In his latest photobook, the American photographer presents images from his collaboration with the people of Newtown, Connecticut – home to the Sandy Hook Elementary School – asking what the personal and the performative can tell us about ourselves
Newtown, Connecticut is a place with a difficult past. The affluent suburb in America’s Northeast is known not for its pleasant, leafy streets, or for the impressive architecture of its government buildings, but instead as the location where, on 14 December 2012, gunman Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people.
In the months and years following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the people of Newtown began to seek ways to heal their deep communal wounds. In doing so, a group of residents became regular visitors to the basement of a local church. They formed an informal self-help group, finding comfort through a combination of Bible study, new age spirituality and talking therapy.
“I was very moved by their mission,” explains Eli Durst, speaking from his home in Texas, “so I just started photographing them and the work really grew out of that”. This work – which forms Durst’s new book, The Four Pillars – is a record of the years he spent with the residents of Newtown, attending their church basement meetings and exploring the ways in which they processed their collective grief.
Aesthetically, the images Durst created owe much to long-standing documentary traditions: intimate moments and lonely objects, captured in striking and emotive black and white. His stories of families and individuals appear collected and sewn together, presenting an unbiased glimpse into the lives of a little-known community. But Durst is not a documentary photographer. He has, he says, no faith in the objectivity of photography as a medium. Instead, he takes his inspiration from what he describes as “aspirational photography”: the holiday card; the maternity photoshoot; the smiling, happy family.
“[The people of Newtown are] not the subject matter of most of the images,” he explains. “But they were the inspiration behind the ideas or the concepts or some of the scenarios that I was orchestrating or restaging.” These restagings explore what these ostensibly normal and successful people really wanted from their lives, interrogating the relationship between the personal and the performative, the individual and the group, and the societal norms to which we are all expected to aspire.
To create one image, Durst hired student actors, asking them to cry as he captured their expressions. He was interested in the heightened display of emotions and the potential for a cathartic experience of shared pain, even if achieved through simulation. “The idea of simulation, or pantomime, is important to the project, both in terms of theme and process,” says Durst. “I love how just a small tweak to a mundane action or situation can completely defamiliarise it, allowing us to see it with new eyes.”
To create another image, he photographed an intimacy workshop. The practice is akin to a mixture of yoga and therapy, in which an instructor helps couples to develop a deeper sense of passion and connection. “I was drawn to photographing this activity for many reasons,” Durst says, “one being the ability to witness such intense, private moments.” The other? The exploration of the ways in which sexuality is shaped by cultural norms – a theme which, the photographer adds, is a key to The Four Pillars.
Durst acknowledges that his presence in these private moments required a period of adjustment for the people of Newtown, whose conversations often moved between the religious and the highly personal. He spent many meetings in the church basement, building trust and relationships, before picking up his camera. “I don’t want to make people self conscious,” he says, earnestly. “Both because like that’s not what I want my art to do and also because the pictures won’t be nearly as successful or compelling, in my experience, if people are really uncomfortable.”
Durst’s commitment to the comfort of his subjects proved rewarding for all involved. The people of Newtown found the experience validated their sometimes deeply complex concerns about the world around them, as they healed from the traumatising events of December 2012. Meanwhile, Durst was able to compile an extensive and emotive body of work – 144 pages of images, exploring what he describes as the over-simplified dichotomy between the staged and the candid. “There’s a quote I love and think about all the time,” he says. “It goes: ‘all films are documentaries, narratives are just documentaries of actors acting’. That has been such a guiding principle for me in this work and in the way I look at the world.”