The Wellcome Photography Prize 2020 is now open for entry, calling for submissions exploring topics of health and medicine. Its ‘Social Perspectives’ category asks photographers to examine these themes as contextualised by society. Eli Baden-Lasar’s work documenting his half-siblings is an extraordinary example of one such project.
Eli Baden-Lasar had always known he was conceived using a sperm donor. However, discovering that one of his friends was a half-sibling was a decisive moment. He had always been interested in visual culture and in using a camera to explore ideas, and so he set out on what turned out to be a year-long journey to meet and photograph each of his half-siblings. The resulting project was originally published as the cover story of The New York Times Magazine in June, A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers, Strangers (though the photographer refers to the work simply as his siblings project).
Far from being a straightforward documentary piece about family discovery, the project is a multilayered exposition of an emotional, familial and political enquiry, taking in not only Baden-Lasar and his siblings’ experiences, but also serving as its own internally-functioning piece in which each photograph rewards close and careful looking, presenting a narrative which is ambiguous rather than conclusive. “I had moments which felt as though genetics or biology or this connection felt really potent; and moments when it felt like this entire experience, the effort, even the feeling that there is a connection, was pointless, and contrived, and like I was an imposition,” says the photographer. “And I think that all of the extreme reactions, or experiences, were inscribed in what I was trying to do.”
He decided to use a 4×5 view camera from the outset. “Usually there’s a lot of experimenting with the camera, but in many ways that was not how I approached this project,” says Baden-Lasar. This was a labour-intensive way of making pictures whose requirements of diligence and meticulousness were commensurate with the care required by the project itself. “It wasn’t really about an experimentation so much as using pictures to define the contours of the system of relations. And using the camera as an excuse, or as a tool.” The photographic work somehow legitimised Baden-Lasar’s project-at-large, that of meeting each one of his siblings; a process which, without the camera, may have been more difficult to justify, or pursue with such rigorousness.
The mechanics of the large format camera itself decelerated each encounter. “On the one hand it makes beautiful images, and on the other it requires an incredible amount of discipline,” he says. “The entire process of setting up a constructed picture using the 4×5 made the experience more collaborative.” At the very least, the presence of the camera meant that there was immediately some common ground between them: the elaborate machine that mediated the encounter, or acted as a shared point of focus.
The potentially dizzying implications of each meeting could be attended to obliquely, as though looking at a solar eclipse projected onto a piece of card; it gave Baden-Lasar a uniquely searching means of encountering his siblings. “The slowness of the process gave me the excuse to really look at each person,” he says.
The project adopts the principles and vocabulary of documentary photography and, at a surface level, can be read as a relatively straightforward series of documentary pictures. “I feel very responsible for the way in which everyone was – is – represented,” notes Baden-Lasar. For the magazine piece, NYT writer Susan Dominus interviewed each sibling, forming the captions of each image and anchoring them to their authentic voice. “It was important that [the siblings’] voices were heard, which was something I hadn’t realised when I began the work,” explains the photographer. However, though the project was founded on indexical, documentary principles, and despite documenting real people, the images themselves do not hew closely to any kind of empirical record-making. These are portraits, not typologies, with all the authorial voice and suggestiveness that term implies.
“I was very upfront with the fact that I wasn’t interested in making a didactic picture that illustrates who [the siblings] are, or completely represents them,” says Baden-Lasar. “I told them that I was interested in making an image that felt dramatic, or charged, but that the environment wasn’t necessarily about a truthful biography.” Two of the siblings wear formal dresses, to stand on their bed or sit on a garden chair respectively; some of them are richly lit, seeming to glow amongst the shadows of their bedrooms; one young woman, on the bank of a river, leans down away from us towards the water. “The pictures weren’t about documentary per se, but just trying to make pictures that felt difficult to reduce; that felt charged by the environment. And harder to place.” Rather than attempt to neatly encircle their subjects, the images were to be as irreducible as the individuals they depicted.
In making the project, Baden-Lasar found himself managing different psychological states throughout. “Once I began it, unexpected emotions arose,” he says. “I’m sort of occupying two roles.” In one sense he became a kind of cultural anthropologist, travelling across the country to make this intensely specific record. “I was interested in the idea of the family album, which communicates these ideas of family-making and intimacy, and a connection to place, and also the form of the census: of something that discusses society, and lineage, and cultural difference.”
That said, the immediate emotional impact of the experience – a year spent travelling alone, meeting strangers whose features betrayed shadows of his own, whose laughter was familiar – bled into the making of the work in ways that the photographer hadn’t anticipated. “I’m personally implicated in the people’s lives,” he says. “There was this toggling in my experience between intense emotions and a more intellectually-driven approach.” It seems that the discovery of this sprawling family tree was an ambivalent one for many of the siblings. While some were glad and excited to find one another, others describe feeling like a statistic, “drowned out” by the sheer quantity of siblings; Baden-Lasar himself reports a feeling of de-individualisation.
As the work progressed, a third strain of enquiry began to emerge in addition to these emotional and anthropological aspects, one that pertained to society at large. “I realised that there were larger implications that didn’t have to do with feelings, or a negotiation of identity, or ideas of intimacy, but more so ideas of the ways in which society reproduces itself; what, in looking at this system, we can learn about our cultural values and how structures of both transparency and secrecy play into that.”
As such, the images can be seen as a rebuttal of the sterile and slickly ingratiating imagery of the medical industry. “Something I was always very aware of in making the project,” says Baden-Lasar, “was the visual culture around sperm donation, and the tropes of it that are used to advertise this idea of what a desirable man is, or looks like, in our society, and how a lot of that media culture reinforces a lot of racialised and classist power asymmetries.” The images, in their analogue nature, their drama, their highly personal settings of bedrooms and back gardens, present an alternative to the homogeneity of sperm donation imagery, as well as to the anonymity of sperm donors. Another uncanny aspect of the work is the fact that the majority of the siblings are of a similar age (from 19 to 21). To see such a large cluster of people with the same biological parent, their features mappable onto one another, is extraordinary in the most literal sense, and another reason that A Family Portrait is such singular work.
Baden-Lasar is conscious of the wider-reaching implications of this aspect, “how photographing us all at this age has the effect of questioning the potential of what will become of all of us.” It’s a question asked often regarding young people, especially in the context of siblings: determinism, genetics, nature versus nurture. The project doesn’t seek to answer any of these questions, though, rather calling attention to the nature of the questions themselves. Though Baden-Lasar’s story is undoubtedly the first of its kind photographically, the experience it records is not uncommon (according to The Atlantic, between 30,000 and 60,000 babies born in the United States in 2010 were conceived through sperm donation, a figure representing up to 1.5% of births that year) and thus reflects an experience in which ever more people are implicated. He is now cautious to refer to sperm donation as a ‘social experiment’, as he did in the original NYT piece; in fact, his ongoing enquiry has led him to reflect on how much is shared between notionally different experiences of family. “All types of family-making is an experiment, regardless of whether it engages with different structures,” he notes.
A degree of normalcy has been returned to since he finished photographing the siblings. “We all still talk occasionally,” Baden-Lasar describes. As documented in the NYT piece, many of the siblings had expected to find more profound relationships in their new family network than eventually resulted; there is a WhatsApp group, but it feels casual, and the siblings are spread out across the country. For Baden-Lasar, too, the emotional experience has waned. “I think as I expected, and most people experienced, a lot of these relationships fade into the background,” he says. The body of work stands as a record of this remarkable process of discovery, the tracing of a bloodline across a landmass, and being in touch – even peripherally, even casually – is something. “I think there’s always the potential for connection,” the photographer says. Asked why the project had to be photographic, why photography was suited to tell this particular story, Baden-Lasar is unequivocal: “Photography is a way of proving the existence of life.”
The Wellcome Photography Prize is calling for work that will shed light on, and raise awareness about, stories of health, medicine and science. Each category winner will receive £1,250 and be featured in a London exhibition; the overall winner will receive £15,000. Entry is free and the deadline for submissions is 11:59pm GMT 16 December 2019. Please click here for more information about collaborating with Studio 1854.