Photography by Luke Smithers
I photographed my grandparents in their home in Fort Worth, Texas. This is the home that, each Christmas, imprisons my family. My grandfather was in a head-on collision that disfigured his face and, just a few weeks after that dreadful day two decades ago, my uncle drowned. That is when my grandparents decided: the world was better kept away, on the other side of the locked front door. But with my camera in hand, the space that once suffocated me expanded. I saw nooks I had never noticed, rooms that filled with spectacular morning light. It was when I saw my grandfather at breakfast through the viewfinder, his face forced into a furrow, staring into his empty cereal bowl, that I decided I must show people their neighbors’ lives.
It was this setting though—the home—that spawned the epiphany. No other setting yields a person’s vulnerability like the home. No other setting says: Yes, now you can enter. No other setting lays a human-being so bear before something as violating as a camera lens. In “When Only the Children Are Left” I navigated the home, that dangerous territory, with a weapon—a cocked camera—and received transparency in return.
The key, I realized, was my closeness to the project. I am, after all, an integral piece to the series’ mysteries, so emotionally and scientifically bound to the subjects. Each photo points to another time, another place. But my familiarity with their house, in which I’ve been confined during the holiday season for the past 19 years, comes across in the particularity of the captured moment.
The project’s other component—the dozens of slides I uncovered in a drawer of my deceased uncle’s old darkroom—merely compile that unknown past as best as a stuttering memory can. How strange it is to hold the slide to the light and face my mother’s eyes 50 years ago. How strange it is to see my grandparents before they withdrew from the world emerge in lamplight. A young, smiling family at the front door of a house still without a lawn.