Intimate Portraits: A Meeting with Mirriam Waterman

June, 2012 for Artvoices

Remember if You Walk Away From Me You Are Nothing Without Me. This title is taken from Miriam Waterman’s Verbal Abuse series, a photography project that records the history of verbal abuse suffered during the artist’s past relationship. Waterman’s works are explorations of her subject’s psyches as well as her own. Intimate glimpses of self-perceptions and emotional scars draw the viewer into an uncomfortable silence that echoes. Waterman was kind enough to sit down with me to discuss this series and Babel, her new book of photography.

Miriam Waterman

Tori Bush: You document issues of identity in your photographs. Can you tell me a bit about how the Verbal Abuse series was an exploration of your own perception of self?

Miriam Waterman: Two years ago I started working on this project. At the time I was in a relationship with a man so verbally abusive I began to question my value not only as a partner, but also as a person. This relationship was the catalyst for this series. Verbal abuse doesn’t leave visible marks, only internal scars. There are five images in this series, and after that I had to stop working on it. Although these images are self-portraits, I discarded my identity by inverting the tones, just as verbal abuse eradicates the identity of the victim. The tone inversion also allows the images to become universal images of your mothers, daughters, sisters. I like the fact that the letters were black on my body and white when I inverted them because words do not have a physical property; however, they can wreak emotional havoc and take a physical toll.

TB: Words seem to be an essential element of your work. How did you come to use text on the body?

MW: I come from generations of Californian farmers. I was given a set of rubber stamps that my great-grandfather had used to hand stamp the citrus boxes. Ironically, I’m not a writer, but I adore text — there is something so powerful about words. I fell in love with the ink and letter stamping process, so I naturally carried this over to my photography. Skin is an interesting medium to work with. The stamping process is unique to each person depending on the temperature and how oily or dry the skin is. Sometimes the ink bleeds or “sweats,” which creates a new element.

Musician Coco Robicheaux

Musician Coco Robicheaux

TB: In your book of photographs, Babel, that came out this year, you had your subjects choose a word that epitomized them.

Were you surprised by the choice of words of your subjects? Do you often see a rupture between the subject’s view of themselves and your own idea of the subject?

MW: I was. The thing is, it was a really intimate project. I’m the type of person that people will tell me their deepest, darkest secrets. I’m a magnet for it. My subjects revealed a lot of personal stories. For example, my friend Dorothy was severely beaten and molested as a child. She stamped “Nike” on her throat to represent the goddess of victory. For her this symbolized her forgiveness for her parents and her brother.

Sometimes the location can be revealing of the person, as in Bruce Davenport Jr.’s case. He called me the day before the Lafitte Projects, where he and his grandparents lived, were being torn down. The construction workers wouldn’t let us in at first, but we finally convinced them and I took his photo in the kitchen. I was able to capture a part of his past in that moment. His childhood home was demolished the next day.

That meant a lot to him as well as me.

One person I worked with, Andy, I always saw as a very earthy non-materialistic person. He chose the word “hungry” because, as he said, “I always want more money and prestige.” At his home he showed me his outrageous, extensive collection of sneakers, each one paired with color-coordinated watches. Then, he proceeded to reveal his new gold teeth and talk about his plan to add a few more, while elaborating on his love for hip-hop, rap, and bling. Never would [it] have crossed my mind that material possessions made him tick, but that’s how it sometimes works. I was discussing with Tony Campbell, a member of Generic Art Solutions, who sat for this series, about potentially publishing one image that the subject picks and one image that I pick. He said, “Oh, no Miriam, the subjects would never be happy with the one you pick.” I thought it would be interesting to see my pick versus their pick to show the difference in self perception versus an outside perception.

TB: You are so enthusiastic about the individuals you photograph. How does the community and culture of New Orleans affect your choice of subject and language?


Poet David Rowe

MW:Photos of artists and especially group photos like the New York school and the Cool school artists intrigue me. Those photos are so telling. I wanted to document the generation of artists working here in New Orleans. The majority of the people in Babel are artists. This is a very eclectic community and I don’t think we have anyone really documenting certain artists here. There is a generation of artists, many from the 511 Marigny studios, which are no longer here. Maybe 20 years down the road this will be the only documentation of this period.

TB: Can you discuss the process of your photographs?

MW: For Babel I shot about 200-400 frames of each subject. They were required to pick out a word or phrase that represented them, where it is stamped on their body, and the location. The placement of the stamp and location of the shoot are just as telling as their word. This was a very process-oriented project, so I created a video of each photo session. The viewer has an opportunity to see the whole photo shoot, not just the final image on the gallery wall, allowing a greater insight into the project. To understand my process is key to understanding my work.

TB: Was it hard letting go of so much control of your work and letting your subjects dictate the look and theme of the work?

MW: Yes, because as an artist I want to convey my vision, but it was important for this project to be objective, as difficult as that is to obtain. I had to step away and just shoot. I allowed myself nothing else. It’s not about me but about the individual.

TB: Your process seems very empowering for the subject through this collaborative process of photography.

MW: The empowerment lies in the ability to capture a personality. Many friends and family said, “Wow, you caught their personality to a tee.” Because their friends and family know them so well I thought that was a great compliment, especially for the subject.

TB: So what now?

MW: My first love has always been painting, but I have taken a hiatus. My work is not comfortable art and I struggle with the whole love-hate relationship and sometimes I have to walk away to recollect myself. I will always shoot, but I have a million ideas that I want to put down on canvas. In the end I do my art because I have to. It’s not a choice; it’s a struggle, but it is my journey. It is who I am.


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