A few years ago, while pursuing his MFA in photography, Nathaniel Grann moved back to his hometown in the Midwest to live with his mother and stepfather. There, he began to see his parents as a way to test out photographic ideas. He found his photos went beyond the experimental, deeply resonating with him and his emotional state.

Grann told In Sight that as he was taking the photos, he began pondering questions about the nature of family, like what makes a family click? What holds a family together? And what allows for a family to move on from a troubled past? Grann found working on this project did not give him concrete answers to any of these questions, but he told In Sight, “Love, sadness and humor came to define that period of time for me. In the three years I lived at home, I found few definitive answers. Instead, what came of it was the experience of a collective exhale of momentary release and reflection.” Eventually Grann’s work would come together in his first book, “Midwest Sentimental.” (Peperoni Books, 2018)

“Midwest Sentimental” is a deeply personal reflection on the things that make up what we call family. In his book, Grann gives us a glimpse of the questions he is asking about his own family. The results are sometimes humorous but can also skirt darker, more painful territory. Take the photo of his mother wrapped up in a fur coat, for example. It is one of Grann’s favorite photos, and he told In Sight how it came about:

“While all the photographs have a special relation or meaning to me, the photograph ‘My Mother with her fur coat, 2016’ is my favorite in the book. The coat is a relic of my parents’ marriage/divorce, and one of those pieces of clothing that has somehow continued to migrate from hallway closet to closet over the years, despite multiple moves. This image was thought up from a very vivid memory I have of being a small child and feeling that fur on my face during a particularly cold winter day, as I was carried to one place or another by my mother. The resulting image was one of those serendipitous moments following many failed attempts to get the right image, as it suddenly began to snow, and the wind picked up while we were shooting. My mother appears almost apprehensive, yet there is a great a strength in how she holds herself in this photo. To me, this image alludes to the sacrifices she made when I was child, throughout her years a single mom.”

“Midwest Sentimental” is an honest portrayal of family life many of us can relate to. Through showing us his own family with its ups and downs, Grann’s book touches on what all of our families have in common. This is one of the hopes Grann had. “I’d hope that people can take away a sense of familiarity and some reflection on their own ideas on the notion of family. Family is complicated and full of nuances that are very particular to us as individuals, but ultimately, there are strings that run through all of our collective experiences that are universal,” he said.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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