Jessica Eve Rattner: Telling Stories with Photos

Rattner tells Lee's story in images. See the slide show below.

Documentary photography is Jessica Rattner’s passion. “You have to be a good storyteller,” says Rattner of her art.

Trained as a clinical social worker, Rattner has always been drawn to individuals invisible to most others. “They see me and I see them,” she says. “We’re all on a spectrum. We’re not all that different from one another. And that’s what fascinates me and has for a long time.”

For the last four years, Rattner has been photographing her neighbor Lee, a woman in her 70s who was basically living in squalor until family and friends intervened. See the slide show below.

What keeps you coming back to Lee?
I continue to be compelled by her and her story. I care about her. I worry about her. And what it means to take pictures of her. I’m part of her life. After taking pictures of her, I have to ask myself, ‘What’s my responsibility?’

What do you try to capture?
It’s easy to capture the filth and chaos. But I try to show the happiness and joy I see in her. And also her beauty. Lee’s is a story about self perception. How she sees herself is not how others see her. But that’s hard to capture.

How do you use your camera to tell a story?
I started taking pictures just a few years ago, and it wasn’t until very recently that I began to think beyond my pictures as a series of individual frames to seeing them as tools for telling a story. This step from concentrating on making good pictures to seeing them as something more has been a big and challenging leap. It is forcing me to change the way I shoot. I have always just photographed what interested me, what caught my eye. But now I find I need to slow down, to give some thought to why I am taking a particular picture, and how it fits in with those that come before and after it. And then I need to think: ‘What’s missing? What do I need to look for next?’

How do you choose your subjects?
Like so many photographers, I started with my family. While I continue to photograph them, my kids have grown somewhat intolerant of the click of the shutter. Which is sad for me.

Lee came to me, I guess. She was a neighbor who I saw nearly every day. From the beginning she has been very open to being photographed.

During a year spent in Guatemala, I became more deliberate about ‘choosing’ subjects. I worked with an NGO that introduced me to Olga and her family, and also helped me gain access to Talita Cumi, a drug and alcohol rehab center. As I progress as a photographer, and as I grow more interested in storytelling, I think I will need to look more actively for subjects.

Talk about your relationships with your subjects.
I get personally caught up in a story, for better or for worse! My training as a clinical social worker, and the inclinations that led me to that field, inform my photography. I care very much about the people I photograph, and while I have boundaries, I have struggled at times with how involved in my subjects’ lives I can be. As I continue to discover who I am as a photographer, I am finding that I am most interested in photographing people with whom I can have a pretty deep level of intimacy. When that is lacking, I find that my images suffer.

I guess I don’t think that it is possible to be an impartial observer. I think it’s impossible to make an image—or to write story—without including some of oneself in it. That said, I don’t think I have ever taken a picture with a specific message or perspective in mind. I very much like this quote by photographer Eve Arnold: If a photographer cares about the people before the lens and is compassionate, much is given. It is the photographer, not the camera, that is the instrument.

Watch the Slidesow

Lee K. – Images by jessica rattner

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