I wore a smiling mask, just trying to cope … until I couldn’t.
Not all prisons have walls and not all shackles have chains. Harassment and the threat of humiliation can confine the liberty of an individual just as much as stone and steel. This is particularly true in closed, inwardly focused groups that isolate themselves from the heterogeneity of wider society. Such claustrophobic contexts facilitate the psychological manipulation employed by those who seek to shape and control the minds and behaviours of others. Such groups may be ideological, chauvinistic, or religious, but it is perhaps the last of these that is the most insidious, since it wields its authority from a purported omnipotence that can neither be proved nor disproved, but is simply asserted as absolute.
It is the experience of growing up in such a fundamentalist religious community – and the trauma that resulted – that informs much of the work of the artist Michelle Rogers Pritzl. The indoctrination was intended to shape and control her free will, to enthral her to a god made in the image of men, and ensure her unquestioning obedience to the men in whose image that god was shaped. Drawing on biblical texts interpreted literally and selectively to maintain the dominance of a fundamentalist religion and a singular gender, these absolutes existed outside of time and place, denying both collective equity and personal conscience. The dogma was chiselled into the mind: hard, inorganic tablets of stony pseudo-piety, forbidding any sense of criticality or self-determination.
In their hybrid of vintage and digital photographic processes, the images created by Michelle Rogers Pritzl seem both timeless and confrontingly immediate. A technique that reifies the penumbral gulf between a hidebound Christian fundamentalism and the democratic diversity of wider contemporary culture to which she was drawn. It was in the praxis of making and sharing these images that the artist felt her way through this twilight zone of trauma and loss, finally to transcend it.
How did this work begin?
I was born and raised in a Southern Baptist community. ‘Soma’ was the first project I made when I began grad school. I was interested in exploring how someone like me could be so haunted by past traumas that they can’t move past their pain. At the time, I didn’t have terms like ‘religious abuse’ or ‘religious trauma’, but I was definitely thinking about hurt and pain caused by experiences growing up in a fundamentalist church community. So much of my later work, and even the life changes I made after graduate school, have their beginnings in these first fledgling attempts to wrestle with my demons here in ‘Soma’.
So, the change of environment offered a new perspective on your life…
I actually didn’t know how strange my own upbringing had been until I was in graduate school and started talking about some of these things to people who had not grown up in the same sort of fundamentalist environment. A friend in my seminar class recommended that I read Jeanette Winterson. I cried my way through ‘Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal’ because I so deeply understood Winterson’s experiences and pain from her own upbringing.
[Left] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘Proof of the Strength of Experience’ 2013 from the series ‘Soma’
[Right] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Response, Delayed’ 2012 from the series ‘Soma’
Can you give examples of how that translated in your imagery?
When I made ‘Proof of the Strength of Experience’ I was trying to describe my relationship with my mother. Every one of those pins stood for an incident stemming from the kind of oppression you experience being raised in a fundamentalist home.
On the other hand, I was very close to my grandfather, who died when I was a child. I have always been a person who struggles with showing sadness, crying in front of others. I was devastated, scared, while my grandfather was dying of cancer. I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it. Eventually something small and insignificant made me crack – a delayed response. I cried for hours over nothing because I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
In time, I came to understand that I was caught up in a kind of psychical binding. The ideas and feelings were tangled together: the pain of lost loved ones, toxic family dynamics, my own inability to move on… But memory can be a trap and I was struggling with sadness over the people I had lost rather than moving on with my own life. By not being brave enough to let go and leave this religious oppression, I was really the one hurting myself.
[Left] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘A View of the Psychical Binding’ 2013 from the series ‘Soma’
[Right] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Task of Remembrance’ 2013 from the series ‘Soma’
Do you see these images as self-portraits?
That’s a great question. One no one has ever asked before. On some level the answer will always be yes because they are photographs of me, but the intent was never really to make self-portraits. It was much more about my process as a photographer and the fact that I was more comfortable photographing myself rather than other people. And I was always available and prepared to do the things I needed to make the images.
I’m not sure that, when I was making these first images, the fact they were of me was that significant. It became important later, when I was processing my divorce and the collapse of my old life. But not at this stage.
How are these images made?
I wanted to make tintypes, to suggest the ridiculous set of nineteenth-century morals my family’s fundamentalist community expect everyone to live by. However, I soon realised I couldn’t make the images I wanted wholly in-camera, as one would for a traditional tintype. Christopher James, my university professor, helped me figure out a different way of working. This allowed me to shoot in digital – and create composites if required – before making a positive transparency through which to expose the tintype plate. It freed me to be able to make the work larger than would have been possible working wholly in-camera. And, in its combination of nineteenth- and twenty-first-century techniques, it felt like a perfect metaphor for my own experiences.
[Left] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Great Harlot’ 2014 from the series ‘Those Whose Hands and Hearts are Pure’
[Right] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Outward Adorning’ 2014 from the series ‘Those Whose Hands and Hearts are Pure’
What came next?
Once I finished ‘Soma’ I was ready to talk about how I have been treated by churches I attended in the past. I was ready to acknowledge in a much more specific way how those experiences had hurt me growing up. In particular, the ‘purity culture’, which was a huge part of the religious trauma I suffered. I now realise that a lot of what I experienced I would call sexual harassment today. From teenage through to my mid-thirties, when I left religion, I consistently experienced the same things from one church to another. I have lost count of the number of times I was told by male pastors and religious leaders that my choice of clothes, makeup, shoes, everything about me, was too sexual – too far out of the evangelical box. I spoke too much. My opinions were wrong. I was leading men astray. And of course, any kind of sexual experience would soil me and make me unlovable because my worth was entirely rooted in my virginity.
So, I am part of the True Love Waits generation. In the early 1990s, I was forced to sign a pledge of sexual purity at a youth-group celebration. We had a dinner with all the youth-group kids and their families where we all signed agreements to remain sexually pure until marriage and we all got promise rings from our parents. I have never forgotten my youth pastor’s words – that we were signing a covenant with God and God blesses those who keep his covenants, but curses those who break them.
That covenant is policed by the eyes of every member of the religious community. Purity culture is baked into the very foundation of everything about fundamentalist Christianity and it’s all about control.
Threads that bind the body are a recurring trope in this series.
The series opens with ‘The Wound of the Talebearer’, a title derived from a Bible verse about women who lie. In a fundamentalist church, coming forward to tell of trauma like rape will only add more trauma when your experience is dismissed as a wicked lie. No one wants to believe that a man who goes to church is capable of rape. The complementarianism of fundamental religion places men over women, always.
[Left] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Wound of the Talebearer’ 2013 from the series ‘Those Whose Hands and Hearts are Pure’
[Right] © Michelle Rogers Pritzl ‘The Blessings of the Breasts and Womb’ 2014 from the series ‘Those Whose Hands and Hearts are Pure’
What is ‘complementarianism’?
It’s the idea that men and women have different but (supposedly) equal roles in their relationship. Housewife vs breadwinner would be a basic simplification. In this relationship, the man is the head of the woman, and women must submit to him. You can’t tell your husband no, even when it’s your own body. A woman exists to be a ‘helpmeet’, a mother, to spread her legs whenever her husband bids her do so.
This is the ‘blessing’ of being a women – of having breasts and a womb. In one of the last images I made in this series the wedding finger of a woman’s hand is bound with a thread – so tightly that the circulation of blood is cut off.
At the time, I was married to my first husband, trying to finish grad school, and my life was imploding. I had married the first man I ever slept with and, at this point, I realised that I had almost ruined my life trying to stick to all these ridiculous purity ideals. That’s how it felt for the whole eleven years we were together and the five years we were married. I felt like I was suffocating, I could not survive like this… but I was planning my escape.
I began my next series in the wake of the divorce.
That series, ‘Not Waving but Drowning’, borrows its title from Stevie Smith’s poem. Did that poem have particular resonance for you?
Absolutely it did. I married a man that I knew had cheated on me the entire time we were dating, but I believed I was doing what God wanted me to, because I had slept with him before we got married. There are almost no ‘biblical’ justifications for divorce and, anyway, I didn’t think anyone would believe me about what was happening. Worse, I knew no one would care.
There were so few people that knew how I felt. In the end, ‘The Hum of Bees’ [above] was the best way to visualise how it felt. On the outside I was trying to pretend to be the perfect Christian wife, but I felt trapped in a fundamentalist jailcell. In the image it was as if I am pulling back all of the ways I made sure things looked OK, while I marked off each day I survived imprisonment.
So I pretended to be happy, and I prayed fervently for my husband to change and be the husband I needed him to be. I wore a smiling mask, just trying to cope … until I couldn’t.
I survived the break-up, but it was terribly painful. I lost my reputation, I lost my faith, I lost pets I love, and I lost many of the people I had loved like family because they believed the lies they were told about me. I have likened my escape to jumping in the water and swimming away – this is what it took to break free. ‘The Shore Was Far Behind’ is meant to represent my ex-husband and what he was left with. There are verses in the Bible that say a woman’s hair is her crowning glory and must not be cut. I cut my ties. I got away, survived. He has my old friends, he made sure my reputation was ruined, but that’s all he’s got. I wouldn’t trade my life today for any of that.
It was an intense couple of years of working through the trauma of divorce because of the terrible way I was slandered by the community. I poured my heart out to my ‘Christian brothers and sisters’ and came to see that they really don’t care about abuse, or truth, or even right versus wrong. It was painful, disappointing, lonely, to be ghosted by my friends, but I really saw through religion at that point. This series was my way of telling the whole world what happened to me.
What are you working on now?
A new series about the joy and happiness I have found living my own authentic life. It’s a slow process and I have nothing to show yet. I have broken an awful lot of Big Life Rules in the last eight years, things I was brought up to believe would cause God to curse me. Instead, my life is blossoming as I live on my own terms, by my own morals. It is something that I am grateful for every day. I have come to realise how important it is to share that joy, that lack of judgement. I wish I had understood this twenty years ago.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making these photographs?
I have learned that I can survive anything. I have learned that I am entirely OK with being a ‘sinner’ in some people’s eyes. I have learned boundaries. I have found what genuine friendship is, and come to understand that most of my ‘friends’ from church were never really friends to begin with. And I have learned that true joy can only be found from authentic living.
Michelle Rogers Pritzl was born in the District of Columbia, USA, in 1978. She received a bachelor’s degree in fine art from Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington, DC, in 2001; a master’s degree in art education from California State University, Long Beach, in 2010; and a master’s degree in photography from Lesley University College of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2014. Her work has featured in more than seventy-five solo and group exhibitions in the USA and also in Australia, Russia and Spain. She was named in the Critical Mass Top Fifty for 2018, and won first prize at LENS 2020. She lives on a farm in the Finger Lakes, New York State, with her husband John and their son.
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.