Meron Menghistab is an Eritrean-American photographer based in New York City. Working primarily in editorial, Menghistab is primarily concerned with portraiture and documentary work. A sense of community is important to Menghistab’s work, and is ever-present in his storty-telling.
In “Mother, Father, Brother, Son” Menghistab is looking directly at the people around him.
Between the years 2007–2009 a lot of major transitions happened for my family. I moved to Rochester, NY for school, my brother decided to move to Atlanta, and my father moved to South Carolina to run an apartment complex he bought into. My mother has a lot of family in Seattle, where we have lived practically my whole life, and decided to stay, although she would go on to spend small stints of time out East with my dad. To put it simply, as a family that was so used to always being together, it was really hard.
During those years there was a real disconnect between all of us. I started noticing that in the images I was making of my family as well. I’ve always enjoyed photographing my family, but I started noticing I would only have opportunities to photograph them separately, rather than nice family portraits I knew my parents always wanted to send to family members back in Eritrea or across the US and UK. After noticing the trend in the photos I was making of these more isolated portraits and moments, I decided to, for lack of a better term, encapsulate this time we’re spending away from each other, and create a body of work that was our family portrait, rather than a singular image approach. I just want to see everyone together in a collection of images if I’m not going to get to see us together often in person.
How do you describe your relationship with your family? What is the dynamic like between everyone in your family?
Overwhelmingly caring. There’s an obvious benefit to that kind of limitless love, but it also can be short-sighted. Something that has always been an issue for all of us is a gut reaction readiness to drop everything to help one another, when really the best thing in a lot of situations is to make sure you’re personally stable financially and emotionally to act as a point of support, instead of a martyr for the family. Everything and anything I do is to make sure my family will be taken care of, and it dominates most of the phone conversations my brother and I have, for example. After a while though, I always start to wish we would just ask each other how we are feeling that day.
Very early on in my life, how we dealt with love was a point of conflict for my family and me, the dynamic between all of us was constantly about what’s best for the family, but not very often about happiness. The age-old immigrant story I suppose — who cares about being happy as long as everyone is doing right by the clan — but I always made a point to say that self-care was also beneficial to our dynamic. This was often made clear to me that it was easy to say that when you’re the youngest and most pampered!
We owe our parents everything, like so many first-generation Americans probably feel, but it does cause you to think self-sacrifice is the only way to show how much you love someone, which in turn has caused countless arguments and disagreements. It’s funny how ironic it all can be, to love your family so much you’ll do things without them knowing because you don’t want to upset them, which in turn causes a rift. These points of conflict make us the family we are just as much as the deep compassion we share, and trying to translate that to the work in this project was important to me.
Why did you feel that it is important for you as a photographer to make work about your family?
Trying to make photos that would look nice in a magazine or on a gallery wall is cute, but what I care about most is making photos that will mean the world to the people I love, for as long as we are here. I want to make the photo that encapsulates my parents complicated but beautiful bond so I can look back at it in my old age, or a photographic reminder of the pure genius that is my brother, when realizing we haven’t seen each other for months. As photographers, we’ve spent the time to get decent enough at a craft that can have so much emotional weight, but we often get so entangled with the career aspect of making images for a living that we forget how powerful it is at it’s most basic use. Documenting your family and friends is why we are here! I want to make photos of my family that move me when I see them because they make me feel like I’m in the company of my brother, my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, my African cousins that ain’t really related to me but they my cousins anyways. I also always try to make a point to photograph close friends (family!) often, especially when they’re going through major transitions. I just kind of look at it as my duty to the people I love, I suppose.
I realized how important this role of mine is while photographing my brother and my parents over the years, which has sent me down the path of contacting family members all over the world, some that I’ve never met. Hopefully I’ll be spending the coming years making photos of as many family members as I can. A catalogue to share with our community, that can give them access to the people they love whenever they want. So far I’ve traveled to a couple places, but there’s so much more to be done.
How long have you photographed your family for?
Since I figured out how to use a dark room, but if you asked me where I put those negatives, I would tell you don’t ask a 12 year old to create an archive system.
What is the hardest photograph that you had to make so far? Why?
Basically anytime I photograph my brother. He’s such a complex person, which is just me saying we’ve had a very complicated relationship growing up, and trying to reflect that in images of him can be hard for me. He’s really aware of how he thinks I present him sometimes, and it leaves me with a sense of frustration over his lack of trust with me, but also it’s such a fair critique of his. He’s taught me a lot about understanding that as photographers, we owe our subjects so much fucking respect for letting us share a part of them with the (art) world. We might have the ten thousand hours of creating, photo book conversations with our peers, and gallery openings, but what does any of that mean if you’ve created a portrait of someone that you think has this beautiful melancholy tone to it that contextually represents the moment it was taken, but when they see that image of themselves for a mere three to five seconds, they quickly tell you they just look bored and it’s a bad photo. Does your photo degree now trump their opinion of themselves? The correct answer is Fuuucccckk no. He demands me to be authentic with whomever I’m photographing and with myself. Honestly, he’s the best photo teacher I’ve ever had.
When was the last time that you and your family traveled together? Where did you go? Is there anywhere in particular that your family wants to go to?
We haven’t all been in the same room for practically a decade, let alone travel together. That said, I did recently go to Vancouver with my parents to visit my uncle who immigrated to Canada last year with his family, which was amazing! It’s a dream of mine for all of us to drop our shit and go to Eritrea, although I’m not sure my brother particularly cares for that idea. My parents have run off to enjoy a month or two in Eritrea over the years, so I know they’re always up for it. There’s something really poetic about going home with them as an adult that I really want to experience.
How did you get into photography? How has your upbringing and your background affected how you approach photography?
When I was about 11 I saw the music video for Drop by The Pharcyde, and it just wrecked me. They were moving in reverse but their mouths looked to be moving correctly, and they also were just some weird as shit black dudes that I thought looked so cool. It set off some part of my brain, I remember it happening and thinking, “Whatever this feeling is I want to keep feeling like this” and that kind of was that. It then became an accessibility thing; photography was just easy to do on my time with nobody else. I didn’t need a crew or talent to spend hours in the dark room, skipping science class to make prints.
There’s so much to unpack when discussing how my upbringing affects my approach to photography, so I’ll try to simplify it to this: Growing up seeing that the power dynamics of this country are not meant to shine the brightest light on me or people like me, you become very aware of what the concept of representation is and your responsibility to it as a photographic artist. That’s a human on the other side of the lens; a lot of photographers forget that.
What are your some of your favorite songs to listen to while working?
I need that feel good when I’m editing! Some go to songs have been Cruisin’ by D’angelo, Celebrate by Anderson .Paak, and We gonna make it by Jadakiss and Styles P. Also, anything Outkast, at all times.
Do you have any advice for anyone who is getting into photography as a career right now?
I’d like to point this question at young black photographers. Be loud when you want to, and quiet when you feel like it. You don’t owe anyone anything with your work but the people who trust you.