In December 2009, I began photographing my mother at the assisted living facility where she had been living for nearly thirty years. She entered the facility after her second husband beat her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage. For many years, I turned my back on my mother, angry at her because she had left our family for her lover. At the same time, I suffered from depression and guilt over her fate. At forty-seven years old, I started to heal our broken relationship with photography. My goal is to show that it is not only possible to forgive anyone but also to, hopefully, give someone the courage to leave an abusive relationship. I have been deeply invested in photographing my mother for nearly seven years. Her complexity continues to beckon me: I will not avert my eyes from the truth of her condition no matter how difficult it is to see. Someone must be witness to her life. In addition, I want my photographs to make people pause and question the nature of the human condition and assess their own wills to live. These photos tell my mother's story of isolation, loneliness, abuse, connection, compassion, forgiveness, family, humanity, grace, joy and, above all, love.
LONG WRITTEN REFLECTION
When I was nine, my mother left my family and father for another man. The man she left us for turned out to be violent; he beat her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage and had to be moved into an assisted living facility where she still lives today. Of her five children, only my younger sister visited her regularly for the first thirty years. Seeing her in such a place, was too depressing for the rest of her children.
I have early, fond memories of my mother as a beautiful, passionate, vivacious, and fiery, Guatemalan Sophia Loren. But since she left us, I have had tremendous feelings of abandonment and rage towards her. Her actions led me to judge her as impetuous, selfish, reckless and a negligent mother. I resented what she did to herself and to her family. I carried so much anger, yet whenever I saw her, I was overcome with pity and sadness. Just looking at her gnarled hand from the brain damage brought forth more emotion than I could bear. For these reasons, I have virtually ignored my mother in an attempt to distance myself from my own pain.
But the pain remained, and it became clear to me that our relationship needed healing. Thankfully, through the graduate work I did in Spiritual Psychology and the work I did with a healer, I was able to dissolve the judgments I carried about her and myself, and begin to forge a relationship with her. On this road to acceptance, I experience my raw emotions through the safe distance of a camera lens. My camera brought me a connection point and a separation that I needed.
I feel our connection without fear as I create photos meant to take me out of my comfort zone. These photos tell my mother's story of isolation, loneliness, abuse, connection, compassion, forgiveness, family, humanity, grace, joy and above all, love. I didn’t need to travel around the world to deepen my spirituality. My greatest teacher was in front of me my entire life. I just couldn’t see it was my mother; a true Bodhisattva. She forgave me for not visiting her all those decades without uttering a word. I forgave her for leaving me and my family. Forgiveness happens when you care more about the love in a relationship than the logic of your ego. I no longer pity my mother. She continually inspires me teaching me to live by my heart, not my head. The love I feel for her has broken my heart wide open.
My mother is a symbol of perseverance. Even though she suffered from domestic violence; she never lost her kindness, belief in love and hope. What happened to my mother also fractured my persona yet we both grew from the trauma and she refused to be covered with a veil of pity. She is comfortable in silence and is fully present in the moment. I never planned to show these photos when I made them but I've learned that by sharing myself and my process of healing, that helps others on their path to healing.
This is an ongoing project with the ultimate goal of returning with my mother to Guatemala for the first time since she left fifty-three years ago. No one from her original family in Guatemala has seen her since she moved, including a brother she was once very close with. It’s been over fifteen years since her only sister has seen her. I believe the story will continue to reveal itself when I photograph her and her family in her homeland.
While creating the photos, I began to create a short film, to accompany my photo essay. My original goal was to make a movie for myself and my sister. I believe if you create something for yourself, it is the most honest. With my background as a photographer for decades and a stunt woman for 25 years, I found my interest in making movies a natural progression as I studied film noir for years. Although I did not know how to even use the Final Cut Software when I began, I made it one of my priorities to learn it, as I had to create this movie; no one else could see my vision or commit with my passion and heart for this project. I spent countless years at Apple trying to learn the software as I wrote the dialogue, ad libbed some of the scenes and I filmed all of it myself. I'm still learning every day; it's an art form that is never completely mastered. I realized there was an essential part I couldn't do myself and that was the sound, so I left that to a professional sound engineer because I understand that sound carries the story.
I prefer to use the term "movie" to documentary as a movie is an art form to tell a story. I didn't want to give a sermon or a lecture; I wanted to tell a story using this art form. I would hope this movie can move someone enough to anger; not depression. Anger can be transformational and can cause us to want to create a change. Anger is a preclude to a shift in consciousness. I believe making a film deeply personal and honest will interest people because it's universal to connect with isolation, loneliness, family, love, forgiveness....My hope is someone will be moved to tell someone else to watch my film because so many of us love non fiction storytelling. There were moments when I was crying during making the fiilm and editing. I would like people to cry and laugh as well.
I hope to inspire action and create more awareness of domestic violence. Not only did it alter the course of my mother's life but the affects of it profoundly changed my life as well by living with guilt, anxiety & depression as a young girl. All of my siblings were affected as well, in various ways. My dream is all the work I have put into creating this movie and photo essay will lead to publication of a book. And, that book could change someone's life. And, isn't that why we are here?
At the age of forty-one, over thirty years ago, my mother began living in the facility. A few months ago I asked my mother,
“what would you like”?
Without hesitation she answered,
"Que todo la gente este bien."
"May all people be well."
A few days ago I asked her a question I’ve asked of myself.
" que te gustaria, mas que nada en el mundo"?
"What do you want more than anything in the whole world"?
" que todos nos queramos."
"That everyone love each other."
To which I whole-heartedly agree.
This project made it to the semi-finalist for the CDS/Honickman Duke University 1st Book Prize in Photography - 2016
This project made it to the finalists for the CDS/Honickman Duke University 1st Book Prize in Photography - 2014.