These salt and pepper shakers come from a larger collection of more than fifty sets, representing dozens of ethnic and racial groups that were Dr. Brian Mullen’s. Ultimately the theme of this series is how these little characters interacted with the photographer and the space ...
It’s one thing to show these images to friends; it’s another thing to have them published. These salt and pepper shakers lived with me for two months, and I took these pictures in one day. To photograph them, I had to let my guard down. I wanted to be respectful and not create a new history, knowing their history, knowing the pain they carry. I didn’t want to either guide the viewer in or out of offense or try to charm the viewer. The result is a series of images that are a part of history, and a history with which our parts are fraught.
Ultimately the theme of this series is how these little characters interacted with me and the space in my home. When I brought them home, I unpacked the objects and put them on my dining room bookcase. At first, I was deeply uncomfortable with them. Every day I walked past them, ate breakfast in front of them, and then came home to them. I don’t know what was different about the day that I took these pictures, but the objects changed. They transitioned to a different kind of noun. Looking back on the pictures and talking about them now, they need pronouns, like “she” and “he.”
More importantly, as I find myself speaking about them as “these guys,” a group of friends, or even a romantic couple, I have to acknowledge the analogies I can hear being constructed. If I follow through the analogy of racialized figures that I first could only see as objects that then became real people to me, I sound like someone who clearly fell through the cracks of diversity training. This is not that simile. These objects, these guys, are not placeholders for people, just as people are not placeholders for objects.
These salt and pepper shakers come from a larger collection of more than fifty sets, representing dozens of ethnic and racial groups that were Dr. Brian Mullen’s. My Dad’s. He had big plans for a large-scale project for which he was collecting an archive. The project-map won’t ever be known—he died a decade ago. This is one of the many unfinished projects my dad left behind. I am in the process of following in the footsteps that I can find, like in one of his later articles, “Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones, But Ethnophaulisms Can Alter the Portrayal of Immigrants to Children,” published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in February 2004.
I asked Leah to take some standard documentation-type photographs for my continuation of his work, yet she went beyond documentation-style pictures in her “Objects in Residence.” She went somewhere better. These objects have lived with me for the past ten years (mostly) packed in a legal filing box. Opening it feels like breaking open a grave filled with unsettled history. It is a box where I encounter my personal grief regarding my dad’s death and the terrifying metonymic embodiments of so many other histories of grief. Leah took most of the sets of black ethnophaulic objects home with her, and now look at them. Look at them.
In the first image, in the still life in the bowl, I see something vital. We are forced to ask how we still see, and cannot see, life. In this still life we can read the specific historical American problems with defining racialized life (one drop rules, and so on). We see the discourse of #BLM, Black Lives Matter. But the second to last image is the one that shatters me. I know she’s there next to a garlic press, I know that. But I cannot unsee a speculum, surgical instruments, histories of forced sterilization, and the specific American history of race and reproductive trauma. We hip-check our junk drawers shut, closing them as unceremoniously as refrigerated morgue drawers. She’s a traumatized body in the kitchen, in a drawer, closed.
If you had known my dad, you would know that he was a big crier—crying at the news, at soup commercials, at all things great and small. These photographs would bring him to the knees of his tears. With a tight throat, he would thank Leah for taking these fraught objects into her home, living with them, and breaking our hearts. Most of all he would thank her for looking, relooking, and refusing to look away.
Leah LaFera has a BFA from SUNY New Paltz and a MA in information science from SUNY Albany. LaFera currently works in New York’s Capital District at the Schenectady County Public Library, specializing in arts related adult programming. She is also the owner/operator of Ulster Soaps, an artisan soap making company. Additionally, LaFera is a photographer, knitter, spinner, and teacher of Etsy entrepreneurship classes.
Darcy Mullen is a PhD student at the University at Albany, focusing on rhetoric and social movement studies (specifically the rhetoric of local food systems). Her recent publications include an essay on the politics of place and tourism, “Tales From Nowhere: Burma and The Lonely Planet Phenomena” in Antae, and a chapter on pedagogy and disability studies in the edited collection Lessons in Disability: Essays on Teaching with Young Adult Literature.