In Marisa Chafetz’s series, We are Ugly but We Have the Music, the photographer documents her extended, communal family and the impact change and loss has had on the clan. “I was raised alongside two other families and throughout the past few years our family unit has faced a lot of hardship and fallen apart quite a bit,” explains New York-based Marisa. “When I first started making this work, I was interested in documenting our uncertain present, since we are neither completely together nor completely apart. About halfway through making the work I realised I was really making this to capture whatever magic still exists between all of us, and to pay homage to the beauty of my childhood and how I was raised.”
With three mums and dads and seven brothers and sisters, Marisa describes her childhood as the “golden years” and a “utopia”. The families’ houses were all connected by their back gardens and days were spent “running back and forth, having meals together, and setting up carnivals and plays in the trees behind our yards”. “We were always all together, outside, and laughing,” says Marisa. This project allowed the photographer to revisit these memories and helped her “come to terms with the loss” her family has gone through.
As a viewer we’re presented with an idyllic setting for teenage angst, growing pains and familial relationships, making this series rich with various narrative that overlap. There’s great range in the moments Marisa has captured from the big family get togethers and celebratory dinners to more intimate exchanges between one or two members like putting on make-up and swimming alone. “Luckily, I’ve been photographing my family obsessively since I was a pre-teen, so all of my family members are accustomed to being photographed by me,” explains Marisa. “Making this work was extremely collaborative, and all of my family members played a role.”
Marisa describes her style as somewhere between documentary and traditional portraiture. “I’m influenced by photographers like Larry Sultan and Tina Barney, who have broken down the barriers of traditional documentary work,” she says. There’s a filmic quality to Marisa’s photographs and she uses colour not only to set the mood but to also elicit memory. “In my most diluted memories I often only remember shapes, colours and smells. I thought about beauty a lot while making this work and the choice to have a very saturated palette comes from wanting to make images that appear traditionally beautiful, as an excited child might’ see the world during summertime.”
All of these elements come together to create a series that’s thought-provoking and explores themes many of us can relate to. “I am trying to speak to what it means to be part of a family, what it means to love, what it means to have everything change and what it feels like to remember,” says Marisa.
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