I began this series of photographs of my family when I was in my mid-twenties, around the same time I quit graduate school and began to spend a lot of time driving, sometimes hours, sometimes hundreds of miles. This was also very soon after my father, on a Sunday morning in March, died of a massive heart attack.
Like many Southerners, I was brought up with the belief that moving forward in life requires continually looking back. Back toward home – that laser point on the horizon by which one learns to clarify the angles and shapes of any new experience. We called it Proper Perspective. Then one day, a thousand miles from where I was, one tired heart stopped beating, and the lines of my identity seemed to break free from any order or structure. Without my father’s defining presence, I simply had to set out – quite literally – to find my place in the world.
I began where I started from, in the backyards and driveways of my childhood, picturing what I’ve known and watched since I can remember. My family, like the life and landscape of the contemporary south has its own peculiar sense of time and history – a puzzle of faith and fear, reverence and humor, tradition and isolation, banalities and profound beauty, and underlying personal strength. Always when I photograph, I am reminded that the bonds of family are profoundly complex, as tender as they are tenacious.
The artistic heroes that guided my upbringing were poets, whose slim volumes I carried with me into the woods, and novelists I read by flashlight under the sheets. From them I learned early on about the power of description: that the outside, looked at hard enough, becomes the inside. So I make pictures not only to record what I see, but also to probe what I can not see, the mysterious motions and emergings of inner life.
More often than not, making photographs brings me face-to-face with what I most want to ignore – ragged and tender human vulnerability. Perhaps this is why I began Stealing Home. In the freefall of grief, I had to face the truth that even the deepest emotional connections are fragile and not forever. We still live in a world that none of us can predict.
Margaret Sartor is a photographer and a research associate at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. She is the editor of the soon to be published What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney, (Lyndhurst and W.W. Norton, fall 1999), as well as Their Eyes Meeting the World: The Drawings and Paintings of Children by Robert Coles, and (with Alex Harris) Gertrude Blom: Bearing Witness. Her photographs have appeared in Aperture, DoubleTake, Esquire, Harpers, the Oxford American, and the Washington Post Sunday Magazine. Sartor‘s work has been exhibited widely and is held in private and public collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans; and the Birmingham Museum of Art. She was born and raised in Monroe, Louisiana and currently resides with her husband and two children in Durham, North Carolina.