Photography as a medium is inherently personal. It requires an exchange between the photographer and subject, one always learning about the other during the process. Photographer Kathryn Harrison understands this more than others, using it as a way to connect and converse, particularly with her own family.
“For me, it is fundamental to be able to talk about things I find difficult to say, to give voice to what buries itself within or hides in the corners of my mind,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Photography has helped connect me with people, to exchange and challenge ideas, to never stop asking questions, and not just to look, but to see. Photography allows me to pull from all the different parts of myself. It gives me hope.”
The series of Kathryn’s which initially drew us to her work are titled Half in Two and Blue-Stained Walls. While visually compelling, their depth lies in their highly personal narratives. Half in Two performs as an introduction to Blue-Stained Walls and documents Kathryn’s schizophrenic brother, Ray. Kathryn began working on the project with him during the third year of her undergraduate studies at Ringling College of Art & Design.
“A mentor of mine simply asked what I cared about and what felt urgent to me,” Kathryn says of why she began the series. “At the time Ray was using drugs again and homeless, sleeping on the sidewalk less than two miles from my school. We hadn’t really seen each other in years, and we began to spend a lot of time together as adult siblings.” The series, which consists of images about the illusion and cycles of recovery and Ray’s mental stability, in turn, allowed Kathryn to see his constructed identity, comparing this to the boy she had known before the addiction and mental illness “shook him from his own body.”
“The boy I remember is somewhat of a stranger to me now, but looking at our family photographs allowed me to access the convoluted memories I have of him, my mother, and my own developing sense of identity,” Kathryn explains. Half in Two, therefore, functions as a chapter in a much larger story about Ray’s life.
The series became more complicated, and morphs into Blue-Stained Walls when Kathryn’s mother’s body “began to sputter and fail once again”. Kathryn took a year off before applying to graduate school and, in this time, taught herself how to use a large-format camera while caring for her mother after a gastrectomy – the removal of her stomach. “I didn’t have any money but someone had given me a box of 50 sheets of black and white film as a gift, and that’s what I shot the first half of Blue-Stained Walls with.”
A few months into her mother’s recovery, they learned that her brother’s then-girlfriend was pregnant. “They were both living on the street and struggling with addiction, and I had to leave for grad school soon,” Kathryn recalls. Throughout her studies at Yale, Kathryn would visit every holiday, capturing and documenting “the state of [her] home”. At one point, Ray and his girlfriend relapsed leaving Kathryn’s nephew as a ward of the state, at which point her mother stepped in, deciding “she would be a mother once again, even at this juncture in her life.”
The result is a tumultuous but incredibly touching body of work that weaves in and out of the hugely significant markers in Kathryn and her family’s life. “I always wanted this work to be a book, like a new family album,” she tells us. “In my yet-to-be-published artist book, you’ll find my brother’s drawings he made while high; X-rays, mug shots, a selection of my mother’s pictures, and my own. It is our collective story, and I hope one day all of these photographs will help my nephew tell his own story.”
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