In the turbulent, divisive years since Trump’s election, photographer Gillian Laub has been asking herself the same question that millions of other Americans have faced: how do you keep close to loved ones who are on the other side of the political spectrum? Growing up in a tight-knit, well-to-do Jewish family outside of New York City, Laub had always been a bit of a rebel, or in her words, “the family challenger.” But finding herself at odds with her parents and other family members during the last two extraordinarily hostile presidential elections had larger implications for Laub.
“I began to unpack my relationship to my relatives — which turned out to be much more indicative of my relationship to the outside world than I had ever thought, and the key to exploring questions I had about the effects of wealth, vanity, childhood, aging, fragility, political conflict, religious traditions, and mortality,” she said.
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Family Matters (Aperture) is Laub’s attempt to understand her own family, and her fraught place within it. An engaging mix of memoir and photobook, it gathers more than 80 photos that Laub has taken of her grandparents, parents, sister, nephews, children, and family friends over the past 20 years. The pictures are accompanied by Laub’s intimate short texts, which reflect on her memories and vulnerabilities with revealing candor, and often quote directly from her family members’ comments and text messages. In both her pictures and her words, Laub is a natural storyteller. As she traces the poignant, funny, and heartbreaking ways that life has pushed and pulled on her family, she also raises universal, relatable, and lasting questions about love, relationships, and resilience. How do you keep your family together when it’s near a breaking point?
In her previous work as a photographer and filmmaker, Laub has captured the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and racism in the American South. By contrast, she tells us, she experienced her life with her family as a sort of nest of comfort. But the events of the past five years unsettled that sense of accord, folding politics into family life in complex ways. For example, Laub retells an episode from the 2018 Super Bowl, when her father stormed out of her apartment after his granddaughter — encouraged by Laub — kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. In their ensuing argument, Laub’s father accused her of being part of a hypocritical elite. Reflecting on their argument, the photographer candidly confesses, “What he didn’t add is that it wasn’t simply that I was arguing against inequity while sending my kids to private school, but that I wasn’t even paying for it myself. He was.”
Before the political turmoil takes hold, Laub meditates on the family’s humble immigrant origins, the episodes of anti-Semitism they experienced in the past, the uneven gender roles she observed in her female relatives, and the racial and social disparities in her family’s and her own hired caretakers. Although there are many heavy issues and complicated conflicts at play in Family Matters, it’s also hard not to fall in love with Laub’s eccentric, expressive family. Her documentary style photos and frank texts hook us into their personas, from her magnanimous grandfather and family patriarch — who we first see on the book’s cover gleefully chomping a cheeseburger in a speedo on a Florida beach — to her two daughters, who grow from babies to preteens before our eyes. It is to them that this book is dedicated. “You are free to evolve into someone very different from — even someone who conflicts with — the people you come from,” Laub tells them in the book’s epilogue. “You are free to do it because I was free to do it.”
Gillian Laub: Family Matters is published by Aperture and is available on Bookshop. A concurrent exhibition of the project is on view at the International Center of Photography (79 Essex Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through January 10, 2022.