Tracy Barbour: On Grief and Grace, a Touching Documentary Project

All images by Tracy Barbour. Used with permission.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tracy Barbour recently at the Lomography NYC store and quickly found that we’ve got a lot in common. She loves film, is a street photographer, lives in Brooklyn, was in the Army, and she’s got a problem with her eyesight that affects the way she creates images. Commonalities aside though, Tracy is a pretty fantastic documentary photographer who, in 2007, joined a media group as a freelance music photographer and photojournalist. She hasn’t looked back since.

Core to Tracy’s work is her love of working with people. And while her brother unfortunately passed, her creative motivations changed from doing studio work to trying to tell stories. Hence, the Grief and Grace Project.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Tracy: I grew up in central Nebraska. Most of my life was spent in rural communities that fell along the Loup and Platte Rivers. These rivers fed a large nature population. My father was an amateur photographer who often carried his Canon AE-1 with him everywhere. We used to take road trips to watch the Sand Hills Cranes migrate every year. Because Nebraska is a lot of open prairie and fields it was easy to get close and watch these huge waves of birds floating through the fields and taking flight. We didn’t want to scare them so my father handed me his camera and asked me to sneak up. At that point I was hooked. When we did our two week summer vacations road tripping my dad would always let me use his camera. Eventually I got one of my own. It was this little 110 camera.

Our local 4H had a pretty substantial photography program so I would enter every year into the county fair. I won my first region and national competitions at age 12. Most of my work was nature or Americana oriented. At 13 I discovered photographing people by posing my friends and shooting them with black and white film. There were no digital cameras then and sometimes it would take months before my dad got around to developing the images. It didn’t stop me, I just wanted to shoot.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into documentary style portraiture?

Tracy: Boredom. I know that sounds like a strange answer, but that really is the initial reason why. I was bored with posing people. I was bored with straight on head shots. I was bored with studio set ups. I interned with a studio photographer and soon realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It was boring. I’ve had a fascination with people since a young. I don’t know a stranger. I talk to everyone. I have a deep curiosity for stories. Documentary style portraiture allows me to dig deeper into the story.

Phoblographer: What was the main motivation behind the Grief and Grace series overall and then how does that break down and relate to each mini project?

Tracy: My brother died in 2013 of a ruptured brain aneurysm. He was 36 and it was unexpected. There were no warning signs. During the time preceding his death we had become estranged. I was facing an overwhelming grief after his death. The only way I knew how to channel that grief was photography. It is how I channel everything having been a constant in my life since age 9. I found out a friend in my art and photography community in Houston (where I was living at the time) had just survived a ruptured brain aneurysm. I reached out to her and asked her to do a project based on her journey. She thankfully agreed.

That was the first session with Emily. Her reaction to the the images and her story being told was the initial catalyst for making this into an ongoing project. Emily was on the verge of giving up on life completely after she survived. Recovering from that kind of trauma, especially a 100% recovery is nothing short of a miracle. She felt the images gave her the strength to move on and fight to recover.

“I was bored with straight on head shots. I was bored with studio set ups. I interned with a studio photographer and soon realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. It was boring.”

Shortly after Emily’s story came out, Pamela reached out to me. Pamela was the 30 year old diagnosed with glioblastoma. She loved my storytelling and she wanted the opportunity to be a part of the project. She was terminal at the time and wanted to leave behind tangible evidence of her life for her husband and family.

The series is about grief and how human beings deal with that grief. It is also about the grace that comes in the fight to stay alive or the fight to have quality of life until we pass on. It is about giving people tangible evidence of their existence. There is comfort in knowing you were here and you mattered. There is a healing found in purging yourself of your inhibitions and making your story public, whether it be because you are terminal and know your life is ending or because you have a mental health condition that you are dealing with on a daily basis and no one knows about.

Phoblographer: So how did you start this project? Meaning, how do you go to people, explain what you want to do, and convince them to let you do it? How much of a trust barrier was there and how did you overcome it?

Tracy: I asked. I told people about my own story. I would tell them about my brother and not being able to be there to tell his story. I would tell them about the lack of tangible evidence of his existence. The stories are 100% collaborative, as the subjects have full say in not only the imagery but also the story I craft from their interviews and the time I spend with them.

There is definitely a huge trust barrier initially. Especially when I first approach. Even if someone volunteers, once they realize just how much time I spend with them and how much I need them to reveal, they get scared. They are filled with the very human fear that someone won’t like them, won’t like their story, and won’t like the images either. I have had people back out in the middle of a project. Those get scrapped completely. That’s the deal, they can back out at any time, no matter how disappointing it might be for me as the documentarian. Knowing they can back out coupled with my gentleness and passion for their specific story and my ability to tell these stories in a kind and respectful manner is what I think helps with overcoming the trust barrier.

Phoblographer: When you went into this project, did you have a creative vision in mind specifically? How well do you feel you adhered to it vs letting it evolve?

Tracy: I was only going to document people who had suffered brain aneurysms and major head trauma. I wanted to stick with that particular subject because of my brother. But as I got into it, I realized the project itself was evolving and I had a capacity to reach more people if I stepped outside of that box. Last year I did my third story and it was on a young mother who is bipolar. In the beginning, I wanted the projects to be on film only. That too has evolved. Because the subjects are involved in a collaborative way, each smaller projects takes on a life of it’s own. Sometimes it is pure documentary, sometimes documentary portraiture, and this last year I did some motion as well.

Phoblographer: How do you feel this project has changed you as a photographer? Do you feel it’s helped you in a therapeutic way at all?

Tracy: I have become patient. I have become kinder. I now have a high capacity for empathy. I have become more detailed. All of these traits have extended into my other work as well. My primary genre besides this project and documentary photography is street photography. I feel this project has extended into that as well. I am also looking for the story, always using compassion and empathy to understand strangers. For me there is more there and I seek out the “more.”

This project has been very therapeutic. As a matter of fact, I get antsy if I get this far into the year and don’t have a subject yet. The project takes time for each person. I would love to do two or three stories a year, but time and finding people who are willing to be that vulnerable are major factors. I’ve evolved from a person who is fearful of mortality into a person who comforts others about their own mortality and how to deal with it.

I readily admit when Pamela, my second subject, passed I was devastated. I knew it was coming. I knew the end of her story already before we began. But it didn’t change my empathy quotient. It certainly didn’t change my reaction to another human being dying. And that’s okay. I realize that maybe the next photographer doesn’t have the ability to be that vulnerable and still do this type of work. And that’s okay too. I have been given a gift to do this type of work and I don’t plan on wasting that gift.

Phoblographer: You and I have a whole lot in common, you’re a color blind photographer and I know with me being legally blind that it’s affected my creative vision. How has it affected yours?

Tracy: My color blindness has gotten worse over time. I didn’t even realize I was colorblind until I took a random test I found on the internet. Because of that, I find myself gravitating towards black and white work. That’s how I see the world. I have been striving to produce more color work but I always fall back into black and white. It makes sense though, I think black and white eliminates the distractions and plays well to the emotion.

Phoblographer: Your stories thus far are centered mostly around women. Is there a particular reason why? Do you plan to include men in this at all?

Tracy: They were the people who had volunteered. The initial subject was me asking only because I knew her. I would gladly welcome some men volunteers. The stories are not about gender, they are just about human beings.

Be sure to check out more of Tracy’s work on Instagram.