When photographer Gillian Laub completed her visual book Family Matters last Thanksgiving, she had no idea where her family would be today. Although Gillian had been photographing her family consistently since 1990, the 2016 Presidential Election and their subsequent support for Donald Trump changed the shape of her work and the dynamics of their tight-knit clan. Gillian shares what it was like navigating those four polarizing years, capturing her family’s eclectic history and their role in her career, and why this Thanksgiving marks a new era of unity and healing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Gillian. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Family Matters.

Gillian Laub: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk to you.

Zibby: As we were just chitchatting about, we have so many mutual connections. I was just like, okay, how many people are recommending I do this book? This is crazy. Once I read it, I was like, oh, it’s like — when I first saw the — okay, let me back up. Why don’t you tell listeners about your book and how it’s a photography book and you’re an amazing photographer and how you also include, essentially, a memoir in photos and in accompanying text? Now you talk about the project.

Gillian: It didn’t start out — the words were kind of the last to be integrated into the book. I’m a photographer. I’ve been photographing my family for twenty years. It began not really as a project. Over time, it’s evolved into a project. Then in 2016, it became clear that this was more of a project than I was intending as I navigated really tricky territory with my family as they all became passionate Trump supporters. The book is from 1999 to 2020. After I edited all the photographs, I realized that it was really, really, really important that I give context to the photographs. Although I really believe photographs should, and they do, stand on their own, the text became just as important here as the photographs. It is a traditional photography book, but it’s meant to be read from cover to cover.

Zibby: Which is what I did, which was great. You include so much of your family history and going back and your grandfather, who was clearly just the — is lynchpin the right word? The spoke around which your whole family operated. He was clearly such a character. Tell me a little more about his background and how he came to be who he was. The photo you have of your grandmother kind of spanking his tush in some sort of zebra-print little bathing suit with his tan, wrinkled skin, oh, my gosh.

Gillian: My grandparents were really my first muses. They were just complete characters and incredibly wonderful, generous, loving. They just had such a joie de vivre. They also had the typical immigrant story where their parents came to America, the only surviving children coming to America from Eastern Europe, and building their American dream and really worked their fingers to the bone and then had the dream of building this family business together. My grandfather built and included everyone. I grew up knowing that my entire family worked together. Family was really everything.

Zibby: I love, also, how your dad ends up working for your grandfather and how that creates tension. There was this whole dynamic. He seemed like he was sort of his son versus his own — all these unspoken family politics, you spoke about.

Gillian: Families are fascinating. We all have them. They’re really complicated. I, for twenty years, was kind of trying to navigate that visually and tell the visual story about it. Then there’s so much to explore in the nuance, which is what I tried to do with the words.

Zibby: I think my favorites were of your Aunt Carol. Is that her name?

Gillian: Yeah.

Zibby: Aunt Carol, oh, my god.

Gillian: There is an Aunt Carol. There’s an Aunt Doris. There’s an Aunt Dorothy.

Zibby: It’s the one where she was smooshed on the couch laughing at the camera.

Gillian: Oh, that’s Aunt Doris.

Zibby: Aunt Doris, sorry, yes. Mixed in with your whole family narrative in these little captions, you have one line in there that talks about the fact that you ended up with some sort of eating situation, disorder. What happened? Can you talk about it?

Gillian: It wasn’t a large part of the book. In our Jewish, big family, food is such a big part of our life and world and tradition. I also was very, very well-aware that the women were not — there was a lot of shame in that. There was fear of food. There was overindulgence in every way, but also such restriction. As a little girl, it wasn’t talked about, but really, it was like — I’m sure I’m speaking the same language that you grew up — I think that everyone can relate to this. It was part of a code that you just follow. You have to look a certain way, be a certain way. I think that I really internalized that as a little girl, obviously. I wasn’t conscious of what it was doing to me. Now I think we’re much more open with our children. Then, we didn’t have the tools to really talk about what was going on. There were a lot of unspoken things that went on in our families.

Zibby: I love your little oink. You had a pig that went “oink” every time you opened the fridge.

Gillian: It was a joke that my grandmother had. Every time you opened the fridge, there was that oinking pig, which was hilarious. There’s so much humor in the book and in the story and in my family, but there’s also some dark sides that I explored.

Zibby: I loved your photo of the lox and the whole spread. You do a good job of capturing personality, but also scenes. The one thing that defines the whole moment, you just capture the whole thing. Talk to me about how you became a photographer. This was always a secret dream of mine. You’re living the dream. I always am taking pictures. I used to have all these cameras. I was photo editor of my yearbook. I spent my weekends in the darkroom.

Gillian: I love that.

Zibby: I went to a summer program at Bennington College in photography. I love photography. Love. I just loaded my new phone. It has 120,000 photos on it. I was like, oh, no. Obviously, that’s not real photography.

Gillian: I hope that you have a lot of iCloud storage.

Zibby: Yes, I do.

Gillian: It’s kind of a cliché. My grandfather gave me my first camera when I was six years old. I still have those photographs, actually. It was a Polaroid. I would pose everyone. I was directing even as I was a young child, having people pose for me. The truth is, I really always felt most comfortable and most — it’s my way of engaging in the world and with people. I’m so fascinated by people and their stories. It really started naturally at a young age. Then I studied photography. My hobby and my love became my work. I feel really lucky for that.

Zibby: What did you start out shooting with, camera-wise? What do you shoot with now? Did you start with film?

Gillian: I am a film-lover. I’m a major film-lover. I’m sad to say that I do shoot digital now, but I found a digital camera that I use just like a film camera. The file really feels — everyone that sees the pictures actually ask if it’s still film, which makes me so happy. Professionally, when I started, I fell in love with a medium-format camera called the Mamiya RZ67. It had a Polaroid back. That was the magic for me. Everyone that I made a portrait of, I could give them something in exchange. They could be part of the portrait. I would make a Polaroid. I’d probably make six or seven. Then I’d start shooting film. We’d all have Polaroids from the actual portrait sitting. Now I’ve moved on to digital. I use a Pentax Medium Format.

Zibby: Wow, so cool. One of the main themes of the book were having different political views from your family. They obviously were trying so hard, because you quoted them a lot, to get you to see their point of view. You were trying so hard to get them to see your point of view. Not that these were unique points of view. These were the embodiment of really everyone in America. You captured the dialogue going on everywhere and what happens when it’s right there. I’m reading this other book right now where the person said her parents — actually, by Gretchen Carlson. She said her parents, one always voted Democrat and one Republican. She’s like, “Why do you guys even bother? You both should just not vote. You cancel out each other’s votes. Why do you even bother?” Obviously, this plays out over and over again in people’s homes, but this was obviously a very dramatic time. Just talk to me about how you navigated that and how it all wrapped up afterwards now that this whole thing has passed. I loved that part of the book too.

Gillian: The thing is, who someone votes for, that never really made a difference to me. They voted for both Democrats and Republicans. They’ve always been fiscally conservative. It was more about the passion for Trump that was just so unsettling, and also the maligning of Hillary Clinton. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It just became so toxic. I’m really, really, really close with my family. It was an existential crisis in those four, five years. I’m thankful that I had photography to kind of help me. It’s always been the tool that helps me understand people and the world and navigate through difficult issues, but I never thought I’d be doing that with my own family, which is what I started to do, and investigate my own judgments too. They called me out as well. They thought I was just as judgmental as I was being — they were judging me. I was judging them. It was just so divisive. I think that this is what a lot of people experienced. I also think that people weren’t talking about it at that time. It kind of felt like my dirty secret. The friends of mine who were also going through the same thing didn’t talk about it. It was scary because it caused so much divisiveness and judgement.

Working through the book, I have to say, at this time last year, it’s marking because it was Thanksgiving 2020. I was terrified about what was going to happen. I think that once Biden was elected — at the inaugural speech, my father texted me. Tears came streaming down my face. He said, “Okay, I’m ready for unity. Let’s move forward.” It’s like all the air came out of the balloon. Not that everything’s going to be better. We’re still in a really complicated situation. Just on a micro level, that there wasn’t constant fighting and tension with my family, it’s like, okay, we are turning the page. We are onto the next chapter. That was when I could really say, this next chapter is about rebuilding. It’s about healing. That is how I was able to finish the book, because it was looking back on what we had just all lived through and forging forward. How are we going to move forward and heal? That’s why I ended the book with a letter to my daughters, which was important to me. It marked this time for us and why it was important and what I wished for them.

Zibby: Love it. The way you treat your daughters in the book and the way you depict them, I should say, not treat them, the way you depict them and the picture you had of when your grandmother was passing away and your daughter was laying on the couch when she was in the hospice bed, oh, my gosh, you can sense your love of family through your words, through your pictures. It just sets it up so that you see how traumatic this relationship cleaving was to you. The close-knit-ness, suddenly, the threads were fraying. You really took us along for the ride. I’m so happy that you ended on such a positive, both for you — of course, the whole time, I’m rooting for you. What’s going to happen? How are they going to get through this? It was pretty dramatic in your family.

Gillian: It was. It felt like through those four years, there was almost grieving and a lot of pain. I’m relieved that we are in the — as we have Thanksgiving this year, there is a different feeling. I’m coming into Thanksgiving with a totally different mindset than I had last year at this exact time.

Zibby: This episode may run later just given scheduling.

Gillian: Oh, goodness. Can you edit that, then?

Zibby: No, but for those listening, we can do a postscript. How did Thanksgiving go? Since the book has come out, how has this impacted your family?

Gillian: It was very emotional for my family to read the book. They knew every photograph that was going to be published because I wouldn’t publish photographs without their consent. The words were hard. They know that there was so much love there. I think that above all, they respected the work. They appreciated my honesty and really respected my honesty. That was the most important and what I felt more relieved by. It’s crazy because I think that this book actually made us closer because certain things were now on the table. We could talk about certain things that were the elephant in the room before. It’s talking in a way that’s not fighting. Although, there is a lot of arguing. The toxicity of it all has kind of vanished.

Zibby: That’s great. I’m glad it worked out. I’m glad it helped and was therapeutic. It’s a therapy that many people need to go through, I feel like, as we all come together.

Gillian: It did feel like therapy, I have to say. The one thing, also, is that it’s very specific to my story, but it does feel like other people have — it resonates in a way that’s not specific to my family when people have read it and shared it with their own family.

Zibby: That’s great. What next? What are you working on now? Tell me more about the ICP thing that’s going on.

Gillian: There’s the ICP show. It’s a solo show of Family Matters as well. It’s up until January 10th. I have Southern Rites, which is my previous project. That continues to travel around the country. I’m working on a new film. I can’t exactly talk about that yet. I direct documentaries as well, so I have a new film project.

Zibby: Very cool. You can’t say anything? Nothing at all?

Gillian: I can’t.

Zibby: You got so excited talking about it. That’s really awesome. My husband’s company just optioned the right to make some sort of documentary. I’ll have to put you guys in touch for future .

Gillian: Oh, wow. Okay, great. He optioned the rights to a —

Zibby: — Something was in the works. Now they’re producing it. I don’t know. I’ll get back to you. It might be too late for that one, but for future projects.

Gillian: He’s a producer?

Zibby: He’s a producer, yep. What advice would you have for people? Two questions. One, for people going through something similar now when they feel that there is something in the communication, that there is a gap between their family and themselves, how do you navigate it? What advice would you have having survived this rift? Also then, advice for aspiring artists of all kinds, photographers, authors. What’s your advice to them?

Gillian: I’m going to start with the second question. My advice to any artist — this is something that I lived through. There was three times in this process that I stayed up all night and decided that I was not going to publish this book because I was really terrified. I thought the repercussions maybe were not worth sharing this story. I ultimately realized that I have to tell — storytelling is a way of healing. Making your work is really, really, really important. I think that there will always be fear, but the actual work is more important to make than the fear is. I learn that over and over and over again with every project. If it’s not scary, then there’s actually something wrong, in a way. Every really important thing that I’ve worked on or made or put out in the world has always been terrifying. I think it’s important to just keep plowing through and feeling all the feels and going to those scary places but not letting it paralyze you because it really can paralyze you.

Zibby: Love it. What about advice to navigate your family rifts?

Gillian: I think listening. I think we don’t listen enough. I think listening is a big thing. What I did with my parents — I’ll never fully understand their political choices, but what I do understand is — I thought back to where they came from. I think it’s important to meet people where they are and to understand why they made the choices they made. Where’s their fear coming from? Where’s their pain coming from? Everyone makes choices for different reasons. I think it’s important to really actually think about, more deeply without judging, why people are making certain choices. You learn a lot when you ask those questions.

Zibby: Very true. Excellent advice for all sorts of issues. Just quickly, who are some of your favorite photographers?

Gillian: Oh, god, there are so many. I can say that the photographers who had an impact on me when I was studying is Diane Arbus, she was a huge influence on me, August Sander, Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, kind of the obvious. I’m not saying anything that’s new here. There are so many photographers. There’s a show right now at The Guggenheim that I’m dying to see, Gillian Wearing. She’s a photographer and artist. That’s up right now. I’m trying to think, what else is up right now in New York to see? There’s so many. I’m constantly looking at other people’s work. I love so many artists that are making work today.

Zibby: I did a whole paper in college about Sally Mann. This is back in probably 1996 or something. Have you read Hold Still? That’s her memoir.

Gillian: I did. Yes, of course.

Zibby: I should actually try to get her on the podcast. Oh, my god, that would be so cool.

Gillian: Oh, you should. Yes, you absolutely should.

Zibby: I’m writing myself a note. That would be so awesome since I read that book a while ago. Amazing. I also feel like your photographs have kind of this Annie Leibovitz quality, that interior moment. There’s something.

Gillian: Thank you. I actually did just spend the day with her photographing her.

Zibby: No way!

Gillian: Yeah. It was a very, very, very special experience.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that is so cool.

Gillian: It was very special.

Zibby: Wow. Amazing. Thank you so much. This was so fun.

Gillian: Thank you. Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: I could talk for much longer, but I better go. To be continued in person. I’m so excited to come see your show.

Gillian: Yay! Great. So nice to meet. We’ll talk soon and see each other soon.

Zibby: Congratulations on the book.

Gillian: Thank you.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


FAMILY MATTERS by Gillian Laub

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