Women In Photography
Marnie Crawford Samuelson

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Marnie Crawford Samuelson recalls one of her earliest influences, the photographer Sam Abell, telling about a body of work he did on canoeing. His bosses were not enthusiastic about the project initially but Abell had strong feelings and decided to bet his career on the story. For Crawford Samuelson the story was an inspiration. Interest alone could not propel an idea--it took passion.

Crawford Samuelson's passion is twofold, interwoven as a mother and a photographer. Her story began 10 years ago when she and her partner decided to adopt a child internationally. Latin America was a close neighbor, a place they could visit regularly, and learning to speak Spanish didn't seem a likely barrier. After researching their options, the decision was made to adopt in Peru. Unaware of the extent of civil war and terrorism raging there, the couple arrived in Peru with what Crawford Samuelson calls "a third grader's knowledge of the country."

They remained in Peru for two months and Crawford Samuelson began her visual diary while learning the fine art of parenting. "There has always been a family component in my work," she says, "but now my biggest interest is in understanding the place my children are from. I want to be able to give them something of their history--some image of what life was like in Peru when they were babies and how it is changing as they grow older." On several occasions Crawford Samuelson has returned with the children to their native region and though an outsider, she feels a strong tie to their birth families and friends.

When the phone call came a year after the first adoption that a second baby was available Crawford Samuelson set off for the high mountains. There was a large insurgency happening at the time and it was possible the government would topple. Accompanied by her lawyer and an armed bodyguard, the trio set out from Lima in an old Ford Bronco to find the child. It was a 10-hour trip over rugged roads, never knowing what lay around the next curve. "I could hear the sound of bombs in the periphery of the city," she recalls, "and I was thinking, there must be other ways to get babies." Crawford Samuelson photographed the journey and the meeting of the baby. "Every time the car broke down on the return trip I would quickly make some formula, change her diaper, and photograph. Her first picture was snapped up close on my lap."

Adoptive American and European families often don't know the birth families, but for Crawford Samuelson it was vital to meet and photograph them because the children might never see them again. "Even during the judicial process I was taking photographs," she says. "We have been lucky enough to stay in touch with the families and maintain the ties. The photographs I take have made it easier for us all to hold the two worlds together and to stay connected."

The family returned to Peru when the children were 3 and 4 years old. Since terrorism still prevailed, a guide traveled with them. Crawford Samuelson remembers how as they got off the plane in Lima a flight attendant scooped up the children and said, "Welcome home." On another visit two years ago she got permission to photograph in the hospital where Jamie was born. There she made images of births and mothers with their newborns.

"Photography is my tool to keep the children in touch with their roots," she says. "When I show them these pictures it is filling in a big piece of their lives that I hope someday will be meaningful to them. The photographs now include siblings and grandparents, some taken last year at a playground while visiting one of the families. Even images that seem to relate to other projects pertain to the children's history and it has become a journalistic undertaking."

A new and exciting project began last August when the children went to a Peruvian school for two and a half weeks. During the five hours they were in school each day Crawford Samuelson photographed. She was able to shoot with her medium format Mamiya RZ, though she carries a Mamiya 7 or a Canon EOS-1 for working in more remote areas. "I began a group of portraits that I hope will play an important role in my photographic future," she says. "I was working on Jose Olaya, the one street in the area that survived a major earthquake 25 years ago and it was a compelling setting. The street was beautiful and had some aspects of an outdoor studio. There were sections that were shaded and other areas of almost abstracted space. There was not a lot of environment and it was almost a high key fashion setting. I wanted to make a modern photograph, something with a contemporary edge that would almost erase some of the environment." The images are lit, though never obtrusively, the lighting essentially coming from a small softbox and portable lighting gear that she wheeled to the location. The carefully chosen environment allowed control of some directional light and the photographs have the feeling of a high, mountainous place where the air is pure, clean, and thin.

Aware of the pitfalls and the irresistible temptation to photograph the indigenous, banal, and often patronizing look of natives in traditional dress, Crawford Samuelson attempted first to get to know her subjects. "They were villagers mostly," she says, "and one image I particularly liked was of three women in their 80s. I met the first woman sitting outside of her shop and the other two were related to her. They echoed the spirit of the place before the earthquake and made for an interesting photograph.

"Often people would say no when I first asked to photograph them," she says, "but after several days seeing me in the same place they became more comfortable and would often change their mind. I began to build a body of work and would always give people Polaroids to take with them." Someday Crawford Samuelson hopes to return to the street and to exhibit her work on the giant whitewashed walls she has photographed. "It will be a one-day show," she says, "and the idea excites me even though it is a big trip to Lima and a rigorous 10-hour bus trip into the mountains."

Crawford Samuelson wonders how enlivened these links that she is creating will be to her children as adults, and if Peru will be a big part of their world or simply a place they visit occasionally. "Parts of their stories they will hear but the pictures are another component," she says. "Here is the car you came in; here is the sidewalk where we were waiting for you; here is the house where you were with your birth mother at first; there is the hospital. It is a layered story now--they have been there and seen it."

Though Crawford Samuelson's focus has been on the children, she has received the extraordinary gift of a country and an extended family. Her work in Peru is an ongoing portfolio as is another extended project she is doing of Cape Cod. "They are counterpoints to each other," she says, "one of a peaceful home base, the other a place still ridden with pockets of terrorism. Access is different. There are barriers in Peru that require petitions and ribbons and approvals and stamps; a totally distinct way to work. And when I travel, I often go with a guide. There are always questions like how do I carry water? Do I need burros? It is very different to pack your equipment on the back of a burro instead of calling a cab.

"In the remote parts of Peru a driver takes us to the end of a road, then two burro drivers, a cook, and a guide join us. It's hard to believe a photographer needs or deserves that kind of support. When we meet the burro drivers we must pack all our food in wooden boxes, then set off on foot. It's the only way we can travel safely with food, water, and equipment and create a presence. We go with letters of introduction to a village elder and though all of our groundwork is done, people still don't know who we are, if we are terrorists or missionaries. Once they thought we were the circus."

Crawford Samuelson's story is humbling and compelling beyond the fronts of parent and image-maker. There is also the human front. "It is a slow boil," she says. "The incremental difference that anyone in my situation can make is questionable. There are many failures. Hopefully, human relationships build over time. To show my photographs in Peru would be the respectful completion of the relationship. On the side of that whitewashed building photography might just be the bond."

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