Homeschooled in the Catskills
A new project by award-winning photographer Rachel Papo explores the intimate experiences of homeschooled children living in the mountains of upstate New York. Fittingly, it arose out of her own challenges as a new mother, including the elusive balance between work and children. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann asked her about the project.
Emily: You began this project when you moved to Woodstock, NY in 2010. How did you end up there?
Rachel: I had a comfortable life and a successful career in Brooklyn, NY. However, after my daughter Zohar was born in 2010, I went through some difficult time adjusting to my new life as a mother. I very soon came to realize that it would take me a lot longer than “a few months” to find a balance between work and motherhood.
R: The fast-paced energy of the city started to bother me — people were constantly doing and creating things while I was at home with a baby. Moving to Upstate New York was a relief at the time. Later on, when my daughter grew older I started to really miss the city. Becoming a mother has made me sensitive to parenting styles and the endless choices that parents have to face every step of the way.
E: The decision to home school one’s child, much like choosing a school district, is a very personal one that is often publicly judged and discussed. Did you find it difficult to get people to allow you into their homes to document the experience? How did you approach people?
R: Yes, I absolutely agree and this is true not only in this case, but in any situation where children are being photographed. I approached each family in a very direct, honest and respectful manner and shared my previous work with them. Many of the parents wanted to know how I would use the photos and where they would end up. The families I met were all very proud of the path they have chosen so after they realized that my approach was that of an observer, that I was not judging their choices, they opened their doors for me every time.
The fact that in my previous projects I was allowed access to Israeli army bases and to a world renown Russian ballet academy may have also contributed to their trust in me.
E: When did you become interested in exploring education in your photography? Do you think it’s a theme you will continue to expand upon in future projects?
R: I was raised and attended school in Israel in the 1970’s and 1980’s. If homeschooling existed in Israel back then, it was definitely not a popular thing. This was completely new territory for me. Not only that I didn’t have any thoughts on the homeschooling movement, but I actually have never heard of it before. When I befriended a mother who introduced me to her 5-year-old homeschooled daughter, I was curious, and decided to explore it and try to find more cases.
Only after doing some research did I discover the “movement” aspect of the practice and the great controversy it evoked, and that intrigued me even more. At the moment I don’t have any plans to continue with this theme, but then again, I have two small children, so the topic of education is likely to be a major part of my life for the next decade or so.
E: You’re interested in home schooling as a reaction against the U.S. education system by the parents, but also as the normal everyday experience of the children. What did you find that experience to be? Were the children aware that their experience was abnormal in any way?
R: I was interested particularly in the children and discovering what it means for a child to have a life without school. My images therefore don’t always show children sitting at a desk at home and studying. Many of the parents allow the children to discover their own interests and learn a great deal from the natural environment around them. I relate to children and teenagers sometimes much more than I do to adults. Similar to my previous projects, I always hoped that the parents would just let me run off with their child and photograph them. — that allowed for the connection between me as a photographer and them to be much more fluid and free.
E: Since you were new to the idea of homeschooling at the start of the project, what did you learn through these interactions?
R: When I first heard about it I thought it was a strange phenomenon, which triggered my curiosity. My idea was to create a series of portraits of a variety of homeschooled children in the area and discover a possible commonality between them.
However, as I met more children and families, two things became very clear to me which directed the evolution of the project: The children were all so different than one another in so many ways that a common thread would have been impossible to detect, and — after photographing one child, I just wanted to spend more and more time with them. I learned something new from each child every time, and I believe that contributed to the overall quality of the image.
E: Are there any families or kids you can tell us about who were among your favorites with whom to spend time?
R: The more time I spent with certain children, the more connected I became to them and therefore wanted to photograph them more.
True, who I’ve photographed over a period of two years, was always a pleasure to be around. I learned many things from her spontaneity and curiosity and in a way I became part of her family. The same could be said about Iris and Roan with whom I spent many magical days on their family farm.
E: You’ve photographed ballet students in St. Petersburg for your project “Desperately Perfect,” female soldiers in Israel for “Serial Number 3817131,” and lone figures in various public places in Israel and England for “Out of Context.” How, if at all, do you change your approach to portraiture when your subjects are younger children?
R: Until this day I am still curious and bewildered about the things that I went through as an adolescent and a young adult, particularly emotionally. There is a lot going on during these sensitive years, a lot of pressure, confusion and yearning, and I am sometimes amazed by how I managed to cope with it all. By photographing these subjects I am able to recognize and, in a way, re-experience many of those past emotions.
I don’t plan what I want my photographs to look like, but somehow, even if I try to create something new, my photos all end up having ta similar aesthetic atmosphere. I guess you can say it’s my photographic style. I feel that in my editing process I end up pulling out those images that evoke a strong and familiar emotion in me. If you look at my soldiers, my dancers and my homeschooled children, it is not difficult to conclude that they were all shot by the same person. Perhaps they are all, in one way or another, a reflection of myself.
E: Are you in Berlin now to work on a project?
R: I moved to Berlin with my family in 2013 after life in Upstate New York became too slow. I was pregnant with my second child at the time and so I have dedicated the past two years to raising my children. Only now am I starting to look for opportunities and think what’s ahead of me in terms of my career.
E: Can you share some examples of artists or other creative types whose works inspires you, or whom you’re enjoying right now?
R: I just acquired Stephen Shore’s most recent book that includes his complete works. The simplicity and perfection of his images has always been an inspiration to me. Other artists that have always inspired me are Robert Rauschenberg, Henri Cartier Bresson, William Eggleston and Walker Evans. Alec Soth is an inspiration right now.
R: My biggest influence has always been film. When I was in high school, shooting mostly black and white, I remember watching Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish over and over again and getting inspired. Later on I became more drawn to movies where the color plays an important roll like in some films by Alfred Hitchcock and Pedro Almodovar. My undergraduate degree was in painting and that has had a great influence on my compositions and color sensitivity. Some of my favorites painters are Edward Hopper, Picasso, Klimt, Degas and Klee.