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THE DEBATE OF FAMILY

Midterm elections recently took place. Politicians spent tremendous amounts of money to win the vote of their constituents by attacking their opponents. And the whole charade, as with much political posturing for ideologies, felt so distant from our everyday lives. Politicians function in another world than I do. Their income is far greater than mine and they fly on private jets. My car is overdue for an oil change and that will have to wait because it doesn’t fit this month’s budget.

Everyday problems are closer to home than Washington so perhaps home is a good place to start solving those problems. But let’s not be too romantic here lest we espouse ideologies just like those cursed politicians. Simply recognizing a situation, nor addressing it is not some sort of salvation. For those living below the poverty line there is often a paradox at work, a catch-22 which goes like this: fulfillment of a better life demands resources not excluding financial ones, and financial resources can be hard to come by. But financial resources are needed to afford the other resources needed to afford one’s better life. A car to get to work for example, cost money that one can’t earn without a job. Put simply, in order to make money one must have money. There is always, I suppose the luxury of solitude. Solitude requires time, but not much money and affords use self-reflection. If you are a bit perplexed about your current situation might I suggest a walk alone in the woods or a cheap beer on the front porch. It’s a luxury almost anyone can afford, one amidst an existence we’d often otherwise want changed.

Solitude as a luxury also suggests (if a luxury can after all be in fact accessible) that perhaps answers are also more accessible. Not easy to come by, but not buried in bureaucracy or even in resolution of hot-topic debate.  They aren’t elsewhere, they are not far off and they are not so synonymous with an all together, otherly life. Perhaps answers are not in Washington, but rather in our own towns, on our own neighborhood streets, in our own families.

As adults we debate issues that reflect a particular alignment but not a specific practice. Political party fidelity helps to simplify an otherwise confusing and contradictory existence but rarely does it affect how we act on an interpersonal level be it with family or with friends. It helps to assure us of who we are but not what we do. Dishes have to be washed, bills payed, oil changes do need to happen and living somewhat responsibly assures the safety of not just ourselves but also others. In our youth, we tend to address these issues the same. To get away from the drudgery of household chores, to keep driving past the edge of city limits and get out of the town we know; to get away from the family we have grown to loathe, is a goal. For some youth, its a necessary means of self-preservation or betterment but for most I would believe its no more than the beginnings of the struggle to define those same alignments we find ourselves debating as adults. The search for self-identity isn’t just a journey of the young.

I argue often that to understand one’s identity you must understand from where you came. I believe that geography is important. But I also believe that family, whether aligned with or counter to your own, is just as important. Whether for self-preservation or for the need to answer questions seemingly without answer, when as youth we set out to find ourselves (and as adults as we align ourselves) it will always be relative to geography and family. A good friend of mine growing up had to live the unfortunate tragedy of her boyfriend committing suicide while we were in high school. After an understandable but self-destructive few years of behavior she finally decided to leave our town, to find a bit of solitude. Self-preservation was certainly a necessity that could not have happened anywhere other than somewhere else. I had largely fallen out of touch with my friend by this point but I knew she was very close to family and I wondered how difficult it must have been to reconcile family and place when she finally did leave. Not only are both family and geography important, they are intrinsically tied. This is why the selling of the family farm to a developer is so difficult. Not because the farm no longer sustains the family but rather because it is the family, a physical manifestation of the concept of kinship. It is also I believe why many youth return home after having spent time away. A town is your family and a family is your town. My friend returned to her home town after a few years gone. I would imagine largely because she could not divorce family from place and ultimately, although she needed to get somewhere else to deal with the questions she had, what she needed was not ideologies, it was not political alignment, it was to debate how she might live her life. And where her problems originated was the same place she could get on with doing just that.

An aide of which I believe firmly in this debate of family is the photograph whether it be a part of the family photo album or a study of the family through documentary photography. When the Farm Security Administration was established and photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks were commissioned by Roy Stryker to document rural America they did so largely by photographing rural families. More contemporary work such as All the Days and Nights by Doug Dubois continue in the tradition of recognizing the importance of family and reconciling both the hardships and bonds of family. The visual study of family provides us a context from which we can understand both history and each other.

Strant is currently looking for work to be included in its forthcoming issue on the topic of family. While it will certainly not be as important as the FSA or other equally significant bodies of work, I do hope that it contributes to the same debate.

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