A couple of weeks back we featured the work of New York-based photographer Alison Malone, who went into the secretive environment of the Job’s Daughters to photograph the girls who are direct blood relatives of the Master Masons. This is the second part of that interview. The portraits of girls [below] are angelic. What was your intention of photographing them in this light? ‘There are many reasons that I chose to photograph the girls in this way. The first is the simple love I have of the straight photographic portrait and its ability to transmit the subtle nuances that come from an individual. When a portrait is made there is an opportunity for a delicate exchange between the photographer and the subject that creates a place to examine how one holds oneself in a moment’.
‘When making the images I meet with a girl and we establish an understanding of what the images are about. We talk about what it means to be in this society and what they get out of it. When I go to take make the picture I allow the room to be still and free from distraction (other people, music, etc). The girl decides how she wants to hold herself and I just watch the subtle changes in gesture that she makes as I am photographing. I watch the way she holds her hands, the way she raises or tucks her head, the level of confidence that she has in herself as she is being looked at by the camera. It is the in between moments that exist where our true sense of self comes out. I look for those glimpses that a girl gives and I try to allow that to be the story she tells us. All of the girls have seen my work and are aware of the general outcome of the images. I often talk about the days when there was not access to many pictures of a person (maybe only a painting of a person or a single photograph existed in that person’s life) and then I ask them to hold themselves in a way that they would want to be remembered if this was their only portrait.
‘One thing to remember is that this organization allows the girls to remove themselves from the outside world and to enter into a space that is imbued with tradition, rituals, and responsibilities that you can’t find in any other place. This transformation is a beautiful way for the girls to escape some of the distractions that modern adolescence lays on them and to rise into something that, for a moment, is much bigger than the individual itself. They become a part of something larger but still retain their individuality through their merits and they way they hold themselves. I hope to capture this ability to strive for larger things that each girl has, and to translate it into her portrait. In this moment they are not the awkward adolescents that we have all been, concerned with what clothes to wear and who is being invited to what party. They all begin as equals (which their white robes signify) and then they are distinguished by their positions in the bethel (honored queen, 1st messenger, guide, marshal, etc) that they earn by their merits’.
There is a noticeable sense of alignment about your photos. Is this making a greater statement about the organization/environments?
‘This project is about Masonic youth culture and it is all based in Freemasonry. The Masons are a group of men who have a meticulous dedication to order and a deep understanding of tradition and sacred geometry. The pictures can’t help but to have a relationship to formalism and accentuate the beauty that is found in organization of space and structures. I believe that by adhering to my own strict rules of photographic formalism I can help to translate the beauty that is found in the order in these sacred spaces and the people who are a part of the organizations. By creating a standard or structure that I hold my project to, I find that the little changes from girl to girl or space to space become filled with meaning without distraction. It just amazes me that you can take any space, be it a grand lodge hall or a basement, and give it meaning by putting intention to the objects found in it and the way they are arranged. I see the spaces functioning as a portrait of the organization. They all have their own personality and I love the relationship that is formed by looking at them as a group’.
Were there any stipulations put upon you as a photographer or activities/rooms you were not able to photograph?
‘I have been very fortunate with the access that I have been given while doing this project. Because I was a member of the organization during the 1990’s I am very familiar with what is considered “secret work” and what is accessible by anyone who wants to go to an “open meeting”. My project focuses on an anachronistic institution in American youth culture and the type of girl who chooses to join it and what she gets out of it. I never approached this project in a way that would exploit the girls or the organization, so that makes it much easier to negotiate what access I can have to what situation. I have spent a lot of time getting to know these groups of girls and I am interested in this thing that they are proud to be a part of. It’s this empathy that I have for the subject that the families respond to and is what makes them want to participate in the project. It is important to me to be very careful to keep all the parents and guardians aware of the types of pictures that are being made and I always get a model release so that there is a written understanding of what images are being used in what context. This project exists as photographs, audio interviews, a book, and now I am working on an installation component to this piece.
‘Another reason I have been given this access is that the organization’s new membership numbers are dropping every year. A big factor is that people don’t even know it exists or they have a major misconception that it is a cult or some destructive element in youth culture. This project has become a way for the Masons to let people know about this organization in a new way. These spaces and regalia are not something that most people haven’t seen before. I love being able to share something that is so close to most people’s lives that they might have just overlooked. Most people have Masons in their families and don’t even know about it. I can’t tell you how many people have seen this project and then tell me that they just found out their mom, aunt or grandmother was a part of it. As with all of my work, I find it really important to see our everyday surroundings in a new way and add to the richness of our experience here by increasing our awareness of what is real and quite possibly just under our nose’.