Written by Darcie Imbert
8 page publication of my series Between Us in the the HOME issue #60
By Darcie Imbert
Sarah Mei Herman's images traverse the precious vulnerability of adolescence, using imagery to explore questions associated with the tender period that spans from youth to adulthood.
‘Between Us’ is an ongoing series of photographs by Sarah Mei Herman from different projects sewn together with the same red thread, each image confronting the transitionary space of youth and illuminating the role of familial relationships in the construction of one’s own identity.
Growing up as an only child, Herman developed a curiosity for sibling-hood and her photography led her in pursuit of a greater understanding of what sibling intimacy meant, she comments, “by photographing them throughout their youth, it seemed I could be a part of it.” The sibling relationships she documents symbolise the multi-faceted meaning of “home” as a concept that extends beyond the four walls that frame your existence.
The use of everyday objects that provide the backdrop for her powerful portraits represent the mudaneness of inanimate items when separated from the individuals that breathe life into them. The intangible entity that transforms a house into a home is demystified by the symbiosis between the subject and their surroundings in Herman’s work. She notes the stains on the carpet that were made by the two brothers photographed in the series, serving as a reminder of their childhood. The surroundings of your upbringing play an important role in the consolidation of personal identity; memories are cued by the physical environment. “For my long-term projects, I choose to photograph inside their houses, because that’s where they share the intimate space of their home,” she remarks. This series unintentionally challenges the boundaries between who we are and where we are. Home is a human construct that refers to the sights, smells and sounds that cultivate emotional connection.
Not only is Herman intrigued by the intimacy among her subjects, she also explores her own emotional connection to them as the image maker. She describes the meditative process of creating photographs and the symbiotic relationship between them: “I work with analogue film and a medium format camera, therefore the process is quite slow.” This approach allows space for contemplation: “a quietness, a stillness, like the sound has disappeared for a moment and that’s why it’s the moment between us. It’s a moment in which someone turns their gaze inside.”
Herman’s photography could be described as documentary, a visual representation of the evolution of self. The formation of identity is intrinsically linked to the “other”; the identical twin sisters act as an interesting example of this in Herman’s work, addressing the taboo of familial intimacy. “They were almost one body, they kissed and hugged each other in a really beautiful way,” she says. Her work boldly traverses the grey area of kinship in adolescence, surveying the boundaries between passionate love eros and brotherly love philia. Adolescence provides a terrain ripe for experiment, granting the experiences that help to construct your relation to “the other” later in life. She comments on this phenomenon as a natural exploration: “I photographed two teenage girls in Ireland that I saw walking hand in hand in the street. They could have been lovers or best friends, yet for me personally, that does not matter. In my practise I do not seek answers, I merely try to capture the moment.”
Adolescence is marked by a constant state of becoming and Sarah Mei Herman captures the fleeting beauty that is amalgamated by the perpetual changes endured in youth. Her images show both resilience and loneliness, comfort and uncertainty. A period of uncontrollable ephemerality, grounded by the relationships and ordinary objects that quilt together a patchwork of self.
Meditations on portrait
By Tatiana Rosenstein
When I first saw the work of the 33-year-old photographer Sarah Mei Herman I was impressed by her skills as a narrator, the quietness of her protagonists – a father and a son, a boy and a girl in love, siblings, teenagers and kids – and they seemed to talk to each other and to me in a silent language. Surely in front of the camera people show different degrees of vulnerability and the photographers decide to reveal the special moment with an appropriate visual response. Herman’s narration unfolds after a series of portraits, photographs of people she watched for years, and sometimes she tells a story in a single image. Sarah Mei is fascinated by a period of the human being's life, which one can define as “transition”. Her protagonists are children, teenagers, young adults who seem to be caught on thresholds: a child to become a teenager, a teenager on the threshold of the adult world.
Some of her photographs remind us of the French artist Edouard Manet, who lived in Paris in the 19th century, when the French capital was considered to be a center of world art. Manet knew how to capture his subjects’ faces and expressions in just a few details, with a few brushstrokes. He was also one of the first artists who noticed alienation of people from each other. In his famous work “Breakfast in the Studio” the characters are at the same space but hardly pay attention to the surroundings and to each other. In the same way the protagonists of Sarah Mei, seem to be together, sometimes very close, building a noticeable bond between each other, but they still live in their own world. Following the philosophy “less is more”, she shows the portraits of people in a very ‘un-staged way’: they are natural without any sense for self-presentation, dressed ordinarily, matching the bare settings. The background is neutral and nothing distracts from the portrayed.
Sarah Mei Herman belongs to the generation of the most promising young portrait photographers in Europe. A graduate of the prominent Royal College of Art in London, she had – shorty after receiving a Master's Degree – her first solo exhibition in the Soledad Senlle Gallery in Amsterdam, the city where she was born and where she is based now. In the same year one of her portraits was displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Herman was honorably mentioned at the Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward award and was selected to publish her portfolio in Foam Magazine Talent 2010 edition. Most recently she had a solo exhibition at the prestigious Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse and at Kahmann Gallery, which shows her works.
Artist to watch
By Jill Miller
A photographer and video artist, Herman portrays the unspoken but highly noticeable bond between family members, especially siblings and twins. As she states, "The most fragile and elusive things between people often seem to exist beyond the reach of language. I am fascinated by relationships between people, the physical closeness between them or what sets them apart and the necessity of this physical proximity to others. Following a less is more philosophy, her photographs and videos are quiet and subtle. Her subjects are at ease and dressed ordinarily without primping, matching the bare settings that are obviously comfortable or familiar to the participants. the scenes are common and un-staged, adding to the overal natural tone the scene. This tranquility is by no means dull or pedestrian. The images grab your attention and emit an intense psychological sensation. Upon first seeing her photograph of Jana and Feby in the press release on artily.org, I was immediately drawn to the serene, powerful look in Feby's eyes. My mind immediately leapt to the awesome expression in Dürer's Northern Renaissance masterpiece, Self-Portrait at 28. He portrays himself Christ-like and wearing a fur-trimmed coat with a riveting gaze that makes you unable to look away, as if you are being drawn into a staring contest with him. Herman in remarkably proficient in capturing this type of psychological connection in nearly all of her portraits. Also, the photographs do not cross over into saccharine sentimentality, a difficult task to accomplish when your entire oeuvre is centered on children and adolescents.
Herman was born in Amsterdam, studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in The Hague and then earned an MA in Fine Art Photography from London's Royal College of Art.
She is represented by Soledad Senlle Art Foundation, which exhibited her premiere solo show in November 2010, the same year her work was selected and displayed at the National portrait Gallery, london, for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. Her Photographs were also exhibited in Singapore International Photography festival. - MJP
Interview by Marc Feustel
Your work focus mainly on stages of childhood and adolescence. What is it that draws you to these phases in particular?
I’m drawn to the fleetingness and vulnerability of these stages. The constant changes that occur during them. In these stages our relationship to others is constantly evolving.
A child has the ability to escape from the everyday into an endless world of imagination. I think this is one of the most enviable aspects of childhood. They can experience an endless wonderment about things. Children just are. Pure and real. I love their directness. In their being they can seem totally separate from the adult world.
The transitions from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood can be a time of extreme loneliness. These transitions can make closeness impossible during certain stages of life; like a young girl suddenly losing closeness and intimacy with her father because she is not a child anymore, or a boy feeling miles apart from his older brother. On the other hand incredibly close friendships can exist at a certain stage in life, before relationships are formed with partners from outside… like the twins Jana and Feby who I have been photographing for the last 5 years. I’m also very interested in the ambiguity that often exists between femininity and masculinity. Up to a certain age, these boundaries have not yet fully set and can sometimes still be blurred.
You grew up as an only child. When you gained your half brother Jonathan, when did you first decide to start photographing him and his relationship with your father?
I started photographing Jonathan when he was about four years old. The first series I did of my father and half-brother (and grandmother) was during a trip to South Africa. I started photographing them in a very intuitive way, without really asking myself why. In the past two years I have become more focussed on the triangular relationship between the three of us. The series is as much about the relationship between a relatively older father and his younger son, as it is about my relationship to them and my memories of being a young child which are now in a way mirrored in my half-brother Jonathan. Not being my father’s only child anymore, taking these photographs was also my way to relate to my half-brother, who is 20 years younger than me. A way to get closer to him.
You have done several series involving your family members. Do you always work with family or friends, for example in the case of the Siblings series? How different is it for you to work within the intimacy of your family versus working with strangers?
I don’t always work with my own family: my father and half-brother are a very important subject in my work which I will pursue, but apart from that I work with people outside of my family who I have slowly got to know by photographing them. The projects on people outside my family started from the point where we were total strangers. Trust builds up slowly over time with these projects and visiting the same people again and again becomes almost like a ritual. Of course there’s a difference between photographing my own family and people from outside my family. But in both situations moments of intimacy are created between us. This all depends on how close they allow me and my camera to get.
In the series Jonathan, and indeed in all of your series, there are virtually no images that portray joy or laughter. This strikes me as slightly unusual for images of children. Is this a conscious decision on your part and if so why do you avoid this kind of image?
It’s not so much a conscious decision, but I search for a certain stillness and withdrawnness which one can’t get to when capturing laughter. The people I photograph are physically present, but often mentally absent or in another space. For me, by capturing these moments of stillness, the delicate and tender things between people can be revealed.
For my brother his seriousness and stillness is very much how he is. I try to get a bit closer to his inner world... children can be extremely serious, and these are the ones that I’m drawn to most. When I photograph I’m concentrated and close to my subjects, and so are the people I portray. I never tell them not to laugh.
Your photographs often seem to focus on moments of physical or emotional tension between people. What attracts you to these moments? Do you intervene when you are shooting to stimulate tension or do you take more of a 'fly on the wall' approach?
I’m drawn to the things between people that are hard to put into words. Sometimes gestures and body language can reveal so much, and make things very palpable. I’m interested in the boundaries of the body, the closeness and distance between individuals, how people relate to each other, how they respond to the other’s presence, the importance of our physical proximity to others. By isolating my subjects from the rest of the world for one moment, I explore the thresholds between them, both physically and emotionally.
I try to find the delicate balance between staged photograph and snapshot. There is no single way in which I always work. Sometimes I have a certain image in my head, but most of the time it’s an interaction between the subject and I. Sometimes I see something happening which I then ask them to act out or perform again.
Photographing children has always been a controversial issue, as can be seen in the lengthy discussions that surround the work of Sally Mann or Elinor Carucci. What is your reaction towards those that see photographing children as exploitative?
I think Sally Mann and Carucci are able to make these photographs because they are the mothers of these children. In my opinion Sally Mann has photographed the sensual beauty of fleeting childhood, in a very direct and honest way, without trying to make it look any more or less beautiful then it just is.
I don’t think photographing children is exploitative as long as your intentions are honest, genuine and loving. I never feel that I’m exploiting children or young adolescents. I am very careful and never put any pressure on them. It is a collaboration between them and me, and I take them very seriously.
Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you?
I draw inspiration from many different fields: cinema, photography, painting, literature. Cinema is an important source of inspiration for me and I’m particularly drawn to the subtle magic-realism in certain Spanish and South-American films. In terms of photographic inspiration I’ve already mentioned Sally Mann, but, although his work is very different to mine, I’m also very intrigued by the way that Philip-Lorca diCorcia is able to get close to people. I also discovered the Victorian photographer Lady Clementina Hawarden’s portraits of her two adolescent daughters. These images, mostly of the girls posing together, are very intimate and seem to speak of adolescence, eroticism, sibling- and mother-daughter relationships.
short bio & artist statement
Sarah Mei Herman studied photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Art in The Hague, from which she received her BA in 2005. In 2010 she completed her MA in Photography at The Royal College of Art in London. Herman has received several grants from Mondriaan Fund and Prins Bernard Cultuur Fund. In 2010 her ongoing series Julian and Jonathan was selected for the Talent issue of Foam Magazine. Her work has been shown internationally, among others at The National Portrait Gallery in London, at Le Chateau d’Eau in Toulouse, at JIMEI X ARLES International Photofestival 2016 and 2017, and at Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switserland, where her work Julian and Jonathan was screened during Nuit Des Images 2017. Her series Touch was selected for the Hyères Festival of Fashion and Photography 2018 where she received the American Vintage Photography Prize 2018. That same year Herman also won the Rabobank Dutch Photographic Portrait Prize. In September 2019 she started working on a commissioned book about the LGBTQ community in China for Diverse Humanity, and currently her project Germano, about her Jewish family history, is exhibited at the Jewish History Museum in Amsterdam.
Herman explores relationships and intimacy between people. The closeness between them or what sets them apart, and the necessity of physical proximity to others. She often focusses on the intimacy within the family, with a special interest in sibling relationships, which partly comes from the fact that she grew up without and as a child I always wondered what it would be like to have a brother or sister. Now as an adult, she finds myself observing siblings, repeatedly photographing them; trying to get a closer understanding of what this familial intimacy means.
Growing up is an important theme in her work, mainly focusing on adolescents and young adults; on their constant state of becoming; trying to capture the fleeting beauty of the continual changes and transitions they go through on their way to adulthood. Recurring themes in her work are the transitions and continual changes young people go through on their way to adulthood; drawn to the intensity, vulnerability and sometimes loneliness of these stages. An equally recurring theme is the grey area between friendship and love, and the ambiguity of relationships in certain stages of life. She primarily works on ongoing projects photographing the same subjects over many years.
Herman's work is generously supported by Mondriaan Fund
born 26th of April 1980lives and works in Amsterdam, NL
Gallery Caroline O’Breen
Sint Nicolaasstraat 50
1012 NK Amsterdam
+31 6 47 10 44 84