the world, they will find themselves here, in this work we made together, reflected with love. This project is ongoing.
Daniel George: Your daughter is at the focus of several of your photographic projects—Fairytales, Appaloosa, and Cousins. What compels you to create these visual records, in which she plays a central role?
Kristen Emack: I love fairytales for their themes of sorcery, betrayal, revelry, redemption and loyalty. I read them to my daughter a lot when she was little. Eventually she asked why so many characters were white. I began photographing her to center her as the protagonist in her favorite stories. That’s how the Fairytale Series was born.
I never intended for the project to be a full body of work, or even to show it to anyone. I was just interested in showing my daughter that resistance could be beautiful and creative.
Appaloosa is named after my daughter, although we call her Apple for short. The energy that initiated that series has shifted, but when it started it was fueled by this intense need to document her. I was older when I had her and midlife mothering is sprinkled with worries and anxieties. Much different than the carefree experience I had in my 20’s with the birth of my son Niko. I wanted to record her because I wasn’t recorded as a child. I wanted her to have evidence of her existence and I simply wanted to capture how this curious, beautiful creature was evolving before my eyes. Ultimately, representative narrative comes into play again. She is mixed race. She lives in the city. We have a small, simple apartment. I wanted her childhood reality, so different then how childhood is typically visually celebrated, to be elevated and acknowledged. This series is moving into chapter two. She turns 13 on April 3rd! She needs more control over her images. It’s taken a while to figure out what this will look like but I think we are finally on to something.
DG: Despite the very personal nature of these images and your connections to each of these individuals, what broader dialogues or conversations do you feel you are engaging?
KE: Race and representation are certainly present as a broader topic. I think Cousins offers viewers of all races a way into the conversation. People feel the connection and kinship first, and relate to it first, and then have a secondary response regarding race. For instance, white friends have remarked that they’ve never really seen images of black children in swimsuits, or on the beach. In that moment, they were understanding something about the segregation of their own world that may not have felt so obvious to them before. Black and brown friends see some of their own childhood experiences in print for the first time, and have expressed feelings of recognition and validation.
I also see themes of the sacred and the divine feminine emerging in my work over and over again. They pop up because these are things I’m drawn to, and respond to in my own life. I know that might sound a little pretentious so let me give an example. My apartment is full of 2nd hand Virgin Mary statues. This is funny, really, since I’m not at all religious. Mary stands mythologically poised with outstretched arms, while simultaneously crushing a serpent demon under foot, her head elegantly surrounded by a halo of stars. Those same feminine characteristics of power, grace and reverie that I’m attracted to in the statues make their way into the work for sure.
DG: You mention that as your daughter and her cousins have matured, they have begun to recognize that young black girls lack representation in coming-of-age documentation. In what ways did this awareness inform your portrayal of them?
KE: When I’m not photographing the girls, I’m driving them to the mall, taking them to the beach, or helping edit their school work. We’re family and the work takes its direction first and foremost from that perspective.
But the girls are older now and are able to think about race and representation. They’ve seen white Barbies sell out in stores days before Christmas, while the black Barbies remain on the shelves. They see white faces on billboards, magazines, book covers. They’re aware of the gap in diverse representation. The work isn’t made to fill that void, but it makes us happy knowing that once the images are released out into the world, we’re countering it with something beautiful and true.
Additionally, as Cousins gains all this lovely exposure, we’ve had to debrief after some of our experiences at exhibitions. Sometimes it’s awkward for me, and uncomfortable for them to be some of the only people of color at an opening, or in the artwork being shown. My oldest niece was recently repeatedly mistaken as the mother of the younger girls. She is only 16. Her sister and cousin are only 4 years younger than she is. The affection and protectiveness she has for them was seen as maternal, rather than sisterly, or from the position of oldest cousin. And perhaps because she now has the body of a woman, she was seen as a young mother rather than what she is, a super focused high school junior, aiming to get into a prestigious college.
On the surface, it may seem like an innocent mistake. But if the people engaging with her at the opening had been black, that assumption would not have been made. After talking about it Kayla said “I felt it at the pit of my stomach. it’s the pain of silent racism and expectations.”
DG: From the outset when I saw Braids, I was drawn to the potent gesture of these girls and how it communicates the tenderness of their relationship. And this close physical and emotional proximity continues throughout the series. Tell me more about your thoughts on creating this narrative—both in the photographic and editing processes.
KE: I had a confusing childhood. My father was often angry, my much older siblings didn’t seem to like me very much, and my mother, while very gentle, was sidetracked by her own sadness by the time I came along. Family didn’t make sense. I found connection and tenderness within my friendships. Later those qualities expanded when I had my own children, and soon after that became an auntie.
I was labor support for my sister- in- law at each of my niece’s births. I’ve been connected to them really, from the moment they were born, and the girls have grown up together. The whole cousin relationship is fascinating to me, and being a mom and an aunt is everything to me! We belong to each other by design, and that belonging is grounded and supported by tons of shared experiences.
The Cousins series unofficially started on one of our summer trips to my home town in CT. We were spending the afternoon in a swimming hole called Chatfield Hollow. It’s beautiful there. The pond water is reddish from the sap of all the towering pine trees that surround it. The girls were laughing and playing and something about observing them in the very same place I played as a child spoke to me. I photographed my daughter, and my middle niece Leyah, both the same age, tenderly reaching across the water to each other, and without knowing it then, this series was born.
I am constantly bewitched by their authenticity with each other, and their connection really captivates me, probably because It’s what I longed for as a child.
DG: Toward the end of your artist statement, you mention that this project was made as a collaborative effort. What did each of you provide the work, and how did these contributions ultimately help shape its final realization?
KE: It didn’t start out collaborative because the girls were so young. Now they offer suggestions for location or “pose”. The middle girls have been clear that they need to have some agency over how they need to look before I can photograph them. They’re teens, and they care about their appearance. I count on my daughter and oldest niece to help with editing. My daughter has good instincts and has no problem thinning the herd. Kayla, the 16-year-old is a photographer now. I’ll send her images I’m working on and she gives very intuitive feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
And my little hidden secret is that there is a fourth child who is starting to make her way into the series. Layla was too young to come on trips and adventures with us. Now she is demanding to be included. Her collaboration is non-negotiable. When she wants to be in the frame, she brings it. When she doesn’t, that girl cannot be found!
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