American photographer Robin Schwartz is interviewed by Bhumika Popli on her work and her project ‘Amelia’s World’ which was showcased at the Delhi Photo Festival 2013.
Bhumika Popli: Amelia’s World – what was the inspiration for this mother-daughter menagerie?
Robin Schwartz: This is a two-part question. As a parent, I’ve always photographed Amelia with our animals. When Amelia was born, we had two whippets and two Cornish Rex cats. Our older whippet refused to look at Amelia or be near her, as he did with all additions to our family. Our girl whippet, Rebecca, was meant to be a mother, and I photographed her and Amelia together a lot. They were bonded for life—death seemed not to part them, as Amelia still mourns Becky, who died in 2010.
I photographed our Cornish Rex cats with Amelia—they would always sit on her, and were jealous and territorial. But I only started photographing Amelia with animals as “my thing” in the summer of 2002. Amelia was three and a half when my understanding of motherhood changed after my mother and my mother-in-law died. I grew into being a different kind of a mother because I was no longer a daughter. Our family completely changed with the death of our mothers, I needed to heal and work my way out of a deep hole of sorrow. When I started to photograph again, I decided to photograph Amelia. Animals have always been my subject, Amelia was the aberration.
I continued to photograph as the means to be close to my daughter while dealing with my job as a Professor in Photography at William Paterson University in New Jersey. I need to be close to my daughter, spend time with her, have adventures, and make memories for as long as she wants to spend time with me. I fully understand that she will grow up and need to grow away. It is Amelia’s choice what to do. I cannot photograph her if she doesn’t want to be photographed. At this point, Amelia is balancing what she wants from all this. There are certain animals she wants to meet and I find them. I am so grateful; I spent my personal artwork time with my daughter. I did not understand how fleeting those first ten years were going to be. Other personal work, the way I did it, travelling to shoots, would have had me away from Amelia. Amelia was a premature baby—this, too, changed our bond. I was very scared to be a mom. I am not someone who wants to hold other people’s babies—but I want to hold their animals. I am an animal person, and animals meetings have been a great adventure for us both. Posing for photos without animals became boring.
BP: How would you describe Amelia’s world? What makes it different than anyone else’s?
RS: Well, that is in my artist’s statement: My photographs are drawn from real journeys undertaken with my daughter, Amelia, in the interspecies private world that we inhabit together with animals of all varieties over the past twelve years. I am driven to depict our relationships with animals in the hope that these moments reverberate to show Amelia’s enormous fortitude and ingenuity in relating to each individual animal with kindness and respect.
My daughter is more than a sweet and beautiful model. Amelia is smart, tough, and brave enough to calmly cajole animals. (It’s important to me to note that these are photographs of animals and Amelia connecting with each other, and that no animals have been photoshopped into the frames in any way.) The photographs are not documents; they are evidence of an invented world we enact and go with the flow to create. This photography project has given us the opportunity to access dreams and to discover the extraordinary.
Animals and interspecies relationships have always been an important part of my work. Animals in my photographs are not represented as beastly, noble, or as props to illustrate human life but as part of our everyday world. The animals in the photographs are living creatures, participants in the dramas that the photographs capture. The world that my daughter and I explore is one where the line between human and animal overlaps or is blurred, where animals are part of our world and humans are part of theirs.
My daughter and I share an affinity with the animal kingdom and we play out our fantasies and explore our eccentricities by creating a cultural space where animals not only co-exist with humans, but also interact as full partners. Amelia’s collaboration with me and with the animals enhances our photographs. These fifteen years of motherhood were often shadowed by a whirlwind of work and deadlines. In retrospect, this series represents the most significant era of my life, and became a lifeline to my child.
As far as what makes my work different – I cannot access other’s works. I photograph Amelia with live animals that she has the ability to relate to. I have always been an animal person. Our work is deeply personal.
BP: What is Amelia’s relationship with the animals? Her thoughts, her actions, her rapport – was she scared?
RS: Amelia works to relate or communicate with the animals, to try to establish a bit of a rapport in the time we have. Her thoughts and actions are different with each animal and how they relate to one another. That question of being scared is her least favorite and most often asked question. No, I would not put my daughter in a position to be scared.
BP: What & how was the animal-response to the camera? Any obstacles in shooting them?
RS: As I said before, each animal is a real individual and hence, each session is different.
BP: Amelia and the animals – what is the general reaction of the creatures?
RS: My goal is for Amelia to enjoy the experience. As a photographer I attempt to be a fly on the wall and not intimidating to the animals with my camera.
BP: Each frame seems to emerge out of a children’s story-book. Amelia’s eyes portray the depth of love & affection. How do you manage it – any special technique?
RS: Amelia and I try to come up with a concept as to color coordinating clothes; but we have to deal with location, lighting and animal behavior. Each animal, even of the same species or related animals, act differently, just as people act differently.
Concerning technique, I struggle with available light, (sometimes I add supplemental lighting), the amount of space and time I have to photograph, and sometimes weather conditions. We have to go with the flow of what is available. Our situation is far from a controlled commercial shoot.
BP: As a professor of photography, what would be the one quintessential advice to budding photographers?
RS: I don’t like to give advice, but as you said, as a teacher, my advice is to work hard, be persistent in what you care about. Recently, I curated/edited an assignment for National Geographic Your Shot and had to write editor’s notes that I will use in the classroom – my advise is written out there, but basically, I think photographing from the heart, the subjects you love is the most important thing and take all criticism with a grain of salt as each person’s assessment of your work comes from their viewpoint and that, like photographing animals changes with each person.
BP: How has your MFA from the Pratt Institute helped in shaping your art?
RS: Pratt gave structure to my life – this is a complicated personal question. My father died when I was 19, a first semester sophomore at college. I changed my major from biology to art and I got Financial Aid/ his VA benefits as long as I stayed in school. My mother lost her house, I stayed at school, taking summer classes, which left me not only graduating early but also not having a full load of credits and my benefits, my means of support were going to be cut. I walked into Pratt Institute with a box of 300 prints and showed Arthur Freed, the graduate teacher there my work, and told him my situation. He called the chair of my art department at undergraduate school and worked out my getting into graduate school, being a full time student so that I got financial support for two more years. He also got me a graduate assistantship and somehow a Ford Foundation Grant, all of which was applied to my tuition at Pratt. I don’t know what would have become of me without this help.
BP: Any memorable episodes during the project that you wish to share?
RS: Such a big question…..there are some situations, animals that just melt my heart, Tash the baby chimp, Shiba the elephant. The first time I photographed Amelia at 3 with the chimp, Ricky, Madee, the gibbon.
BP: What’s the future after Amelia’s World?
RS: Amelia’s World was the name of the first Aperture book, 2008, part of a 5-book tinyvice set, edited by Tim Barber. Aperture is publishing the Amelia series 2002-2013 as Amelia and the Animals in October. APERTURE IS AN AWESOME PUBLISHER – and have known Amelia since she was 9, she is 15 now.
BP: Your rapport with animals is unfathomably spectacular. How did this affinity begin?
RS: I was born with this drive…..this need for affinity.
BP: Amelia’s thoughts on Amelia’s World – excitement, indifference, enthusiasm?
RS: Amelia is a teenager and teenagers are complicated. I believe she is truly grateful for the experiences and opportunities she has had. Amelia wants to be a scientist. She is making a documentary for school on the Indigenous Huicholes of Mexico. A project facilitated by my husband’s Fulbright Scholarship 22 years ago as an artist with Huichol arts. Amelia is also in his work. Amelia went to India last spring with her school – she had an awesome time. I am quite envious. I passed the US end of the Fulbright 3xs to go to, but I have not made it; except for my work in the Delhi Photography Festival. It is one of my greatest wishes to be invited and helped financially to go to India as a family.
The ‘In Conversation’ feature is an attempt to know more about the motivations and thought processes of photographers featured on Aksgar as well as other photographers undertaking narrative photography projects.