NEW YORK — In January 2017, photographer Gillian Laub and her parents found themselves on opposing battle lines in Washington, DC. Laub, an acclaimed photojournalist, was covering the Women’s March, while her parents were attending former US president Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Their relationship already frayed by politics, Laub and her parents watched TV and napped together in her parents’ hotel room at the Watergate. Laub then photographed her elegantly dressed parents in the hotel lobby while they sat on plush red furniture surrounded by a display of golden bottles. Feminist activists nearby sneered.
In that moment, the chasms in her family felt “maybe too wide to bridge,” Laub writes in “Family Matters,” her new book that was released in tandem with a similarly named exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City, which runs through January 10, 2022.
The project is a deeply personal portrayal of her family over 20 years, delving into its simmering tensions that boiled over during the Trump era along with the overriding ties that held it together.
Laub is a veteran photojournalist whose first book, “Testimony,” explored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with portraits of its victims. Her next major work, “Southern Rites,” focused on racism in a Georgia town and became an acclaimed HBO documentary.
“Family Matters” traces her family story, from her perspective, in four broad acts, presented in roughly chronological order. It is a story of American Jews and the American dream, touching on issues of wealth, class, race, gender and antisemitism, with Thanksgiving and Jewish traditions both recurring motifs.
“Although this is the most personal work I have ever made and it’s very specific to my family, my hope was that it would tell a larger story that people would connect to,” Laub told The Times of Israel.
The story begins with an anecdote that frames Laub’s discomfort with her family’s displays of wealth as she entered adulthood. In 1999, a classmate mocked a group of passersby as “vulgar women in their fancy fur coats.” Laub agreed, before realizing the vulgar women were her mom, grandmother and aunt, who mobbed her with affection.
“I wanted to grab my classmate’s hand and plead their case. You don’t understand! My ancestors barely escaped death from anti-Semitic mobs in the Ukraine! They fled to a foreign country, faced discrimination, worked their fingers to the bones,” she writes.
She describes herself as “the family challenger, questioning the privileges that seemed to characterize our lives. That day on the sidewalk, I wanted both to hug them and hide from them.”
The story focuses on the maternal side of her family, the Yasgurs, who emigrated to the US from Eastern Europe to escape pogroms before World War II. They slowly built up a fortune in New York real estate and expanded out of the Bronx.
The book and exhibit mix candid snapshots with more elaborate, staged photos, and depict the family’s larger orbit, including close friends, caretakers, babysitters and a stern-eyed wedding planner.
The book “is an exploration of the conflicted feelings I have about where I come from — which includes people I love and treasure, but with whom, most recently in a divided America, I have also struggled,” Laub writes.
An early, arresting image shows Laub’s grandparents, aunt and uncle dolled up for a night at the theater. The women wear lavish furs and lipstick as Laub’s grandmother looks into the camera.
“We like the comforts,” she said at the time. “At this stage of our lives, we’ve earned them.”
Laub’s discomfort grows as she returns from assignments in the Middle East and the racially divided rural US south to her family’s cushy opulence in New York, where some homes were so sumptuous she used them for fashion magazine photo spreads.
Laub expresses unease with her family’s business controlling low-income housing while living in the tony suburb of Chappaqua, the traditional role of women in the clan, and the family’s reliance on outside help to care for children and the elderly.
Issues of class and wealth also bubble up surrounding her marriage to an Israeli from a kibbutznik family. Her husband, Tahl, tells her that he “doesn’t aspire” to a life in the Hamptons, while his mother scorns the couple’s extravagant wedding, saying, “This is what happens when you raise your children in America.”
(Tahl’s mother, Yael, later comes to accept Laub’s parents, despite their differing views on wealth. “They are good people, with good souls.”)
She said she feared, as she developed the project, playing into antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish wealth.
“I had so many worries about putting this out into the world, but I ultimately realized the best I could do was be completely honest and true to the work. That’s what I could control, not people’s responses,” Laub said.
Things are not all rosy for the family in Chappaqua, as antisemitism makes its mark. A high school boyfriend, noticing Laub’s Star of David necklace, admonishes her to “tuck that shit in.” Her father is excluded from local golf clubs because he is a Jew. He is welcomed, however, at a nearby Trump golf course, in the former president’s first appearance in the tale. The family later holds a brit milah circumcision ceremony at the golf club.
Looking back, Laub said she believes the family’s acceptance at the club played a part in her parents’ later devotion to Trump.
“The local country clubs in our town had a known and mostly unspoken tradition that Jewish and Black people were clearly unwanted,” Laub said. “But when the Trump National club opened up over 20 years ago, my father joined right away, which he said was open and welcoming to anyone.”
“My family worked hard to build their American dream. And I think no matter what success they reached they never fully felt accepted into white Christian America. For better or worse, in a way Trump allowed him access to this American Dream,” she said.
Tensions reach a fever pitch with Trump’s ascendancy in 2016. The staunchly liberal Laub is appalled at her parent’s embrace of the Republican nominee, and struggles to reconcile her warm, devoted and loving family members with their diehard support for the politician she says is “obviously a crook.” She believes her parents are brainwashed by Fox News; they say she is a part of the liberal “elite.”
She sometimes felt that she was visiting another family and retreated behind her camera.
“I couldn’t process what was happening. When I looked at Trump, I saw a bully who proudly mistreated women, who wanted to institute a ban on Muslim immigrants,” she said. “My father looked at Trump and saw a fearless, truth-telling patriot.”
“The idea that my parents could be aligned with closed-minded bigots was not simply upsetting. It seemed to negate everything I loved about my family,” she said. “The fighting went from being a percentage of our communication to all of it.”
The Laubs tear into each other in text message conversations that are included in the book, while mediators plead for a ceasefire. Both sides launch salvos — Laub’s sister and brother-in-law set her place at the Thanksgiving table with Trump paraphernalia, sullying a beloved holiday, while Laub has her 4-year-old daughter kneel like Colin Kaepernick during the Super Bowl, provoking her father’s fury.
Laub is forced to confront her own hypocrisies during Trump’s tenure and the pandemic too. She preaches equality, but flees New York City for the suburbs to escape the virus, and sends her children to an expensive private school, paid for by her parents. She turns to a sitter to care for her children, especially during the pandemic, despite having long criticized her relatives for depending on domestic help.
The photos capture the complexities and absurdity of the era. One image shows Laub’s mother in a yoga “corpse pose,” with a buddha statue on a shelf behind her, wearing a face mask, as Trump rants on TV.
Despite her repose, Laub’s mom noticed her taking the photo and said, “Try to listen with an open mind if you can, Gillian.”
The family’s ties bridge its schisms, though. In another photo, Laub’s parents stand outside her glass door during the pandemic, doting parents to their daughter despite the drama in the family.
“In the midst of some of our worst fighting, my parents drove hours on my birthday just to see us through a window and leave a cake outside the door,” she said.
The pandemic exacerbates the tensions, as Laub struggles to homeschool her kids while her daughter obsessively scrubs germs off her dolls.
Rosh Hashanah in 2020 becomes a turning point. Boiling with frustration at her parents and restless children, Laub meditates on the meaning of the holiday.
“What I felt would make me better at this point in my life was to stay rooted in my own principles while trying to accept the people around me for who they are. I realized that’s what I hadn’t been able to do these past years,” she said.
While breaking the Yom Kippur fast days later, when politics came up, she let it go. “I did what Jews do when we’re not arguing: I ate.”
“The trick isn’t to give up on your own beliefs, or the people you love. The trick is to end up with both,” said Laub.
That Thanksgiving, she finds a letter from her late grandfather, the family patriarch, that says, “More can be accomplished by being open minded.”
“Being wrong is not a sin,” he wrote.
Her father also applauded US President Joe Biden after his election victory, and soured on Trump after the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
She said the project has struck a chord with other families that have gone through similar upheaval, and within her own clan.
Before the project’s release, she sat with her family as they read through the book. There was material in the book that was challenging for them, but they ultimately respected the project’s honesty, she said.
“It was a very intense experience. There were a lot of emotions for everyone. I can only speak for myself, but it’s been a truly healing experience,” she said. “It has opened up the opportunity for productive and thoughtful conversations that we hadn’t before had. I felt more understood by my family than ever.”
Much of the project’s audience has identified with the family’s story, she said.
“I have been amazed by how many people have reached out to me because of different things that resonated with them and touched a nerve in their own experience. I have received some very moving notes from people after they’ve read the book or seen the exhibition,” she said.
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