Arts

Gallery Talks: Social Realism in a Real-Life Family Documentary

The Hidden Secrets of Family are Uncovered in this Artistic Display

By: Veronica Pistek

Chris Verene made a gallery and documentary showcasing the hidden hardships of his family. Credit: csi.cuny.edu

Chris Verene, Associate Professor of Photography at CSI, has been photographing and telling the story of his extended family and friends for over 30 years in his hometown, Illinois. In his work, Verene realistically snapshots his subjects, indirectly tackling issues such as representation and substance abuse. 

As the gallery is transformed into a life-sized family photo album, Chris Verene and a panel of scholars gathered for a panel discussion about his most recent project, “Home Movies.” 

In reflecting upon his work, it seems that Verene has connected both of his mediums: photography and videography in order to tell the true story of his relatives. 

In one way, the photographs seem to capture more “glamorized” and happy moments of the family’s lives. The usage of vivid color in each photo acts as a thread to sew the ideal image of poverty in the Midwest. However, the unedited form of documentary captures the lives of Verene’s family in their most vulnerable state. 

The documentary goes beyond the conversations that are provoked by his previous photographs. Verene opens up a new door with a new medium—putting sound and context to these seemingly romantic images. 

Verene’s documentary is experienced as an audio-visual synchresis–enabling the audience to connect with Verene’s family on a more personal level. In addition, the raw, uncut footage takes a deeper look into what makes each of his family members human. Across the documentary, the amateur style of filming reveals about the truth behind each of the humans portrayed. 

For instance, the scenes take place in each person’s daily lives, having a natural conversation with Chris himself. Specifically, it becomes known that his family members struggle with recovering from the recession, supporting children in hardships, and battling drug addiction. These moments in their lives are not glamorized, rather they are shared in a true narrative style and highlight a major theme of resilience.

Curated by Dr. Sinoa Wilson, it was of great importance to have a Gallery Talks session led a panel of professionals to discuss these socio-economic issues with the audience. The discussion began with Chris Verene’s perspective, followed by the input from mental-health psychologists and social workers. 

A major topic that stuck with the audience was addiction. Specifically, one panel member quoted that “addiction is a dissociation from pain.” This quote deeply resonated with the depiction of Verene’s family. 

During the documentary, it is noted that each family member has suffered some sort of loss. Whether that be money, a home, a job, children, or a family member to prison—each person endures a level of mental pain and has a way of easing their struggles through an outlet. 

Overall, I believe that this Gallery Talks discussion was relevant to the audience, since we are part of a city that has one of the worst drug addictions in the country. The conversation was informative and shed light on the impact of mental health and disease that define the realities of life for so many Americans today.  

In the case of Verene’s friend Amber, her outlet was a drug addiction. Amber’s story was an uplifting way to end the documentary. While enduring a war with methamphetamine, homelessness, losing her children, and going to jail several times, it was cathartic to see Amber change her life for the better. 

Amber went from filling her pain with drugs to filling her heart with the things she truly loved—raising plants and children. At the end of it all, it was evident that this documentary was to emphasize the ubiquity of the human condition. Each family has stories, whether they are good or bad, and we all are living this life to tell them.

 

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