Like many proud new parents, Heather Evans Smith has been photographing her daughter since birth. The difference is that Smith is a fine-art and conceptual portrait photographer based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The images in her new project, “Seen Not Heard,” are elegantly crafted and serve as metaphors for the complex relationship all mothers have with their daughters. In her previous project, “The Heart and the Heavy,” begun immediately after the birth of her daughter, she conveyed the ups and downs of motherhood in dreamlike scenes she created, often with models. In “Seen Not Heard,” Smith and her 4-year-old daughter are the main subjects. The series title comes from the traditional adage “To Be Seen and Not Heard,” a term “often thrown about in reference to the desired behavior of children,” Smith writes in a statement about the project. “These images are silent, but they create a voluble visual narrative on the relationship between parent and child.”
“Seen Not Heard” was chosen last November as one of the Top 50 for the 2014 Critical Mass Award. PDN recently saw this body of work at the Photolucida portfolio reviews in Portland, Oregon, last month, and asked Smith about her evolving process, and what she learned in collaborating with her sometimes fidgety daughter.
PDN: In your artist’s statement for “Seen Not Heard” you say you had not included your daughter in previous work. The two of you are the focus of this project, however. Had you photographed her previously, just not for your fine-art projects?
Heather Evans Smith: I have been photographing my daughter since her birth. These were mostly snapshots with the occasional fine-art image thrown in. When I started to shoot images based on the emotions of new motherhood, I kept it to self-portraits or used other adult models. These images became the series “The Heart and The Heavy,” and were surreal metaphors for the emotional lives of women. As my daughter developed emotionally, it felt natural to pull her into my work and explore our relationship and her childhood.
PDN: Did you storyboard the images or plan them in advance?
HES: Most of the ideas were planned in advance, either sketched or just jotted down quickly. I never want to push her, so we may go a few months in between shoots. I usually have a log of ideas to pull from based on the lighting in the house, her mood and if I have the necessary props. However, there are spontaneous moments that occur, leading to “in the moment” shoots.
PDN: What was it like to essentially art direct your daughter?
HES: It was difficult at first. This was new terrain for both of us. The more we shot the easier it became. I also learned to relax a bit. One only has so much control over a 4-year-old. We’d shoot her idea first; then it’d be my turn. Her fidgety nature creates a more relaxed, natural look for her in the photos. She is never stiff.
In one image, “Contraries,” (Slide 4) she was not interested in shooting at all. She tipped up her sippy cup and gave me a side-glance. I shot the image thinking it would be a funny outtake. It became the finished image—a stronger statement than originally planned. This truly is a collaborative effort, as I’ve learned throughout this project.
PDN: Knowing your intent was to show the mother/daughter bond, has this project strengthened that bond?
HES: At her age it may be too soon to tell. I love that she is more familiar with what I do for a living as a result of this project. It has made me look more deeply at our relationship. Though the subject matter can at times be dark and serious, joy is found in the dressing up and play of it.
I hope that she will appreciate the honesty and openness of these photos, carrying through our relationship in the form of open and honest dialogue.
PDN: Is this project still in the works, what’s next?
HES: I still have plans to create with her. I believe there will always be room for new photographs in this project. I would love to explore new situations and emotions as she ages.
As for what is next, I’m in the very early stages of planning a new series while still thinking of what other stories my daughter and I can create for “Seen Not Heard.”