“We’d all be in hell if that’s what God wanted.” Katrina d’Autremont’s grandfather used to say that often; he believed life was entirely determined according to God’s will. “I like the notion that we love our family because that’s what God wants,” says the photographer.
Born in Denver in 1980, d’Autremont grew up in Montana and then Arizona; she’d spend extended holidays in Buenos Aires visiting her mother’s family, who live in a beautiful, airy old apartment. “I went to Argentina every two years for at least a month when I was growing up because my mom wanted us to know her family. When I think back on it, it was really magical.”
As a child, photography was merely an amusement. She’d aim her basic point-and-shoot at random objects without giving thought to composition. Then at 14, while in high school, she used an SLR for the first time and began learning how to process film in a darkroom.
“When I was an undergrad at college, I took a few photography classes, but it wasn’t until I was travelling through South America, wondering what to do with my life, that I realised photography was something I would always want to do, and that in 10 years’ time I would want to do it better. So I returned to Rochester, where I was living at the time, and enrolled in the graduate programme at Rochester Institute of Technology.”
Today, d’Autremont finds herself reflecting on how families are affected by distance, or proximity, and by their relationship to each other. It’s the central theme in her series Si Dios Quiere, her grandfather’s oft-used phrase, which loosely translates as “If God Wants”.
But, for d’Autremont, family is not determined solely by blood. The word itself “acts as a tie between people, but the extent of that attachment depends on several factors,” she says.
“The project started off as a sort of extended photographic family tree, but it soon shifted and became about family dynamics and the physical spaces that relationships occupy. Distance between family members is often very complex; the relationships themselves may form walls and boundaries that have little to do with physical proximity,” she says.
It was difficult to convince her family to pose for the shots, says d’Autremont. “I wanted to use my mother’s childhood home as a stage, and her family members as characters to explore issues of intimacy and distance. They didn’t really understand what I was doing at first, but I think they were all glad to have those memories after my grandfather passed away.”
d’Autremont set up most of the shots quite meticulously and others unfolded naturally – “scenes I could not have imagined or controlled,” she says. “During our last visit before my grandfather died, my mother decided to sleep on the couch and my brother fell asleep on the floor talking to her. I got my camera and took a picture. It was the night before el Dia de Reyes – the Epiphany. In South America, children traditionally leave a pair of shoes out for the Kings, who bring gifts – just like the Wise Men did to baby Jesus. In that picture, you can see a shoe with a present in it by the Christmas tree.”
The elders in d’Autremont’s family feature prominently in Si Dios Quiere; they are depicted as stoic, regal even, against the backdrop of a stately apartment, richly furnished. “Nostalgic grandeur is another thread that runs through the series – a connection to the past – and it is present in both the apartment and the people,” she says. “The older generation project dignity in aging, not only in the way they dress but also in the way they carry themselves. This sort of mimics the apartment – a beautiful, grand space worn down by time, falling apart.”
For more of Katrina d’Autremont’s work, visit her website.