Amy Stein plans to use her residency at Light Work to edit and print images, as well as prepare a book dummy, of work from her series Domesticated. The images from Domesticated, based on stories found in newspapers or told between people, depict recreations of both random and intentional interactions between humans and animals. According to Stein, “My photographs explore our paradoxical relationship with the ‘wild’ and how our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of both humans and animals. We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature.” Images from this series were first exhibited in 2006, and have since been shown nationwide. Her work looks at primal issues such as submission and dominance, or fear and comfort.
Stein received a BS in political science from James Madison University in Virginia; an MS in political science from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland; and her MFA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her photographs have been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions nationwide, and she has received numerous awards including a Critical Mass Book Award in 2007. She is currently a professor of photography at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City.
On the way to the grocery store to buy coffee one day, my father slipped on a patch of ice. A passerby stopped and asked if he needed help. My father declined, bought the coffee, and retreated home. When I saw him later that day, he was in excruciating pain. I took him to the hospital where doctors determined his five broken ribs were cutting him apart.
The thing I always remember about this story is that my dad still bought the coffee. He did not want to be seen as needy.
Though my priorities might differ if I had broken ribs, I share his unwillingness to be seen as not in control. I will stare at a map for an hour before asking for directions. And it is not just my own neediness that bothers; I also do not want to see it in others. The aversion to neediness also affects the way I look at photographs. I sometimes turn the page on projects rooted in the tradition of social concern.
When I first saw Amy Stein’s well-named series, Stranded, I did not initially realize I was dealing with socially-concerned photography. Clean and colorful, her pictures look a lot more like observational road-trip photography than pictures of human turmoil.
One portrait depicts a young girl with her arms tucked inside her shirt. There is no crying, no distended belly. Yet, what are we seeing? Is she pretending to be an amputee? Modeling an old woman’s low breasts? Is she just chilly? Her inscrutable expression holds, gives nothing away.
Another of Stein’s pictures shows two women beside their broken down sedan. One of the women looks away, her arm resting on the hood. The more prominent subject stands in the center of the picture. Under brightly dyed red hair, she looks directly at the camera with an utterly blank expression.
This is the crucial part of Stein’s series. More often than not, the subjects look the viewer in the eye. And their faces do not make the story easy for us. We do not understand who they are and what it is they are seeking. What we learn about is our own reactions toward need.
Take the example of Stein’s picture of a person wearing a Balaclava and carrying a shotgun. It is difficult to determine the gender, much less the inner emotional state of this individual. The picture is more of a Rorschach test than a portrait. The point is to question our reaction: Would you stop and help? Would you drive past like hell, ready to call 911?
The question is at the heart of Stein’s project. It is a question she started asking in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She was sitting in her living room watching live images of people stuck on their roofs as the water was rising around them, and it struck her that the people of New Orleans had to write for help in big bold letters before we paid attention. Rather than rushing to New Orleans to document the wreckage, Stein took a more nuanced look at the complex social dynamics between need and help. While there might be value in photographing upended cars and wrecked houses, Stein wanted to photograph the broken social contract.
Stein’s straightforward pictures push us to ask difficult questions. When you see a broken down car by the side of the road, are you likely to stop, even for the little girl? When a man slips on the ice outside the supermarket, are you the one to stop and ask if he is okay?
Amy Stein lives and works in New York City. She participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence Program in June 2008. Her work can be viewed at
Alec Soth is a photographer based in Minneapolis, MN. His work can be seen at www.alecsoth.com.