TIME Out There

Photos of the Real World: Amy Powell’s Family Album

Photographer and schoolteacher Amy Powell's moving pictures provide an exceptional look at everyday American life.

When Amy Powell’s open, heartfelt email below landed in my inbox, as an introduction to her pictures, it brought home to me — in an unexpectedly powerful way — how indispensable a medium like photography can be: intrinsic to one’s being, a bond between loved ones, and a way of representing the complexities of life that, as Amy puts it, are “hard as hell for some people.” It was through a camera, she notes, that her mom “showed me affection as a child. When she took pictures of me I felt loved and special, like something to treasure.”

The story behind Amy’s exceptional pictures—the relationship with her family and the collaboration with her sister, Erica—reveals that photography has always been central to Amy’s identity. “Growing up shy and not having anyone to talk to, the camera was the perfect thing to have in my hands,” she writes. “It has helped me deal with feelings of stress; show and contain my worry; connect and have intimacy with family. . . . As a teenager, I photographed my parents discussing their divorce, the dirty kitchen, and my mom waving away the car as it was being taken by the repo man. That’s what my real life was. I long to see things . . . that are unabashed. Beautifully unabashed.”

Her own pictures, it turns out, manage to be exactly that: beautifully unabashed.

— Phil Bicker

My name is Amy. I’m from Ohio. I’m the oldest of four kids, different dads, and my mom is pretty poor. I do not speak to my father. None of us do. As the oldest sibling, I feel a sense of responsibility and pressure to care for all of them, but also feel very limited in what I’m able to do. I had to work very hard to be independent and care for myself, let alone worry about the rest of my family. I’m sure you know a few things about social mobility and how difficult it is. I really saw college as my only way out of it. Low-income kids can be pretty bitter in college when they see the privileged ones have their rents paid and drive nice cars. I know I was always worried about correcting my grammar to not sound poor and uneducated, too. When I was 19, my loans didn’t cover my expenses for art school so I asked my dad for $200 and he told me to ask my boyfriend. Problem is, I also saw my mom depend on men over the years and saw how far it got her, which was nowhere. So being pretty stubborn and unwilling to let men take care of me, for fear of ending up like my mom, I became a teacher. I needed something stable in my life.

Honestly, I’m just typing and not even editing myself at this point! I’m pretty grown up now at 34, but for some reason, transitioning from child to the adult I’ve become is a big part of my story because it took a pretty serious effort. And a lot of times I still have to remind myself that I can relax. I’m no longer 8 years old. I’ve made it.

Life is beautiful, amazing, and awesome, but it’s also hard as hell for some people . . . a lot of people, actually. Part of dealing with my really chaotic family, growing up shy and not having anyone to talk to, the camera was the perfect thing to have in my hands. It has helped me to deal with the feelings of stress; show and contain my worry; connect and have intimacy with family — but also gives me a certain amount of distance. Experiencing life through a lens somewhat makes it feel like it’s not my own. The camera was also a big way my mom showed me affection as a child. When she took pictures of me I felt loved and special, like something to treasure. I often photograph my sister in the same spirit, to show her my affection and that I love her, too, but my pictures are also packed with my own feelings. For instance, when my mom called me in a panic about receiving a home foreclosure notice, I rushed over immediately, but feeling powerless in the situation, I took a picture of her. My family always leans on me for help and to come to the rescue, but there’s not much I can do except offer my support . . . and photograph.

I’m not ashamed of my family, and I’m actually very proud of all of them all for different reasons. My mom busts her ass working the 3rd shift at a restaurant. She makes about $240 a week to support her family and does not qualify for food stamps. She works really hard, but it’s a difficult life. They’re currently living in the foreclosed home they were previously forced to move out of. The city hasn’t been able to sell it, and since it was vacant and she couldn’t afford an $800 a month apartment, they moved right back in. And I just assume the city would rather it not sit empty. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. One of my siblings is currently living with me because I’m trying to help him beat the odds. Another grown brother who has been off and on homeless due to mental illness is living in an apartment that has had a broken furnace for weeks.

I guess I should talk about my pictures. My pictures are really personal. I don’t know how to put it any other way. I’ve been taking pictures of my family since I got my first cheap camera, and my pictures have remained much the same since. As a teenager, I photographed my parents discussing their divorce, the dirty kitchen, and my mom waving away the car as it was being taken by the repo man. To me, that’s what my real life was. I long to see things, taken by insiders, that are unabashed. Beautifully unabashed. For some reason, even when I was younger, I just wanted to be honest and open, whatever that means. My pictures may not be perfectly honest all the time, I am aware of that, but they are honest in that they are my feelings. And sometimes I have feelings that are uncomfortable. They are honest in that my family looks like that. They are honest in that my family shares intimacy through pictures. They are honest in that we are okay with not being perfect and glossy. My family loves the pictures. If it weren’t for their openness, I couldn’t make them.

Taking pictures is easy. We all enjoy it in my family. It’s not like I’ll ever stop. (I have to say though, I struggle putting my real self in my Instagram pictures — they don’t get any likes! haha.)

For a couple years my boyfriend has said to me that he doesn’t know why he loves me, that I’m a pain in the ass. It’s kind of true. But last night, he figured something out. He said, “I think I love you because you’re a ‘real’ person.” I mean, I think we’re all real people. He elaborated and said that it’s never a mystery what I’m thinking or feeling, and that I’m honest. I’ll take that.

Although the project working with Erica and my family has been ongoing, it started taking a toll on me emotionally and I made the choice to stop working on it for a little while. I went through a period where I couldn’t talk about the pictures without crying — looking at them was too much. It was odd because taking pictures usually makes me feel great, but trying to edit them and talk about them was making me feel awful. So I just left it and put it in my basement, and wasn’t able to resurrect the work until this past summer, where I was finally able to have some fun editing it. (I edited the work and put it online in June.) Truthfully, it took a couple years of life happening to get some distance from the immediacy of it all.

I think about how much I spent to make the pictures from 2007 through 2010, and I could have paid the back taxes on the foreclosed house or a chunk of my student loans. Ultimately, I thought that somehow with my pictures I would find a way to help my family. It’s the most irrational thought I’ve ever had!

I really appreciate you reading this. Thank you for taking an interest.

Amy Powell is a photographer and teacher in Columbus, Ohio.

Photographer Tierney Gearon introduced LightBox to Powell’s work.

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