On a recent afternoon Gillian Laub was at the International Center of Photography to attend the opening of her latest project, “Family Matters,” both a book and an exhibition at ICP. An experienced artist, Laub is no stranger to openings but was especially nervous for the publication of this collection, it being her most personal yet. She watched as a father and son, who was around 20 years old, walked through the exhibition and afterward the son approached her.
“He asked, ‘Are you the artist?’ And he was crying. This hipster 20-year-old was crying and he was, like, ‘Thank you so much. My dad brought me here. We haven’t really been talking,’” Laub says. “His dad’s a big Trump supporter but his dad read about the exhibition and brought his son there, so they could talk about it and he could feel less alone. I mean, that is just the most incredible [thing]. That’s when you’re, like, ‘Wow, OK.’”
“Family Matters” is a collection of 20 years of photographs and stories documenting her own family, centering on how her family’s support of Donald Trump, both the candidate and president, impacted their dynamic, while looking at the complexities of family as a whole.
The idea began rolling when the team at Pop-Up magazine, who she’d been talking to for years about doing something, asked what she was up to, in around 2015.
“They contacted me at the height of when I just felt like my world was imploding,” Laub says. “I had postpartum depression, my parents became massive Trump supporters, I was, like, ‘I am not in any shape to do anything right now, but thank you so much.’ And I shared the story about my family, and they were, like, ‘Well, this is a safe space to share it, and how cathartic would it be to [explore] this with your work?’”
Pop-Up is a live experience magazine without any social media, print or digital component so she felt safe in the idea of performing it for limited audiences, knowing it would be viewed by that group alone.
“It was indeed the most cathartic thing making, producing a multimedia story about my family, and it was a form of therapy — but then when I performed it in six different cities, I cannot tell you how many people came up to me and they’re, like, ‘I’m going through this, too. This is my story. This is my story. Thank you for sharing it. I haven’t been able to talk about it,’” Laub says. “So it was then that I was, like, ‘Oh, this is a much larger story than just my story. My family really is a microcosm of what’s going on in this country.’”
She stresses that the project is “not just about the Trump years, it’s not about Trump,” but that it’s a story about family as a whole — and all that entails — which is why she compiled 20 years of work into the final result.
The reactions, naturally, have been powerful, and surprisingly one of the most positive reactions came from her parents.
“I was so scared that they’d be offended, or hurt, or I don’t know. And the thing that is such a relief is that they read it and it was so emotional, there was laughter, there were tears, but they weren’t reading it worried about how they came off. It wasn’t about their egos,” Laub says. “They didn’t read it with the lens of caring about really how they came off, they read it and they were, like, ‘Wow, you were honest, and that is the most important.’ So for me, that was everything. It really just personified who they are and what this is about, which is really, truly unconditional love.”
And the biggest blessing of the book, as it was for the father and son at the opening, is that she and her family have found ways to communicate again, despite their differences.
“The great thing is that we’re talking,” she says. “The bottom line is civil discourse, there’s room for it again.”