"Slater with the Trump mask," 2019 by Gillian Laub
"Slater with the Trump mask," 2019 by Gillian Laub

Gillian Laub turns camera on her Trump-loving family in CJM exhibit

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As a photographer, New York native Gillian Laub typically covers conflict, from tensions between Israelis and Palestinians to lingering racism in the American South.

But Laub’s latest subject might come as a surprise: It’s her own family.

“Gillian Laub: Family Matters” is on display Oct. 13 through next April at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.

More than 20 years in the making, the photo series started out as simple candids of her secular Jewish family, but gradually turned darker over time. Her parents and other relatives became ardent supporters of Donald Trump, while she remained utterly appalled by his candidacy and presidency. And then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, with all its attendant isolation and sorrow.

The 47-year-old caught it all with her camera.

For Laub, intrafamily discord challenged her as an artist. The photographic tableau on display depicts a raucous but loving clan — parents, grandparents, cousins, nieces and nephews — living the American dream in New York’s Westchester County, trying to cling to the good life even when it seemed impossible.

The exhibition was first organized by the International Center of Photography In New York, where it ran for 16 weeks starting last fall. Laub wrote a companion book, also titled “Family Matters,” portions of which are included in the exhibition to add context.

Laub participated in this interview via email.

J: You started taking these photos in 1999, long before the definition of this project was clear to you. Back then, did you have an inkling that your family photos might evolve into a project this fraught and weighty? When did it start to come into focus?

Gillian Laub: There was no way for me to ever predict how anything would unfold, but I was so drawn to making photographs of my family for so many reasons. One being that I was and am always trying to discover a larger meaning and context for everything. I was aware of inner tensions within myself, and the camera has always been my tool to work those out. As the years and the work accumulated, it became clear this was more than just a personal project for myself and my family. Then in the Trump years it became abundantly apparent.

Besides the obvious fact that you and your family happen to be Jewish, what would you say are the specifically Jewish characteristics of this work and its meaning?

There is a lot of love, loyalty, devotion to family in the work. A lot is also centered around food, ritual, tradition. There is also guilt, tribalism, and outsider-ness present. I am constantly seeking out the meaning and truth of it all. Is that Jewish?

It’s impossible to separate out politics from the impressions conveyed in the images. What was it like to live that growing divide? Some families have been torn apart by MAGA. How did you avoid that?

I can’t say I avoided it. This work was basically me confronting it and processing it all. This work was my therapy. The personal is always political and vice versa.

Were you able to have civil conversations, perhaps even productive ones, during the Trump years?

Well, I would say the communication was very toxic during the Trump years. My family text group chain gave me a constant stomach ache. Some of the exchanges were included in the exhibition because I think it’s an important part of the story. It’s how we communicate.

You weren’t the only one in the family to reject Trumpism. Did these divisions ripple across the extended family, as well? Did it ever get ugly?

That’s the thing about family that’s fascinating: the things that go unsaid, or said in private. Nobody wanted to confront it in the extended family, so there was a lot of small talk to cover up the tension, I believe. People chose not to engage for fear it would get ugly. But my wise niece, who is included in the project, actually helped me check myself in her open mindedness and acceptance.

You married an Israeli Jewish man. Did that change or impact your Jewish self-identity?

I spent years in Israel working on “Testimony.” I gave a lecture at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2007 when some of the works were being exhibited as part of the “Dateline Israel” show. A woman in the audience asked me afterwards if I would be open to be set up with her friend.  Six months later I was engaged to her friend! Being Jewish and our Jewish identity is certainly prominent in our lives. We are both fascinated by the similarities and the differences between Israeli Jews and American diaspora Jews.

What does your family think of this show?

I was so nervous for my family to see the show. It was very emotional and intense for everyone. I am grateful to say that they respect the work and my honesty even though there are some aspects they may not love or agree with.

Your family ended up reconciling after all those political tensions. What lesson can other families learn from all this?

I know there are a lot of families that have had large rifts over the past few years. My hope is that this work resonates with those that have also had a tough time, and they are inspired to engage with their family with empathy and feel less alone in their struggle. My hope is always that my work helps to build bridges.

How did doing this project change you as a daughter, sister, aunt, and mother of two daughters? And as a photographer?

I am always hoping to grow, evolve as an artist, mother, daughter, friend and human. This project has certainly been part of that journey.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.