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Talking “Family Matters” with Gillian Laub

January 11, 2022

Interrogating my own contradictions: Talking Family Matters with Gillian Laub

The artist was “devastated” as her family fractured during the Trump era. Family Matters explores their conflict with affection and insight.

This interview was originally written and published by Gordon Haber for The CANVAS Compendium.

Boy wearing a trump mask with family in the background. For Family Matters by Gillian Laub

Gillian Laub, Slater with the Trump mask, 2019, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021) @Gillian Laub

Gillian Laub is a gifted and artistically ambitious New York-based photographer and filmmaker and an alum of Reboot (an arts and culture non-profit that reimagines Jewish thought). Her work explores communities in conflict, with an unflinching look at issues like racism and violence. But her portraits humanize the individuals facing these issues, particularizing her subjects and allowing them, with accompanying text, to speak for themselves.

Her first monograph, Testimony, is a moving collection of portraits and testimonies from Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Lebanese, and Palestinians affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Laub next explored lingering racism in a Georgia town. The resulting work, collectively known as The Southern Rites Project, includes a feature-length documentary that Laub directed and produced for HBO, a monograph, and finally a traveling exhibition still appearing across the country.

Her latest book, Family Matters, is extremely personal, chronicling twenty years in the artist’s extended family, including her discomfort with their embrace of Trumpism. We spoke to Laub about Jewish arts and culture networks (an area of serious investment for CANVAS), what it means (if anything) to be a “Jewish artist,” and the deeply personal nature of her recent work.

You’re involved with Reboot, the Jewish arts and culture network. How has that played out in your work?
It’s been significant. It’s a community committed to investigating all things that shape us, Jewish or not. It’s also a collection of individuals who ask challenging questions of themselves, with whom I have connected with for moral support and advice. And I’ve met so many incredible collaborators within this community, notably Maya Benton who curated and helped to guide the Southern Rites exhibit as it travels the country amid the ongoing currents of white supremacy. Reboot has played an important role in my creative life.

Family Matters strikes me as a very Jewish book, and it’s a tense time for Jews. Did you have any concerns about publishing in this atmosphere?
I lost a lot of sleep over that, over how people would respond to the story. I was worried about feeding into negative stereotypes about Jews. I wanted to be true to the art and at the same time protective of my family. Thankfully, my worst fears weren’t realized, and the very gratifying thing is how Family Matters has resonated with people from all different backgrounds. Although it’s a very specific story about my Jewish family, several non-Jewish people have reached out to me about how they are connecting to the work. A man from the UK just messaged me to share that he went through the same thing with Brexit and his parents. I met a father who took his 20-year-old son to see my show because they didn’t talk during the Trump years, and he wanted to let his son know he wasn’t alone. It was a beautiful moment between them that I was lucky enough to witness. That’s been the most fulfilling thing.

I’m also curious about what it means to be a Jewish artist right now.
I’ve always been wrestling about what it means to be an American Jew. But I don’t consider myself a “Jewish artist.” I don’t hide my identity, but I don’t call myself “a Jewish artist.” I’m an artist.

Two people stand in masks outside a sliding glass door in "My quarantine birthday" by Gillian Laub, 2020

Gillian Laub, My quarantine birthday, 2020, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021) @Gillian Laub

I understand, but sometimes identity can be imposed from without. You mentioned ongoing white supremacy; we’re also seeing mounting political pressure against institutions and galleries who have connections with Israel. Are you concerned about this?
I’m not personally concerned for myself. The work that I’ve done for the past twenty years looks at very complicated situations from a 360-degree view. I approach conflict and divisiveness by trying to look at the whole story. I spent several years working on Testimony, which was an attempt to understand the Israeli Palestinian conflict better directly through the voices of Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians. I spent twelve years in Georgia investigating racism in a community that held racially segregated proms until 2010. My hope is that the people who make absolutist statements can educate themselves and understand how deep and complex certain situations are.

Family Matters is fascinating because it deals with the upheavals of politics, but it feels like a memoir.
I didn’t set out for it to be that. It started as a traditional photo book. I interview everyone all the time, so I am constantly using people’s voices throughout all of my work, and what was missing in the first draft of Family Matters was my voice. It wasn’t fair to put my own family’s personal lives in it without interrogating myself. It happened backwards. It started with the pictures, and I delayed it a year because I realized I needed to start writing. I chose the photographs then wrote the text. I spent years looking at these pictures, and then I realized that while the pictures need to stand on their own, it’s not the full story without the words.

The self-disclosure—about the affection you have for your family, as well as the embarrassing moments—enriches the book.
That was the hardest part. With the camera I am looking at other people, and with the text I was forced to reveal myself. This time last year the publisher was ready to go to press. But it didn’t feel complete to me, I knew in my gut I wasn’t done, so I postponed publishing the book and spent the next five months focusing on the narrative and the text. I felt it was only fair and right to interrogate my own inner struggles and contradictions if I were publicly sharing my family’s story.

Family Matters is available from Aperture and Bookshop. An exhibition of Family Matters is at New York’s International Center of Photography through January 10, 2022.

Gillian Laub, Grandma grabbing Grandpa's tush, 2000.

Gillian Laub, Grandma grabbing Grandpa’s tush, 2000, from Family Matters (Aperture, 2021) @Gillian Laub