Now, when I looked through the lens, life and death looked different to me.
We have an intimate but ambivalent relationship with water. Around two thirds of our body is made of it; we are created in it and cannot survive without it. Water can support our weight and make us feel lighter than air, or it can close over us and suffocate us in its sinuous embrace. As ice it can preserve our flesh; as vapour it can cloud our vision.
For the American artist, Wendy Sacks, water has become an insightful metaphor and a medium for physical and emotional healing. She makes photographs that speak of the complex nature of human relationships, both light and dark. In each she employs the symbolic and physical qualities of water in one of its three states. Indeed, it was the property of water to free the body from the thrall of gravity that first began her personal journey as an artist.
Wendy Sacks’ mother was a painter and fabric designer, and her father and grandfather were both physicians. While the creative arts and the healing arts were both formative influences in childhood, it was the latter she chose to pursue as an adult, becoming a paediatric emergency physician.
Destiny had other plans.
While in her thirties, she began to suffer from severe arthritis and a connective tissue disease that made it impossible for her to continue as a hospital doctor. Challenging as it was, she refused to see this as an overwhelming disability, but rather as an opportunity to focus on being a mother and to experience the love and freedom that this brought. As her joints deteriorated and, one by one, had to be replaced, so the range of things she could achieve became more circumscribed. Photography, however, proved to be an expressive form that she could not only manage, but one at which she found she could excel.
Alasdair: How did you begin making photographs?
Wendy: When I look back on how I studied medicine, I remember how I turned text into ‘images’ using coloured marker pens and a large drawing pad. (I wish I still had these.) When I began seeing patients, I took photographs to help me remember interesting cases. Later, I used these images for teaching. (There was no internet at the time, so teaching images were hard to find.) For me, it was easier to show a picture than to hand out text about the pathology.
I never thought twice about it – it was just the natural thing for me to do.
Is art making in your family tradition?
When I was a child, we lived in a ranch-style house with a basement where my mother kept an art studio. My mother encouraged my siblings and me to explore lots of different art mediums. We worked with paint (oil, water and acrylic), clay for sculpting, mosaic, charcoal, pen and ink and lots of other things. She created an environment without limitations and judgements. There was no punishment for breaking things or making a mess.
The basement was large and in another area we had some of my grandfather’s medical equipment. (He was a specialist in eye, ear, nose and throat medicine.) There were also some old school desks and a chalkboard. We would play doctor or take turns playing student or teacher. In another area, we had a stage where we would put on theatrical shows for the neighbourhood children.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Saving the Spirit’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2013
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Looking at Callie’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2013
You have become particular well known for your series ‘Immersed in Living Water’.
My illness has taken a big toll on my life and altered my physical capabilities. In the beginning, all I could do was live day to day, and to focus on my health and raising my three children. It involved a big adjustment for me. Even simple activities like bathing my children became a challenge, because I could not lift them out of the bathtub. Then an occupational therapist suggested I bathe with my young children, as the water would help support their weight.
Is that how the series began?
Yes. As a doctor I had used a camera to record my patients, and, as a mother, I brought a camera into my family life to capture moments with my own children, including bath-time.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Two Boys and a Leaf’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2012
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘From Now On’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2013
Now, when I looked through the lens, life and death looked different to me. Through the lens, I remembered the world of medicine while working as a physician: I remembered the children who were sick and those who died in my care; the children who were born and those who had healed; the children whose deaths I barely had time to mourn or whose lives to celebrate. Overwhelming feelings that had been sealed away in my subconscious now began to emerge.
Cleary, these were potent emotions.
I had no idea that I had these strong feelings. It never occurred to me that I would be able to communicate them through photography, or any other kind of art. But passion has always been a part of who I am and I think that my creativity was released in the process of making these photographs. Now that I was no longer working as a physician, I was able to slow down and explore my thoughts in an unencumbered way.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Water and Slate’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2013
[Centre] © Wendy Sacks ‘Brothers’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2011
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Elijah and Marley’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2011
How hard was it to work with children when making art photographs?
It was a natural and comfortable process for me. Having worked with children who were sick when I was a physician, I was so happy to be with children who were healthy. Even so, I had a keen sense of their vulnerability. I knew I could ask them to do anything for me and they would do it. I never took advantage of that, of course, but it became clear to me just how trusting children can be. I found this troubling.
How do they respond to the finished work?
The parents are always thrilled to have it but, that being said, I only work with families that support my artistic vision. They know from the start that these are not portraits. Before we begin, I explain to the parents and children that the work is not about them. They are becoming a piece of Art.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Fall from Perish’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2012
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Superficial Wounds’ from the series ‘Immersed in Living Water’ 2013
How do you explain that concept to a child?
I tell them that they are my medium … just like crayons or clay are for them.
Why do you call it ‘living’ water?
I struggled with the title. In fact, when I first showed my work at a portfolio review, I was advised to give my series a title. I didn’t even know that I was supposed to do that! I asked my children for advice. My eldest son suggested ‘Immersed in Living Water’. It just fitted on so many levels. People who view the work say it reminds them of anything from amniotic fluid to baptism, to drowning.
What is the subject of ‘Monsters in the Closet’?
Child abuse and domestic violence.
What led you to choose this subject?
As a paediatric emergency physician I was trained to recognise certain patterns of injury as indicative of abuse. I knew if I saw a circular burn lesion that it was from a cigarette, or that slashes on the skin were from whipping. I knew what had happened to those children, even though I had not seen the acts of abuse, because I could read it in their physical injuries. Monsters in the Closet grew out of that knowledge and from a powerful need to recount such victims’ stories.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Daddy’s Girl’ from the series ‘Monsters in the Closet’ 2012
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Monkey See’ from the series ‘Monsters in the Closet’ 2012
How did you choose this title?
Parents and adult caregivers that want to calm the fear of a child at bedtime, assure them that there are no monsters in the closet or under the bed. But, in some cases, the parent or caregiver is, in fact, the very monster who will harm them.
These are dramatic interpretations – what do you want to say though these images?
I want to communicate that these things are going on and yet the world is pretending that they are not. Real monsters don’t hide in the closet; they hide at the bedside under the guise of a guardian and blur their violence under the pretence of love, discipline or trust. The idea of the fogginess is that these things are not clear-cut and, certainly, the circumstances are not totally transparent. Child abuse is veiled from society by the fog of lies abusive caregivers tell to their children, to themselves and to the world.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Clouded Judgment’ from the series ‘Monsters in the Closet’ 2012
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Evidence’ from the series ‘Monsters in the Closet’ 2012
What kind of response do you get from audiences who see this work?
For some people, these images conjure up the memory of their own suppressed childhood trauma. They find the work too personal, as though I were depicting their own individual story. Of course, I reassure them that I am not, but I think this shows just how deeply and personally the scars of such abuse are felt.
But mostly, the reviews are stellar. In fact, the curator of a charity auction I donate work to every year asked to present an image from Monsters in the Closet as a special edition and featured the image on the cover of the catalogue.
[Left] © Wendy Sacks ‘Boy’ from the series ‘The Departed’
[Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘Girl with Birthday Cake’ from the series ‘The Departed’
What are you working on now?
It’s a series called ‘The Departed’ that addresses death and memory. In the series, photographic prints are encapsulated in blocks of ice. I want to explore the way people are remembered when they are no longer with us – either because they grew up and moved away, or because they passed away. For those left behind, their impression of the former loved one becomes frozen and is made more perfect in the memory than that individual perhaps was in real life. The years go by, and events come and go, but the visual memory of those who have gone from us never ages.
Are you drawn to sad themes?
I guess it may seem that my work is a little morbid, but I really am a happy, funny person. [laughs] I have a number of other projects in the planning stage, but my main focus right now is preparing for the publication of my first international art book, and I think this new series makes an interesting counterpoint to the previous two.
They all involve water…
Images from all three series will be included in the book, which will be published later this year by Claude Nori at Contrejour Publishing House in Paris, France.
[Left and Right] © Wendy Sacks ‘untitled’ from the series ‘The Departed’
Do you think that being a woman brings any particular attitudes or sensibilities to the work of an artist?
You know, I have often wondered what would happen if I put these images in front of an audience and asked them to guess if the photographer was a man or a woman. I think it would be interesting to hear what they thought… But, to better answer your question: yes, I think women bring a different sensibility to making art, even if the end results may appear the same as those made by men … they get there by a different route. I do believe parents put more trust in me because I am a woman, a doctor and mother.
Is it easy for women to become a photographer in the United States?
A female friend and I were in the New York City subway a month or so ago and saw a ‘one man band’ performer. He had a drum attached to his chest which was operated by a pedal attached to his foot; he had a cymbal and some bells on his arms; there was some kind of noisy contraption on his head; and he was playing a harmonica. We watched him working so hard to attract attention and encourage us to put money in his hat; making so much noise about it… We looked at each other and both said at the same time “Big deal! This is what women do every day!” Women multitask all the time. They work ten times harder than men at everything they do.
So, you ask me if it is difficult for a woman to become a photographer in the United States. The answer is ‘no’. And we don’t even have to stop all the other things we are doing to achieve success. We just multitask!
What have you learned through making your work?
Art is hard. Being an artist is a lot of work, but I absolutely love the freedom of doing what I want, when I want… and the freedom of not doing it, if I don’t feel like it. For me, photography is pure passion and there is nothing better in the world than doing something simply because you really want to.
Wendy Sacks was born in Connecticut in 1959. Her photographs have been published and exhibited in many countries around the world. In just a handful of years she has won an impressive array of prestigious first prizes including the Grand Prize at the Second Biennial International Photo-Cultural Festival (Lishui, China) in 2011; the 2012 International Terry O’Neill TAG Award (London, England); the 2013 Foto DC International Fine Art Award (Washington DC, USA); the 2013 International Fine Art Grand Prix de la Découverte Award (Paris, France); and the 2014 Kolga International Photography Award (Tbilisi, Georgia). She lives and works in Pittsford, New York.
photo © John Retallack
This article was first published in Chinese, in the April 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers.