For Gillian Laub, division is a fixation. But it is the contradictions and complexities of human character, rather than a taste for quarrels and strife, that motivates the New York-born photographer. In a 15-year career that began with Testimony-his 2007 monograph of Portraits of Arabs and Israeli Jews, Lebanese and Palestinians — Laub has earned a reputation for cutting through layers of social scar tissue to expose the most ingrained conflicts in our culture. His second monograph, Southern Rite, followed in 2015, after the photographer spent a decade roaming the Deep South and documenting separate proms. But despite all the visceral honesty of Laub’s previous projects, he’s Family affairs—The photographer’s latest monograph exploring her strained relationship with her once apolitical and now avidly pro-Trump family, it is perhaps her most immersive yet.
Family affairs– on display at the New York International Photography Center through Jan. 10 – features a lush array of snapshots of the tight-knit Laub family in all their sprawling, spray-tanned, jeweled, and boisterous glory. Taken over a period of twenty years, the images reveal a distinctively American mixture of panache, exuberance and excess consumption that inspires shock as much as fear.
The photographs, each accompanied by Laub’s thoughts on family members and the moments depicted, take on an ominous tone in the third act of the monograph, which features images captured around the 2016 presidential election. Suddenly, Make America Even More Beautiful merchandise slips into the family uniform of cheetah-print Speedos, dizzying blowouts and lavish diamonds. Accompanying these photographs is Laub’s dazzlingly honest account of his struggle to reconcile his deep devotion to his family with his horror of their political convictions. In the wake of the holiday season, and to mark the show’s final week at ICP, Laub sat down with Interview think about Family affairs.
INTERVIEW: Have you ever captured an image that you later regretted?
GILLIAN LAUB: I’ve never regretted capturing an image, but there are many times I failed to capture important moments and lost sleep over it. This is not unusual and it is certainly something that obsesses me.
INTERVIEW: Tell us about an image that was not included in the book.
LAUB: There is a picture of my daughters in the tub that was very meaningful to me. I did this at the start of the pandemic and felt it really marked that moment in time – the intimacy, but also the intensity and the tension. My editor at Aperture thought the nudity in the photo would attract unnecessary attention. Aperture publishes the work of photographers like Sally Mann, so it’s clear that they’re sticking to the decisions of the artists, but my editor felt that in this case, one image might detract from the larger narrative. So we made a compromise: I converted the photo to Polaroid and cropped it so you only saw their faces.
INTERVIEW: How did your family react to the project?
LAUB: Everyone in the family had their own concerns about how they would be portrayed. I was very nervous about how they would react. When I received a hard copy of the book in advance, I went straight to my parents, so I could sit with them while they read it. They went through it from cover to cover, and it takes about an hour to read it. It was intense. There was a lot of laughter and crying. My dad was the most comfortable with it, because above all he respected my honesty. I think there were things in the book that were more difficult for my mom, but it also opened up a deeper dialogue between us than ever before. My brother-in-law was not very comfortable with it and felt that it was very clearly my version of our family history. He wasn’t wrong – it was definitely a representation of my experience and how I chose to share it.
INTERVIEW: Was there anything a family member said to you as you prepared to post that struck you, made you think, or encouraged you?
LAUB: I did not share any text with my family before publishing the book. I didn’t want to be influenced by their creative contribution and needed to clearly listen to my gut and my voice. I had my parents’ best friend, who is also in the book, who read drafts because I knew she could be objective and honest with me. I was encouraged by the generosity and trust my family has placed in me in allowing me to post this without allowing them to see it first.
INTERVIEW: Was there a particular image that you had to work hard to convince a family member to let you include in the book?
LAUB: While I didn’t let my family read the text before posting, I shared with them any images I wanted to include. There was an image that my nephew asked me not to post because he wasn’t comfortable with it. There was no convincing him otherwise. I was very disappointed, but I respected his wishes, of course.
INTERVIEW: Is there a question about this project that you would like to be asked more often?
LAUB: That’s a good question! Because I’m obsessed with the process, sometimes I’m surprised people don’t ask me what it’s like to spend twenty years working on a project. The questions I get are more focused on the Trump years, which I understand and of course fully understand. This part often takes up a lot of the oxygen in the room.
INTERVIEW: Did the project take on a new tone for you during its time in the public eye? Are you surprised by which aspects of the show resonate with people?
LAUB: I was filled with fear and worry before it came out. I have a sense of relief now that he’s stepped out into the world and people seem to resonate with the job. It has been the most rewarding thing… to create something that others connect with. From the feedback I have received, it looks like there is something for everyone in this project. I was worried that my family might not be related to people, but luckily I found the opposite to be true. All individuals and families are filled with complexity.