Kindred, Emily Schwank

Emily Schwank’s photography is inextricable with her life. As a mother of five, intentional friend, and self-professed joy seeker, her photographs depict families and people in everyday spaces. They may be “everyday,” but Emily affirms the outlook that there are a multitude of moments in our lives that are “mysterious” and “amazing” in the guise of the mundane. Part of the problem with these daily moments is that they pass by so quickly—and that’s the beauty of photography’s ability to push pause and zero in on details. Frozen in time, each gesture and expression takes on new meaning or significance. She writes, “It seems so many images of grace and tragedy slip by without acknowledgment because the world is unwilling to open its eyes — not only to the obvious, but to the possible." In this way, Emily invites the viewer to avoid only appreciating the documentary side to her photographs but also to seek out ways that these images expand into the “mysterious” or “amazing.” She wants us to train ourselves to look a little harder. 1186080_616280845083328_1491453002_n

In college, Emily discovered photographers like Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, Diane Arbus, Paul Strand and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Like some of these photographers, Emily has always been, as she told me, “drawn to children, the way they are feral and graceful and strange and gorgeous.  Then I had children.  It was impossible to not photograph them... but I wanted to show all those sides-- the feral, graceful, strange gorgeousness of childhood.” This theme runs through photographs of her children playing in Philadelphia’s public fountains, in which as modern-day sea nymphs they flit about the water in bathing suits, rambunctious and graceful.


Emily’s deep interest in family dynamics extends beyond her own kin. She tells me that people like to use the expression “It takes a village to raise a child,” when she finds it equally true that “It takes a village to raise a mama.” The Mama Project describes the efforts Emily makes to cultivate and photograph friendships with mothers near and far, from neighbors to a woman in Texas and another in Sweden. Their bond is tight, and full of love: “The mamas,” she explains, “well, we hold each other up.” She photographs one mama, Nessy, who is battling cancer cuddled up to her daughter in bed; in another, Nessy holds in cupped hands an auburn pile of hair, remnants of healthier times.


In a lighter, if not as poignant, series of scenes, Emily narrates her friend Gina’s attempt at doing her adopted daughter, Zy’Asia’s, hair. It takes forty-five minutes to an hour, and Zy’Asia’s emotions progress from content to pleased to bored to crying during Gina’s patient laboring. Gina has had to ask for help from others, since as a Caucasian woman she had not learned the skill-set behind how to take care of her African-American daughter’s hair. At first glance, these pictures are rife with the everyday: the mother-daughter duo are at the kitchen counter, surrounded by the half-finished water glasses and kitchenware common to such scenes. But taking Emily’s advice to seek out the “grace” and “tragedy” in the mundane, I also saw a mother grappling with the unique person her daughter is, the perseverance and love it takes to care properly for her daughter’s hair though her arms might ache and Zy’Asia’s getting impatient. I saw the toughness and tenderness, the grace and the discipline common to many of our closest relationships.

Emily's show, "Kindred" is on display in Gallery No. 2 from March 4 through March 25.