When we were assigned the task of creating a new photo essay based on the idea of home, I started out not knowing who I could interview or what questions to ask. In addition, instead of having a full two weeks to work on one project, we only had five days. The first people I thought of to interview were my grandparents, but since they live in New York and I’m not able to drive myself to see them, they weren’t an option. With the limited amount of time I had, I started thinking about the people who live the closest to me and the answer was literally right next-door: my neighbors.
First Steps and a Problem
The first person I interviewed was Oksana, a woman who lives across the street from me with her husband and two children -- both under the age of five. I went into the interview not quite sure what I was trying to find out and as a result, I asked a lot questions that asked the same thing such as “what modifications has your house gone through?” and “what modifications did you make to your house when you had children?” These questions might have been a good introduction a story, but all the answers she gave were related to homes becoming more environmentally friendly: wanting to install solar panels on houses, installing more energy efficient appliances, and adding more windows in order to reduce the need to have lights on during the day. After the interview was over, I thought I might have enough material to create a project, but when I got back to NuVu, I realized that there wasn’t a story behind the images I had taken. Now that I had usable material but no storyline, it was time to figure out a way to use the images I had already shot in a different way than I had originally planned.
My solution to this problem was to interview my other neighbor, Jan, and compare her house to Oksana's. There were two reasons I chose to compare two neighbors. For one, the price for two houses in the same neighborhood are usually in the same price range so I would be interviewing two people in similar financial statuses. This seemed important because the amount of money one owns has a large impact on their lives in terms of what they do in their free time, how they raise their children, how much time they spend at home, etc. Another reason I wanted to compare two neighbors was that Jan is an older retired woman in her 80's and Oksana is a younger woman in her 30-40's with two young children: maybe their houses would reflect the different places they were in their lives. In order to do complete this photography essay, I needed to take a picture of common spaces and put them side by side in order to directly compare their living spaces: a living room and a living room, a dining room and a dining room, etc.
Jan lives with three other generations in her house: her children, their children, and their children -- four generations total living under the same roof. I thought that the house could turn into a more interesting story on its own, but even if there wasn't an intriguing back story, I would still be able to compare the two living spaces. The first question I asked Jan during the interview was “what modifications has your house gone through?” Her response was much more in-depth than I thought it would be:
“Well, quite a few. The first one was because we had so many people living in the house. We had my son and his wife and their two boys and then Ruthie and Lynn and their three children and my husband and I. The first thing that we did was to finish the basement and make two bedrooms and a bathroom and a laundry room and a little library room so that we could have room for more people in the the house. So those were the first modifications. And then a lot of it was usage too that changed so often. Nana was here and my aunt Ruth was here, and they were both very old. The back bedroom has been my bedroom, my mother’s bedroom, and then my aunt Ruth’s bedroom and she died in that room. The dining room at one time, I changed into a sitting room because Ernie was ill for so many years. See, a lot happened because of his illness. My mother died on a Saturday morning and the following Wednesday my aunt died and they had both been living here. My bedroom, at that time, was downstairs and we changed the other bedroom into an exercise room. And then after Ernie, my great aunt died and we made that room into a sitting room. And then Ernie was just so ill, I didn’t like him sleeping on the floor all by himself so I changed the sitting room into my bedroom and changed the dining room into a sitting room and I didn’t have a dining room -- I had that for my TV, my desk, and all those things. Then, of course, Ernie died last summer and at that point then I changed this room -- which was his bedroom -- into the sitting room and changed that back into the dining room. So those have been basically the modifications -- I could go into detail but that’s just to give you an idea about how when the needs came up, the house was modified.”
That information alone was almost enough to base a project off of. However, I wanted to ask a question with an answer that would end up being more personal, so I asked “what defines home for you?” The answer she gave me made me realize how much her house reflected her definition of what ‘home’ was to her:
“For me, it’s family. And we have a very strong family. Very strong. You see us every Sunday in the garden (family dinners). And I and the children bonded a lot because we were overseas and we were obviously in other cultures where we learned to speak Portuguese. We lived in Brazil and Kenya and South Africa and Mozambique and then we lived in Portugal. So I think because of that -- of course the children were very integrated in the cultures where we lived -- still I think that it helped us develop very strong ties between the four of us which was maintained. But I also came from a big family -- not my nuclear family but all the extended family -- and we were noisy and we talked a lot and I was never a person to -- I never liked conflict. But some of the aunts and uncles would get upset with each other and then they would get back together but it was always like you could depend on family -- that was the most important thing. And it still it.”
After asking the last question, it was obvious what I could have based my entire project solely on their house, but I was still interested in comparing both of their lives. At this point, I had a solid theme but not enough information from my first interview -- I had to know a little bit more. A a few days later, after working on my project and determining exactly what I needed when I re-visited, I went back over to ask Oksana one more question as well as to take a few more pictures. I asked her the same question as I had asked Jan: “what defines home for you?” As it turns out, both of their answers were very similar:
“The first time I left my house, I left my house when I was 17 years old -- very young. But I kept coming back. The second time I left my house -- and I left my house for good -- was when I was 20 years old and left my house to move to another country. That’s when I went and moved to Chile. And since then, I really never really had a home -- until now -- until this house and until my children, I never had a feeling of a home. So my children being born here it’s really what makes it feel like my home. The actual -- I guess I’m not very attached to the physical. But because it’s their home, that’s what makes it my home. That’s really the reason. Because I moved so many times. Because I moved so many times that’s in my life, I don’t have attachments. This is the first time I really feel like I have a family that I’m attached to.”
The definitions of home tied the houses together: both involved family and having a place that brought people together and I wanted to represent this theme in the pictures. In order to represent the theme as well as the similarities and differences between the houses in one picture, I created a canvas on which I placed two images of similar rooms in their houses (a bathroom and a bathroom, kitchen and kitchen, etc.). I edited all of the pictures slightly in order to ensure the images were as clear and as representative of each individual room as possible. I repeated this process with thirty-two different images (sixteen combined pictures) in order to complete my photo essay. By placing the two images so close to each other, I was pleased to see how each set of pictures seemed to tell a story about each of the families living in their respective houses. For instance, the backyard shots of each house accurately described the separate families: Oksana’s backyard acts as an area for children to play while Jan’s acts as a beautiful garden where Sunday night family dinners are held.
In order to make the images as consistent as possible, Jan’s house is always the left image and Oksana’s is on the right.