Melissa Springer

Important Things

What object holds the most meaning for your life? What represents everything you hold precious? What will you keep for as long as you live, carefully boxed and moved from place to place as situations change: a lock of hair from your long grown-up baby, a ring your mother once wore, a photograph? Perhaps it is something that doesn’t last: a fresh flower, a handful of water, or comforting chocolate. I asked a number of people to let me photograph them holding their most precious object.

Some came to my studio with things hidden in pockets, revealing them only under the dim modeling lights of the strobes. I set up black seamless paper. They sat on a stool behind it and extended a hand through a hole in the dark paper. I could not see their faces, and they could not see me. It was a private act of confession.

I also traveled and asked strangers what they would like to hold. In India I relearned the lesson that food is the first important thing – to wake up and go on takes nourishment.

Not far from where I live in Alabama, I met a woman whose father had been born a slave – to be free is important.

Some people chose things that held loss. The objects make a safe place to hold sorrow. They are brought out into the light only when one is strong enough to endure.

I gave no instructions to people. They could choose whatever they wanted. What would you hold? Remember, there are no rules.

( M.S., from Important Things, published by Crane Hill, Birmingham, Alabama, 1998.)

Melissa Springer was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and currently resides in Birmingham, Alabama. She studied at the University of South Alabama and with Sally Mann and George Tice in Maine. Springer has photographed women on death row at the Julia Tutwiller Prison for Women in Wetunpka, Alabama; faith healers, breast cancer survivors, religious rituals in Southern Appalachia which follow the biblical instructions to take up serpents (snake handlers); people living with HIV and AIDS, people coping with Alzheimer disease, New York City “five-star” S&M clubs, and families. Her work has been exhibited at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA; the National Women’s Hall of Fame, NY; Ricco/Maresca Gallery, NYC; and at the Hitachi Cultural Center, Japan. Her prints are in many private and public collections and published in The Village Voice, Harper’s Bazaar, Aperture, Ms, Elle, and Teaching Tolerance magazines.