Lie and Smile

Rana Young’s project Lie and Smile is a poignant exploration of her relationship with her late Mother. Young’s mother had been a victim of much trauma, which doubtlessly contributed to her decision to move away from her children and start a new life without them. It is not hard to imagine the immense psychological implications this inherited trauma and absence had for Young and her siblings, and in Lie and Smile we see the results of Young bravely mining and engaging with her mother’s archive, as well as producing ‘prosthetic memories to reinterpret her life and embalm her death’.

The series is eerie. Shadows, blood, teeth, texture, distortion and ambiguity characterise the images. Young’s mother’s presence and past weigh heavily on the viewer, creating glimpses into a tumultuous, fractured family history. However, as well as presenting striking visuals, Lie and Smile is also a productive act of catharsis, as Young uses her profoundly personal work to both confront and forgive her mother’s ghost.

Below is a Q&A discussing the intimate nature of the work, expectations, challenges and Young’s changed relationship with her Mother.

1) Can you talk about the challenges and rewards of capturing a familial issue that is so personal, intimate, and sensitive in nature?

Visually, I second-guess my instincts concerning when and what to reveal or protect about my sister, mother, and me. Yet, contextually I often side with “putting it all out there” to normalize the conversation in my life and practice. My tendency to withhold visual information from the audience is at odds with spilling my guts verbally or in writing. Although an atypically productive combo, I try to run with it.

Affirming my lived experiences, at my pace, and being met with support and conversation along the way is definitely the reward.

2) You’ve alluded to the role of your project as a means of constructing a version of your mother that you can forgive or negotiate with. Given that your mother endured her own trauma, do you feel that this project is also an attempt to escape what are often cyclical family issues?

I possess empathy for my mother, which I believe catalyzes opportunities for such negotiations and forgiveness. Perhaps empathy is my escape from cyclical silence and concealed shame, and this project is the “getaway car.” Employing diaristic frameworks in my practice sustains dedicated time to productively cope with what inherently hangs in the air. I have much to learn surrounding the effects of childhood abandonment and intergenerational trauma; I’m privileged to have a career that encourages diverse approaches to such research and image-making as an aesthetic, conceptual, and technical mode of autobiography.

3) When mining your mother’s archive, how did your expectations compare to the reality of the experience / the material?

The expectations simmered for a long time; I remember daydreaming about it a lot as a teenager. I imagined encountering her archive and that collection of documents promptly decoding why my mother had been emotionally absent. Would I stumble upon journal entries where she’d talk about missing me, wanting to know me, or being eager to one day tell me how much she regretted her choices? Or, maybe I would find evidence that she was kept away from me, against her will, or that I was kept hidden from her. I blame movies for those. She’d been incarcerated, yes, but not the entire 16yrs I’d spent without her; not even half of that. So… How could my mother be without her child(ren)? Did she choose this? Of course not; there had to be something in the way, something out of her control, right? There wasn’t an “obvious” reason.

Much of my mother’s legal matters were settled by my late teens, and from my sister, I learned that she urgently rebuilt her life post-incarceration in rural Nebraska, where she’s from. She’d established a comfortable home, maintained regular employment, and built new relationships with friends and partners. I was resentful she didn’t call, write, or damn, just show up on my doorstep. I believed she should “come to me,” but accessing her required the opposite—and accessing her archive required her passing away more than fifteen years later.

Since late 2017, I’ve been amassing everything she stored away from my siblings and me for more than 35 years. Journals, birthday cards, photographs and negatives, drawings, letters, poems, court records, etc., dating back to her childhood. What tells of her life now sits in boxes in my studio, and the mining process isn’t glamorous. I’m uncovering familial traumata while gazing at a stranger that uncannily shares my likeness. Seeing myself in her is both motivating and terrifying, but above all, I value having this lens from which to better see, know, and understand her.

4) Do you think that the limitations of photography in capturing “objective” reality hinder your use of the medium as a corrective or reconstructive gesture? Alternately, do you feel that the inherent deception that comes with shooting photos only aids your process?

Photography enables me to distill what I share and with whom, but I’m learning to task my photographs with telling us more. It’s challenging to render how visible her absence was amid years of rarely speaking of it; is that why I always have more to say than show? What “feeling looks like” often remains latent, and that mystifying impression influenced much of the symbolism visible in ‘Lie and Smile’ to date. I embrace the medium’s deceptive nature in this context; performance is vital in the most essential narratives I’ve encountered, and the lies I’ve told through my photographs are helping me heal.

5) How has your relationship with your mother changed since you have started this project?

We spend a lot more time together. xo

Rana Young

Rana Young is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Art (photography + foundations) at the University of Arkansas. As an Othmer Fellow, she earned an MFA in Studio Art, Photography from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 2017.

Young has exhibited solo exhibitions at Filter Space (Chicago, IL), Perspectives Gallery (MIAD, Milwaukee, WI), and the University Galleries of Illinois State University (Normal, IL), and in group exhibitions programmed by SF Camerawork (San Fransico, CA); Klompching Gallery (New York, NY); House of Lucie (Los Angeles, CA); The Galleries at Herron (Indiana University); and Colorado Photographic Arts Center (Denver, CO). Her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, PDN, The New York Times, and featured online by VICE, L’Oeil de la Photographie, Lenscratch, and Strange Fire Collective. Young’s clients include The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation (in collaboration with Type Investigations), the Sheldon Museum of Art (Lincoln, NE), and The Momentary (dba Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR), among others. Kris Graves Projects published her first monograph, The Rug’s Topography, in late 2019.

Young often works alongside her partner Zora J Murff in collaborative mentorship and art practices. Their work has been written about for Hyperallergic and British Journal of Photography and published in-print with LensCulture and Gnomic Book (Primal Sight, an artist book by Efrem Zelony-Mindell, forthcoming from Gnomic Book). Exhibitions of their work have been hosted by Glass Gallery (University of Georgia), Brick City East Gallery (Missouri State University), and Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Art (Nebraska City, NE). Their curatorial proposal, take it from here, featuring ten contemporary lens-based artists’ work, was awarded an exhibition at Filter Space (Chicago, IL) forthcoming in 2021.

In recent years, Young was named as one of thirty “new and emerging photographers to watch” (The 30, formerly PDN’s 30), and honored as a Critical Mass Finalist (Photolucida), Emerging Talent (LensCulture), and a Flash Forward Winner (The Magenta Foundation). Additionally, she launched two web-based contemporary art sites for research, discourse, and collaboration; PHOTO–EMPHASIS (with Alec Kaus in 2017) and NO STRANGERS IN CRIT (with Loring Taoka in 2019).