How to Turn a Poppy Danish Into a Mountain

I’ve had a nice response so far since starting to get the word out about Grief Landscapes, and people’s stories are starting to come in. I’m finding my rhythm, and it’s interesting to see what comes up as I navigate the tricky terrain of interpreting someone else’s grief visually. Primarily I feel very grateful and honored that people are trusting me with their accounts. That can’t be an easy thing to do. And as I’m finding, neither is making an image in response, but I have to say that I’m really enjoying the challenge.

Poppy Seed Danish, 2015

As I’m shooting a new image, I have to keep in mind three or four goals that I need to reach in order for the photo to be a successful reflection of a person’s grief experience. First, it needs to resemble a landscape, and some objects are easier than others to transform in this way (clothing, fabric, anything with an undulating surface, for example). It feels relatively easy to take a beautiful but non-specific close-up image of a familiar object, because there’s so much there one can’t always see with the naked eye. But to make it even slightly resemble a landscape turns out to be a lot harder.

The second thing I’m aiming for is to have the tone of the image reflect the person’s grief in some way. Sometimes it’s clear, and something jumps out from the text that’s vivid and an obvious path to represent the terrain they’ve described. Other times, their grief unfolds over a longer period and I have to either choose which aspect of the person’s story to portray, or try to get it all in there. I’m also trying to avoid being too literal or obvious, because then I risk veering into the sentimental (something that feels particularly easy to do with a project like this).

The third dimension is whether the photo feels like it truly represents the person it’s about, which emerges from the objects suggested for me to shoot. And sometimes I get that wrong. My friend Jordana submitted a beautifully written account of her father’s death, which followed years of dementia. In her text, she writes about how different she and her father were—he was a Holocaust survivor; a working class, salt-of-the-earth mensch who didn’t always understand her, but loved her deeply and unconditionally. There was a simplicity to her grief, which she recounted. 

For the objects, she suggested a greasy poppy seed danish, which her dad loved to eat, or a ladder, since he had been a roofer. I jumped at the danish, since I thought it would make a really interesting landscape, and it did. The poppy seeds looked like black boulders, and the white icing like glaciers on the side of a mountain. I was using the black and white nature of their relationship as the jumping off point and I was excited to share them with her. But after I did, she gently told me that while the images were beautiful, they didn’t feel like her dad. They were too beautiful, and he was a man with dirt under his fingernails. It just didn’t fit.

So I took another crack with the ladder. I had one in my garage, so I hauled it out and shot it outside from all different angles. This time, it all came together—the straightforward nature of her grief reflected in the straight lines of the ladder and the image, the choice to have a narrow depth of field to reflect the dementia at the end of his life. She thought I had nailed it, and so did I. I still love the danish photos, and it's hard to let them go, but I love the ladder images too, and each image is ultimately a collaboration.

   Ladder, 2015

I’m excited to keep going, and I look forward to hearing more of your responses as well as starting to share them in the coming months. I also wanted to clarify the object aspect of the project, which some people have been confused about. The object does not have to be something currently in your possession; it can be something in your memory, or an object that represents an aspect of the person. In most cases I am recreating the object anyway (some people don’t actually have anything from the person who died, or what they have wouldn’t work with the text or as a landscape image). Keep the stories coming.