Black-and-white portraits. Grownups. Shadows. Hopelessness. Grudges. Past. Future. Sexual abuse. Life. Victims. Survivors. Human.
Even though Mrs. Sykes had described this month’s art exhibition as being “slightly emotional disturbing,” I was still deeply affected by the incredibly genuine sentiment that crawled out of each portrait when I saw them. The exhibit showcased works of photography from Carmine Galasso, who spent nearly six years taking photos of victims who were sexually abused by Catholic priests. He was brilliant at taking the photos as more than means to exceed aesthetic appreciation, but triggered the viewers’ deeper emotions by carving the stories behind them into artwork. I felt as if those photographs were alive when I saw them, and it seemed like they would continue to live after. Luckily, I got a chance to interview Mr. Galasso and to discuss the nature of art and reality with him.
Chriss Liu (CL): What inspired you to do this project?
Carmine Galasso (CG): Before I heard their stories, I had no idea about these incidents, even though I grew up Catholic and went to a Catholic school. So I was shocked when I heard [about] it, and immediately I started to do more research on it. The stories were horrific but I have never seen any decent pictures of the victims. The only photos of them were usually taken at press conferences, where their lawyers often stand next to them and do all the talking for them. So I wanted to start a project that could show the sensitivity of such thing as well as the portraits of the survivors. I found an organization called SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. They would suggest survivors to reach out to me, instead of me to them. After a few interviews, more survivors started to contact me and that’s how it all started.
CL: What was the most difficult part of making these portraits?
CG: It was surely a long term project, one with extreme sensitivity. For each portrait, it normally would take me several conversations, either by email or phone call, to get the interviewee to be comfortable with me and the project. And during the interview, I would get a sense of how I wanted to approach the portrait. The most difficult part was indeed listening to their stories, because the stories were so horrific. And as a photojournalist I was hearing and experiencing it second handedly through them. However, creating the portrait itself wasn’t that difficult. Through the interview I got a sense of their lives and personalities, and it became much easier for me to structure the portraits using their natural domestic environment as background.
CL: What kind of effect on the Catholic church have you seen as a result of your project?
CG: Although words about this project had gotten out to the public, I’m still just a little fish in the big pond. I don’t know if it had any effect on the church or the priests that could compel them to react upon it. However I know that as a result of the exhibition, many people have [gotten] a chance to see this and it had indeed brought a lot of attention from the press. The New York Times did a few articles on the photos and in that respect, people are more aware of the problem.
CL: Out of all the portraits you took, which one do you personally think is the most aesthetically appealing?
CG: I think the photo that strikes me the most, based on its aesthetic and the story behind it, is the one hanging right outside of the gallery (the one printed on the poster). For the reason that, even though I had formulated how I wanted to photograph him, I wasn’t sure if I could get the reflection of the church on his car window. Luckily, he happened to park where I could capture the reflection and moreover his expression all in one shoot. I had to be careful of the angle that I took the photo, and meanwhile pray not to be hit by a car. The key was that he was an adult when I took the picture, yet he was a kid when being abused, which was a particularly brutal time for him. Even [until] today, it is very difficult for him to drive [past] that church. The time I photographed him might be the first time he had [driven] by that church since he was a kid. And he was freaked when he found out later, and you could see how spooked his expression was in the photo. It was a very genuine, intense and, I would say, beautiful moment because the aesthetic of the picture was so complicated and layered. Beyond him and the church reflection were the buildings which I thought to be showing the environment of his childhood– to grow up in such poor neighborhood and to experience such [a] horrific thing. So with those all combined I managed to capture that complicated as well as aesthetically pleasing moment.
CL: How did you manage to find the balance between creating art and telling the depressing truth of reality?
CG: The artistic aspect of the portrait is something that is inherent in the making of it which was based on the process of researching and planning. This then combines with the aspect of reality when I meet and interview each person. I pre-visualize how I want to photograph a subject as he or she relates to their environment and own story. I will say, though, sometimes I was stumped until I finished the interview, and found my way, my idea, my portrait, along the way. It’s an organic process for sure. To be clear, the art is in me and my experience, and the experience, the truth or reality, though depressing for sure, drives the content and your relationship when viewing each portrait. Hopefully, both art and truth are conveyed in each portrait.
CL: What advice do you wish that you had gotten when you first started doing photography?
CG: Having photographed sports for many years, I wish someone would have told me to treat each assignment as if I was shooting sports. What I mean is, in shooting sports you need to see the eyes of the athletes and be patient in order to capture the peak action. Capturing the peak moments, whether in shooting fashion or lifestyle photos, is extremely important.
Also, it is important to understand light through [the] practice of looking at natural light, artificial light, daytime, early morning, sunset. You need to understand how it sculpts a person’s face or body; how it can bounce off a glass building and create the scene, as if it is part of a movie set.