"The Outwin 2016" Finalist: Cynthia Henebry

A small girl in the backseat of a car
Mavis in the Backseat / Cynthia Henebry / 2013 / Collection of the artist / © Cynthia Henebry

Out of over 2,500 entries in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, 43 artists have their work shown in the exhibition “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today.” Read more about one of the finalists, Cynthia Henebry.

What about the sitter inspired you?

I was inspired by the same quality in Mavis that inspires me to photograph anyone: something innate to that person that needs attention paid to it. Over time I have come to see that it’s the neglected and wanting parts in me that my camera sees in another. Once that part is fully seen and accepted, I don’t need to take that kind of picture anymore. It’s always a great mystery to see what comes next — what needs to be seen, but is afraid to come out of the dark. I don’t recognize what the specific quality is until months or years after making the portrait and even then, I am never really sure of the usefulness of naming it.

How did the sitter inspire this specific portrait?

This particular portrait (“Mavis in the Backseat”) is the first photograph I made with Mavis. And even though I have gone on to make dozens more of her as well as her three brothers, “Mavis” encapsulates so much of what’s important about photography to me. I first noticed Mavis and her brothers waiting in the pickup line outside of my son’s school. With the energy that children often have after a day of sitting still, they were running around their family car– a faded, pale blue station wagon from the 1970s, the decade of my own childhood. Something in me immediately wanted to photograph them, and I am lucky not to question those kinds of instincts when they arise. The family car is so loaded — it’s a domestic space, but a traveling one. The vehicle that transports us away from home to all of our various destinations, and also back again. It’s a simple thing, and certainly so routine — but also quite profound if you consider it. More important conversations between parents and children take place there than any other, I am guessing. More fights, too. Cars stand in for so much in the history of photography — escape, fantasy, the seeking individual, the American ideal, but in my case the car represents a great dividing line between adult and child. Think how different the experiences are between the back seat and the front seat! And this is only the beginning of what separates the child’s experience from the adult’s. 

What made you decide to depict this sitter as you did?

The answer to this question is similar to the first, and comes from noticing what’s already there, knowing that what’s already inside of me affects the noticing, and trusting that the two need to be in conversation. This process triggers an inner wisdom that makes the call on when to press the shutter. It’s worth noting that the children in my photographs are not my own, so when I identify a subject (as described above), I ask for permission to photograph them, and we set up a date to work together. I am humbled with their trust, and do not take the responsibility lightly.

In this case, I followed my instincts at the photo shoot and asked Mavis to get in the backseat of the family car, watched and waited with her, and then saw when the right moment was to press the shutter release. She went willingly into the backseat, yet also she was placed, and her expression in this image captures perfectly for me the complex power dynamics between adult and child, and photographer and subject. You see her confusion and her resilience, her desire to be seen, and also the ambivalence about what kind of vulnerability that evokes.  

Of course, everything I say about her is my own projection. I want to honor her own real and lived experience as separate from my own, so it’s important for me to name that. The history of childhood representation (in photography as well as art in general) is rife with these projections…. because of our own childhood wounds, we need children and childhood in general to be a certain way. This inhibits our ability to see the very real children in our lives accurately, which can cause great harm. My work, and this photograph in particular, is an attempt to engage with this gap between real and imagined experience — to know that I can never bridge it completely, but to fail as well as I can. 

What relationship do the materials have to the meaning?

The process of using a large format view camera is essential to my work, which is a process of paying complete and full attention to a moment. While I can do this with my eyes alone, the large format camera lets the person know that we are doing something together. It takes time, cooperation, and a willingness to be still, and I find that the children I work with are craving this. (Aren’t we all, though?) The technical aspects of managing the camera help to quiet my own mind, and then I can let another kind of knowledge take over in the making of the picture. The camera takes in many more details than the eye can in a given moment, and I am always amazed at the details that my unconscious included, but that my naked eye didn’t see at the time. A couple of weeks after taking this image, I pored over the negative enlarged on my computer screen, and was affected by what I saw in a new way: the tiny cut on her knuckle, the unclasped seatbelt, and Mavis’ luminosity, shining out from the ocean-like darkness. I marvel at how all of these details, as well as all of the moments of her life as well as mine impacted the making of this picture, which itself was created in 1/125 of a second. How much goes on in a second, a minute, a day, a lifetime. I stand in awe of what we choose to see, and also of how much we miss.

You can see Henebry’s work in “The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today,” up now through Jan. 8, 2017. Also, be sure to vote in our People’s Choice Competition.