Holding the Unknown with Care: Interview with Sara J. Winston
“After my diagnosis I began to think of my mother’s favorite idiom in a new light. When managing a chronic autoimmune condition, one cannot afford to address the body carelessly; the daily business of existing demands extra care and attention. I also began to see my parents differently; not as immortals, but as frail bodies struggling with their own chronic conditions, each of us trying to do better than a lick and a promise.”
– Sara J. Winston, except from ‘A Lick and a Promise’
Our daily surroundings and routines provide a sense of comfort, and at times even indifference. We innocently ignore the particularity of the objects in our homes in exchange for an elusive, enveloping feeling of safety. We enter our domestic spaces carrying the slight burdens of our everyday in hopes of momentarily releasing stress, and then starting anew the following day. It’s almost automatic and seemingly simple, to reset day after next.
For artist Sara J. Winston, self-care isn’t effortless, but rather a commitment and responsibility that not only impacts the way she lives her life but also informs her experience and view of the world. Winston, based in New York, is a photographer and writer that documents and examines illness, wellness and states of debility caused by chronic disease. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a chronic disease of the central nervous system, over 3 years ago following a car accident. The disease, considered an “invisible illness,” is a disruptive condition that impairs daily activity without visible, external signs of sickness.
The artist’s newest book ‘A Lick and a Promise’, published in September by Candor Arts, features a range of photographs and writings of her day-to-day life with her parents and partner, all of whom manage chronic physical conditions. Through her lens, Winston suspends moments of struggle, survival, and existence with the same sense of safety we find in our homes. She offers subtle and nuanced interpretations of illness and wellness through portraits of her family as well as images of domestic objects and spaces that are full of quiet effort. Her ability to find and capture light along with her delicate yet, determined colour palette is the strength of Winston’s photographs. Each cues one to slow down, read its narrative, and stitch together their collective story, inviting one to contemplate the impermanence of our bodies, our spaces and time itself.
Coming from the lineage of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, Winston’s pristine and crisp photographs move beyond simply documenting the everyday. Instead, she reflects inwardly and uses the concept of the everyday to present an intimate and personal experience of invisible illness. Her book’s title refers to a popular idiom that means to perform a hasty task, particularly when cleaning something, or as Winston’s mother tells her, which she writes in the book, “It means to do a lousy job with intention or promise to perform better later.” Chronic diseases themselves become routine. A constant yet an unknown. The title is a point of departure, reminding us of the effort and care it takes to merely exist and Winston’s work inspires the question: How does one hold the unknown with care?
I met Winston in Hawaii at Summer Forum for Inquiry and Exchange, an itinerant, discussion-based week-long residency program. I caught up with her recently and we spoke about her work, particularly around how she navigates her condition through her art practice.
Lynnette Miranda: First, I would love for you to tell me a little about your background as an artist since we didn’t get to talk about this much at Summer Forum. I’d love to know how you got to where you are at now. How did you start taking photos and making art in general?
Sara J. Winston: I started making photographs in high school. I was a swimmer, and spent on average, maybe 25 to 30 hours per week at the school pool. If I wasn’t in the water, I was photographing the [swim] meets. And I just fell for what seemed like the magic of the medium of photography. I set out to be a photojournalist but I learned quickly that wasn’t really for me.
LM: I think there’s something really amazing about giving a teenager a camera. The lens is fascinating. I feel the sense of intimacy you have with your camera, and photography in general, from the photographs you produce. How do you approach the camera and the lens? And, how would you characterise your relationship to photography?
SJW: It felt safe to photograph swimmers because they are so absorbed in the act of swimming, and competing against themselves, that they aren’t paying attention. I didn’t start making portraits until I was 25, 26 or so. The way I think about the camera is that it’s my tool, and as I evolve and change, my relationship with it and to it also changes, like, when my health began to deviate from what I thought I understood about my body.
I had double vision for about two to three months in my mid-twenties, and I started thinking about my camera so differently during that period. I had always thought of the camera to some degree as an interpreter, but then, when I couldn’t see well, or at all, the tool felt like a literal extension of my body. It was doing something my physical self couldn’t accomplish mechanically on its own anymore.
LM: Your photographs and books aren’t exclusively about you or your illness. What is your approach when you photograph people, especially members of your family?
SJW: When it comes to photographing people, I almost exclusively photograph my family. My dad hates it, my mom laughs and turns crimson, my partner is usually patient and the exchange is usually very loving and patient. I was living with my parents when I was making the photographs of ‘A Lick and a Promise’ so they were accustomed to seeing me with my camera often. If something was happening that I was interested in capturing candidly, I would just begin [to shoot].
My family thinks I’m ridiculous with the camera. I really pissed them off a few weeks ago when I was trying to photograph them at my wedding ceremony. It’s odd, I think my relationship to photography is pretty obsessive. Once I begin photographing I feel like I can’t stop. But if I don’t begin, I could go days without it. Does that make sense? I’m trying to think of the difference between obsession and commitment.
LM: It makes sense when I connect it to your books and the experience of a book itself. You have to go through the whole thing to real get a sense of the ideas, questions, and narrative embedded within the work. It’s meditative. I think that is where the idea of obsession comes in as well. It’s not a commitment in the sense of responsibility, but rather a compulsion or a satisfaction, but with no real gratification, so to speak. Your photographs expand on the ideas of the everyday, of illness, of the struggle of being but in such an abstract, quiet, and contemplative manner. That has a lot to do with the process within the images, which is strange because you can’t “see” that, but you get a sense of it when you look at a collection of photographs.
SJW: Speaking only for myself and my work, I’m not sure that I could work with a single photograph. I really rely on a sequential structuring, and the space between images as you move through a book, for example, to help move through an idea visually.
LM: The process that I’m sensing in your photographs, and from this conversation, is about care, which I know you think about a lot. Can you expand on your relationship with the idea of care, and then, the actuality of care?
SJW: Before I answer the question about care, I want to emphasise the importance of the Lucia Perillo quote in the book, and then hopefully make a connection between them: “We assume the common things will always be here / so we tell ourselves we’ll deal with them another day.” This phrase is a reminder to slow down and be present.
I always took for granted that I had a healthy body that never spoke to me. It was just normal to have strength and sight. I took that for granted because one day I woke up and had to confront something different, and it was shocking. It was shocking more so because the conversations about chronic illness are not normalised, and the language commonly used when we talk about illness is so black and white, sickness or wellness. There isn’t really a clear language for chronic illness.
LM: What I think is fascinating is that you aren’t making invisible illness literally visible but rather making the struggle of daily life visible and for you and members of your family that routine includes chronic illness. That is also the essence of living with an invisible illness, I infer since I wouldn’t know from experience.
SJW: No, you get it! And that is refreshing. My story is what motivates me to make the work but really I hope that it can function as a gateway to conversations about daily struggle. The idea of care is that it is easy, fast, and can be easily packaged and molded to fit into a capitalist lifestyle. And that if you don’t see results based on a fast and easy model then you aren’t trying hard enough.
In my experience of the actuality of care is multifaceted and individual. There are drugs that help, drugs which are made from mouse DNA that force my body’s immune system to chill out. There are the common things like my bed, my plants, my door, which keep me grounded and are constants among the unknown – the unknown ranging from the next disease flare to the possibility of the cost of the drugs that I use increasing beyond my means; modifying diet; making photographs. But the truth is that care is slow and imperfect, and something that takes discipline. I’m still working on the discipline.
[In a recent] review of my previous book ‘Homesick’, one guy wrote [many things that] filled me with angst but specifically this line set me off: “She admitted to coming from a family with health issues, and how she hoped to escape the curse.” I never said that! Do you think that’s a commonly held belief?
LM: I think that sometimes that language [about illness] gets thrown around carelessly.
SJW: I agree. I just wonder about the black and white nature of that, because of the fragile nature of all bodies.
LM: Well obviously, that language is extremely problematic because we are all made of material. That material wears and tears and eventually we all deteriorate. I don’t think it is [a curse]. It goes back to this illusion of wellness, which is related to all the discussions we had at Summer Forum, and its relationship to capitalism.
SW: Right now, I’m working on a pitch about how limited the language we use about sickness and wellness is, and that when we try to talk about symptoms we are sort of forced to used poetic terms, like speaking in analogy, metaphor, or simile. So it becomes a kind of grotesque poetry. Is disease a curse? I was just so bothered by that [reviewer’s] own agenda. I don’t think it’s a curse, I think the medical industrial complex makes illness into a burden.