How a stranger helped me understand my complicated relationship with my family.
Nita Vera created a deeply personal and yet removed photo essay about her complicated family. What started out as a personal project grew to a universal story that touches anyone with family issues. It especially taught me how universally complicated all human relationships can be.
I grew up completely at odds with the home environment I was raised in. As a child of 2 immigrant parents still holding on to the motherland I lived in two worlds. The majority of my days were spent with people of many other cultures if not the predominantly Canadian culture I am surrounded by. During the days I would travel to my Canadian ‘world’ and during my evenings and weekends were spent in my Italian environment always trying to socialize well in each. My Canadian side is where I primarily identify with and I was constantly making excuses for the ‘strange’ behaviour of my family — my parents don’t speak any of the official languages fluently, I brought ‘strange’ lunches to school (I was envious of baloney), and they simply didn’t fit in. I didn’t understand them, nor their ways.
Years continued on as I found my Canadian culture taking the lead as my predominant culture. The Italian ways started to seem foreign. Family gatherings every few weeks ranged from 8 to 25 people all yelling at each other in my second language. Sometimes the yelling was really just excited Italians being Italian. Then there were times when the yelling wasn’t just stereotypical boisterous Italians.
Someone would offend someone. Someone would get too drunk. Words would be exchanged. Sometimes property was damaged. Then my parents ushered me out. At home, they would tell me that we weren’t talking to Uncle So-and-So for a while. There were other times when all these arguments would happen outside of my purview and I would learn later that there was tension. Every time these outbursts happened silent allegiances were formed and people on opposing sides would give each other the silent treatment. It could last only a few months. Twice, it lasted fifteen years. Twice. While everyone seems to be on tense talking terms — right now there are still extended family members that can only speak to others through an unbiased party, the Switzerland of family. Meanwhile, these bickering adults tried to impart onto me that the most important thing in the world is family.
I didn’t understand. I suspected that this was just how my family is. That we were uniquely dysfunctional.
When a photograph taught me about universals.
The work of Nita Vera, a Finnish Photographer, came across my inbox and I was struck by an emotion I couldn’t quite pinpoint. The cold and composed images of a mother and son expressed a serious divide and care through a tense relationship. I intimately understood the archetypes this mother and son depicted. An intense pregnant moment exists in every frame of the duo. The space between them is large — unlike pregnant moments in art history’s past (Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam is a perfect example). There is strong emotions of love, betrayal, misunderstanding and pain buried in the space between a mother and her child that only grows with age.
To learn more about this story and its genesis I spoke to Nita Vera while she was on a break from writing her thesis at the Royal Academy of Art in the Netherlands.
Nita originally came to photography through her original career aspirations in fashion design. While working with designers she discovered her natural tendencies towards image creation partially due to her father’s career as a photographer. These fashion photo shoots are what grew her interest in telling stories. Through her experience and education in photography Nita honed her storytelling abilities she discovered a more personal approach to telling stories. Her series, that goes by many names, tells a universal story of relationships.
The elderly woman in this story is Nita’s paternal grandmother. The middle aged male character is her father. They are originally from Chile. The 1973 Coup d’État forced them to leave and in a hurry for a safer new home. On the brink of adulthood, Nita’s father was 17 when leaving Chile. This is where the story of their relationship seemed to change for Nita. Her grandmother had an emotionally cold and distant personality. Her father, is passionate and sought a more emotional relationship with his family. Spending a lifetime trying to make an impossible to please person happy can be draining. This opposition manifested throughout their lives and those around them.
Growing up Nita was put in the middle of their arguments. Whether she was simply in the room while heated conversations were in process or whether she was the go-between for her father and grandmother. During one of a more heated argument, Nita’s grandmother called an 8 year Nita crying about her father and the argument.
Due to this absurd relationship Nita seems to have a very calm and mature disposition. She has had to remain mature and calm in the midst of a chaotic home life. When talking about her photographs she maintains this even-tempered maturity. Her series tells the story of a broken relationship that will always be bonded by the vulnerability and love of family. These photographs tells her unique story, yet through composition, style, and the even-tempered maturity Nita weaves her experiences into stories of universal relationships. Relationships that are ripe with love, with conflicting personalities, with disappointment, and heartache. That stuff that makes us human.
Nita stages her photographs. Instead of making a photo documentary of her experiences she includes her family in the process. The scenes come to her instinctively. Her images are created with a focus on colour and composition to create an entire story in 1 frame. Each pose is absurd and awkward — these came naturally. The scenes are all domestic and void of symbolism that detracts for the moments between mother and son. In one particular frame, her grandmother is meekly trying to hand a plate of food to her defeated and distant son depicting a level of care and love through a barrier of emotional baggage that fills the space between them. These calculated composition lends to this distant quality.
To Nita, this is intentional. She chose intentionally not to create another family documentary. Instead, rooting from her fashion design and photography experience she intends to tell a universal story. In these tableaus I see the heartache between my grandmother and her bickering children being forced in the middle of intense arguments. I see the inconsolable Uncle So-and-So that cares so much yet has said something insensitive one time too many and has been uninvited from family get-togethers. More importantly, I see universals — heartbreak in family happens to almost everyone. My family is not unique. It alleviate the embarrassment and the sense of responsibility to try to amend the relationships. We can also see ourselves in these places and how we may be hurting someone close to us just by our disposition. This doesn’t really solve any of these deep seeded issues that lead to decades of emotional baggage. It does, however, make the world a little smaller and our connections a little closer.
For more on Nita Vera’s work visit http://www.nitavera.net/