She had only ever photographed her close family for fun…until Trump was elected.
Photographer Gillian Laub is a chameleon behind the camera. Her high-fashion photographs of celebrities like Dolly Parton and Laverne Cox are infused with the same intimacy and power as her portraits of civilians in Israel and Palestine or the residents of a town still battling racial segregation in Georgia.
Laub also experienced something firsthand that may sound familiar: When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, it pulled her family apart. There was a major divide between Trump supporters and opponents within the family, and the two groups found very little common ground. So although the majority of her career has been focused on her work as an observer, Laub’s latest project is deeply personal: a book called Family Matters that analyzes the family’s political trauma, via intimate photos.
Realizing that her family’s experience was a microcosm of what was happening throughout the country at the time, Laub photographed some extremely tense moments. Family Matters is a starkly honest, deeply troubling depiction of a once-loving family pulled apart by politics.
Laub spoke to us about sharing this vulnerability with the world, how her family found some peace, and how their love for each other conquered their political beliefs.
KCM: So much of your work is about capturing and documenting the lives of strangers. What made you decide that it was time to tell your own story?
Gillian Laub: I had been photographing my family for over 20 years, but I never thought of it as “a project.” I’ve just always been fascinated by people, and I love sharing other people’s lives through photographs. That’s what my work was always focused on — it was never about my own story. Then in 2016, when many members of my immediate family — including my parents — became passionate Trump supporters, I didn’t know how to react. It was such an intense time for us, so I photographed it, because that’s how I process the world. Then started to talk to other people who were going through the same thing — whose families had been fractured over this and who felt very alone in the world. That made me realize that this wasn’t just my story — that it had a greater importance, and that I might help people by sharing it.
Were you nervous putting this very personal family drama on such a public stage?
It was terrifying. It’s so personal, and you can’t control how the public is going to respond. Even through all of this, I feel very protective of my family. But we all spoke about it and everyone agreed that they were comfortable with it. So I couldn’t let my fear of being judged be the reason why I didn’t make this book. Because ultimately, we made it through this. There are so many people whose relationships are still fractured from the 2016 election and its aftermath — people who still don’t talk to family or friends. I find that so deeply sad. I was determined not to let that happen to my family, and we found our way back to each other. This book was part of my way of healing, and I hope it is a tool for other people too. After my family read the book, it brought us closer than we have ever been.
How did you get past the anger and move towards healing?
I decided that I needed to drop the goal of changing their minds. We all realized we needed to be a little bit more tolerant and empathetic and meet each other where we were. It’s very easy to write someone off for making a decision that you can’t comprehend, and nowadays everything is so black and white, when in reality life is really complicated. Living in the state of toxicity we had been living in was not healthy, and I think we all realized there had to be a better way.
The pivotal moment for me was this: I had a friend who had stopped talking to her father after Trump was elected, and one day she came over hysterically crying, because her father had been admitted to the hospital. She told me, “I’m so ashamed of myself. I can’t believe I haven’t been talking to him because of Donald Trump. Don’t make the same mistake I did; our relationships are too important to lose them over this.” That really hit home for me, and helped me open the door towards healing.
Do you think Donald Trump was singlehandedly the catalyst for the extreme shift in your parents’ political beliefs?
I think he really struck a nerve in our country. I don’t know if it’s right to give him so much credit — clearly he exposed a lot of ugly things that already existed. He empowered people to act on those impulses, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that one person did all of this. It’s not like everything is suddenly perfect now that Trump is no longer in office. But I will admit that I was baffled by the way that he had such a profound effect on so many people. It took me, and I’m sure many people, by great surprise.
In hindsight, how do you feel about the way you acted during this time?
Here’s the thing — I have to take responsibility too. When my father finished the book, he said, “I feel so bad for you. You wasted so much of your time being upset about this.” And it’s true. I was holding onto so much hatred. Donald Trump ignited such anger in me that I woke up with a stomach ache every morning. That’s not how I want to live, and I lived that way for so long. I can’t believe I let one person have such an impact on my life and emotions. After a while I just realized I needed to stop being so reactive, because it was exhausting, and I was going to lose the people who mattered to me the most.
Which photos in the book mean the most to you?
I love the one of my quarantine birthday. It was such an important moment in time. I look at that and get the chills because it’s such a testament of love. That photo was taken at a time when I was really, really angry at my parents. But despite that, they drove hours just to wave to me through the window and leave a cake outside my door.
My other favorite photo is the one of my mom in shavasana pose, in front of a TV that’s playing FOX News. The juxtaposition of everything in the frame is just so absurd. I remember walking into the room, and my mom was lying peacefully on the floor, listening to Donald Trump and wearing her mask. She so earnestly said, “Jillian, just listen to what he’s saying and try to have an open mind.”
My other favorite picture is one of my grandparents and my great aunt and uncle coming out of a limo wearing fur coats. That’s one of my all-time favorites. I took it at a moment where I was trying to find my way in the world. I shared it at art school, and this guy who was doing a project about capitalism was so critical of it. But for my grandparents, their fur coats were signifiers that they had made it in America. They were immigrants who worked so hard to get where they were, and they deserved those coats.