Her five-year-old son's serious heart condition inspired Gail Albert Halaban to photograph people's private lives from afar, using Skype to encourage strangers to capture the view from their windows, and the domestic lives they observe
It started with a stark reality. “My five-year-old son Jonah was in the emergency room for a long-term heart condition which would require surgery,” says photographer Gail Albert Halaban, who was supposed to be in Amsterdam on an assignment, and had to find a way, from the hospital, to continue the project.
“I realised all the technology in a hospital is remote. The doctors were monitoring my son’s heart from a different floor. They could look inside his body without being near him. I realised I could look at the world in the same way.”
Gail Albert Halaban has made a career taking pictures of, and through, stranger’s windows. The subjects seem to be unaware of the camera as they go about their private, domestic lives. “At first I know it sounds kind of creepy,” Albert Halaban says. “Many people may even think it’s illegal. But I’m a friendly window-watcher.”
Looking in such a way at the lives of others should feel voyeuristic; yet these are warm, empathetic images. They’re staged, the photographs taken with the consent of the subjects, yet they remain deeply, nakedly domestic; a family gathers to celebrate a child’s birthday, a couple talk deeply over a bottle of wine, a man sits alone, playing his guitar, another plays with his dog, an ageing woman dries her hair with a towel.
The project began ten years ago when, as a new mother, Albert Halaban traded Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl for Manhattan Island, New York. She braced herself for the disorientation, and isolation, that can come within the midsts of such a relentless city. Woken by her hungry baby, she would spend nights staring – and searching – from her window.
“I barely knew anyone in the city. But even in the middle of the night, I didn’t feel lonely,” she says on a telephone call. “I could see people spilling from a nightclub, the flower shops opening in the predawn. And, at times, in the most intimate of moments as I held my daughter, I would search the windows of others, and caught people returning my gaze.”
So came her first project, Out My Window, first exhibited in 2009. “The windows are fragile borders between the familiar and the unknown, between the rushing noises of the city and the timeless quiet of private lives,” she writes in the book’s introduction. She strikes at the contradictions of urban life; the desire to be part of something, yet the need to create a space, however small, to call your own.
Le Monde, the Parisian broadsheet, commissioned her for a partner piece on Paris, entitled Paris Views, and there she discovered a Charles Baudelaire poem from 1869, called Les Fenêtres (Windows): “In that pit, in that blackness or brightness, life is being lived, life is suffering, life is dreaming.”
She began describing her photographs as forms of a mise-en-abyme – the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, seeing an infinite reproduction of one’s reflection.
The contrast between New York’s angular, grandly-modernist apartments with the softer, refined high-rises of higher-end Paris was enough to convince Gail to “go global,” extending the project out to Berlin, Los Angeles, and Amsterdam and Utrecht, Holland. Tanzania is planned, and then even the remote kingdom of Bhutan. “Bhutan is so far away from my reality,” she says. “I can’t wait to find out how people live there.”
“At first I had only the vaguest notion of what I was after. But now I have a clear sense of the questions this new work explores; of how, in an urbanising world, strangers live amongst strangers, of the challenges of creating communities, relationships, and areas of privacy in such a place.”
But, as a woman with a family, Albert Halaban had to work out exactly how she could capture each city without literally being there. That’s when Jonah, in the most traumatic way, provided the path forward for her work. “He had a long-term heart condition, but in the end I found his illness more inspiring than stressful,” she says.
How did he handle his failing health, I ask. “He had a habit of finding a way to make it work, even when I felt like I couldn’t think. And I realised I had no way of complaining I couldn’t complete my work. It was very liberating for me, because I’ve spent most of my adult life as a photographer who travels.”
She started using social media and Skype alongside web-enabled software to allow her to operate the camera from her New York desk. “The whole New York series was done with a 4×5 view camera, and I felt like I had to be there,” she says. “I have a very distinct visual stamp, and I think quite a characteristic way of seeing, engaging with and connecting people, but I realised I could achieve that with people across the world.”
Albert Halaban connects, via Skype, with two households, each of whom lives opposite to each other. A camera is set in the window-space of one apartment, and Albert Halaban directs both players in the drama, adjusting and composing until a perfect image is found.
“And so,” she says, “I gained the realisation that, even alone, we never have to be lonely.”
Gail Albert Halaban’s Out My Window project opens today at the Esther Woerdehoff Galerie in Paris. She will be present at the opening reception this evening, from 6pm to 9pm. See here for more details, and see more of Gail’s work here and support the ongoing project here.
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