Research Notes · 05/01/2020

Meadowlark

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Melanie Abrams writes about Meadowlark from Little A.

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I started incubating Meadowlark twenty years ago when I happened upon Sally Mann’s photography book, Immediate Family, a series of provocative photographs mostly of her children. The pictures are arresting, beautiful, and uncomfortable. Mann is arguably one of the most talented and influential photographers of our time, but, if I’m honest, the controversy that’s gone along with these pictures was part of what fascinated me. I’ve always been drawn to the provocative, particularly in my writing, and Mann’s pictures are both provocative and ordinary — her daughter’s eye swollen shut by a gnat bite, another daughter asleep on a mattress she’s accidentally peed on, her nude son immerging from a night swim. This confluence of provocative and ordinary captured forever in an instant, this was what I found mesmerizing, was what I had always tried to capture in my own writing.

Fast forward to five years ago when I was not only taking my own photography more seriously, but also conceiving of a new novel — one about a photographer. Could this photographer be interested in both the provocative and the ordinary? She could. Quickly, my character Simrin became the owner of Hole and Corner, a blog that “exposed and illuminated worlds people never got to peek at, secret societies that Hole and Corner un-secreted.”

But the novel was moving in another direction as well. I’ve also always been interested in cults, and so Simrin’s backstory quickly materialized: she and Arjun, a boy she grew up with, escape a strict spiritual compound. They go their own ways but reconnect in the present of the novel when Simrin learns Arjun has become the charismatic leader of his own commune, Meadowlark. Meadowlark allows children to discover their “gifts,” but it is also in the midst of a criminal investigation. At Arjun’s request, Simrin agrees to go to the compound to photograph the children of Meadowlark, represent their way of life as normal and help prove there is nothing criminal going on.

And this is when I began to think about the role of the photographer — does the photojournalist decide what the viewer will see or does the viewer see what is already there? Simrin wrestles with this. She “tells stories — directs viewers, pairs images. It is something that sometimes pricks at her conscience. Choose this image, but not this one. Crop this, but not this. Manipulate pictures to form a narrative.” But, I wondered, is this manipulation of imagery inherent only when the pictures are of adults? Are children laid bare just by being children, their truth impossible to manipulate, their ability for artifice undeveloped? This is what I was interested in finding out. So I started photographing children.

First I took pictures of my own children and then my friends’, letting the camera capture whoever they were, allowing them to tell their own story. And then I spent a month in India. The children there were exactly like my own, and yet I felt more distance from them. Sure there was the distance of the camera and the distance of anonymity, but more so, it was the distance of being an outsider that allowed me to look at them with fewer preconceptions. I shot quickly and indiscriminately, but always asked for parental permission). I looked at the photos only after and realized, like Simrin, that with children, “It’s usually the shots that in the moment seem most ordinary that in post-production reveal their power.”

This little girl’s face is all her but look closely and her dirty smock reads “Baby Love.” The dichotomy is fantastic, but that’s the viewer’s analysis.

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I didn’t place the beads or the baby, but I did frame the shot. Her mother put the bangles on her wrists and ankles and draped the black thread around her waist, but the baby just wants to mouth that glass knick knack.

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The shot with, perhaps, the least construction. I love the little girl with the itchy eye, the children’s universal desire for toys.

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The girls are decked out, kohl around their eyes, earrings and bindis, but they all have the same stare: who are you and why are you taking a picture of me?

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The fancy dress with the askew bow. The lollypop. Her hand in her father’s. So unrehearsed and ordinary and yet beautiful.

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One of the few shots I took of a child and parent. But even here, the mother knows I’m taking a photo of her. She’s trying to get her daughter to look at me, but the baby is only interested in her mother.

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This girl is the only one who asked me to take her picture. She’s eleven and her father owns the shop behind her. You can see how at eleven, she’s already learned to give me what she thinks I want: a nice smile, an intentional pose.

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This little girl is looking through my car window, totally delighted with being photographed. I love the smooshed nose, the big teeth and topknot.

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My favorite photo. This little girl is no more than eight and the baby no more than a few months. Her stare is what gets me, so indifferent to me and my camera, so unabashed.

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Late in the book, Quinn, Simrin’s grown daughter, looks at her sleeping mother. “It is hard,” she thinks. “To see the love and the hurt in a single frame,” and maybe this is what happens with photographs. It may be hard, but we need to see two things at the same time, the subject and the photographer, the human and the artist. Still, I like to think that the photographs of children are more human, less photographer, but maybe this is just me, trying again to frame the narrative.

I enjoy taking photographs, but my true love is writing, and I wonder if this is partly because I get to construct it all. I can make readers see exactly what I want them to see. It doesn’t matter if I’m writing about adults or children or landscapes, I get to decide. And maybe this is why I prefer writing, but Simrin prefers photography: “You can frame and direct all you want,” she thinks, “but what is finally left is the viewers and their own filters of meaning. Words are so much more directed, managing the reader like some kind of baby nurse.” Sure, the reader also brings her own filter, but I’ll still choose to use my words to direct, and I’m just fine with being the baby nurse.

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Melanie Abrams is the author of the novels Playing and Meadowlark. She is an editor and photographer and currently teaches writing at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband, writer Vikram Chandra, and their daughters.