I was jurying the
Black & White show for the
Center for Fine Art Photography in Colorado and amongst all those images, a portrait emerged of a woman with hair tied in front of her face instead of at the back of her head. It was evocative in that the woman was silenced, but she was somehow still powerful. (Maybe I've lived in San Francisco too long where I might see something like this at the Folsom Street Fair, only it would be made of leather and there'd be a gag and a lot of people watching). But it wasn't that. There was something beautiful and poignant about this photograph. Maybe because it felt like the woman had silenced herself...
I always do the jurying blind when possible and only discovered later that this image was by
Michelle Rogers Pritzl. Her name was familiar and I remembered that
Christopher James had mentioned some of his talented students coming out of Boston and she was one. I came upon her project, Not Waving But Drowning in the midst of jurying Issue 12, the curator's issue, of
Aint-Bad Magazine. Here I learned not just the genesis of that bound hair picture, but also realized that there is a much more complicated story behind this project.
Here is what the artist had to say about her work:
Not Waving But Drowning is a look inside an Evangelical marriage. These images show the truth of a life lived in the confines of oppressive gender roles, cult-like manipulation, and the isolation of Fundamentalism.
Each image is equivalence for the unseen, for the reality behind facade. Despite the smiles and appearance of perfection, Complementarianism is an abusive system in which a wife serves her husband as a helpmeet, remains silent, and prays for her spouse to become a better man. The man is the head of the woman, and the woman is to do what she is told. Even her body is not her own. Because churches worship the institution of marriage as a reflection of Christ's relationship with the church, pastors put the institution above the people in it. If a woman leaves she will be shunned.
I use self-portraiture to share my own experience within the Fundamentalist Lifestyle without being explicitly autobiographical; I unmask what is beneath the veneer of perfect marriages and families. My chosen medium of collodion used with contemporary digital media represents the outdated behaviors and rules imposed on women by Fundamentalism.
The title of the series is taken from the Stevie Smith poem by the same name. The title suggests a kind of frantic despair beneath the surface of a smiling, perfect demeanor. It represents the woman who smiles every Sunday while protecting her husband with silence and prayers for change.
The image titles come from The Awakening by Kate Chopin and are sequenced by their titles' place within the story. Unlike Mrs. Pontellier, I choose to thrive in my freedom. I seek to unmask, to reveal truth. Growing up in Fundamentalist Christianity, I endured the cognitive dissonance of wearing the smiling facade to mask the oppressive truth. By unmasking that truth, I set myself free from the burden of my silence. This is my protest. I will no longer be silent. I choose to live.
Michelle Rogers Pritzl was raised Southern Baptist in Washington DC, where she fell in love with photography in a high school darkroom. Pritzl received a BFA from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in 2001, a MA in Art Education from California State University in 2010, and a MFA in Photography from Lesley University College of Art, where she studied with Christopher James, in 2014. Her work is often autobiographical and explores the tension between past and present in our psychological lives, often working in a digital/analogue hybrid and using historic alternative processes.
Pritzl has been widely exhibited including exhibitions in New York, New Orleans, Fort Collins, Boston and Washington DC. Pritzl was a Critical Mass Top 250 finalist in 2013 and 2014; she has been featured in Lenscratch, Noovo Editions, Diffusion Magazine, Lumen Magazine, Your Daily Photograph via the Duncan Miller Gallery and her work as been recognized by the International Photography Awards, LensCulture and the Prix de la Photographie Paris.