Heartbreaking images from a photographer grappling with a complex past

A note from my mother, written over a family photo. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2022. (Jordan Gale)
A note from my mother, written over a family photo. Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 2022. (Jordan Gale)
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Life can be a supremely chaotic mess. Sometimes it feels like nothing is working, despite our best efforts. And there are a vast number of ways we can respond, some positive and some negative.

For some, life seems to move along smoothly. For others, there are numerous pitfalls and setbacks along the way. None of us is born onto a level playing field, no matter how vociferously some like to say that we are.

There are people who are born into great privilege, either by race or economics. We’re being disingenuous if we don’t accede to that fact. And some people are born with the legacy of genetic predispositions to things like mental illness or addiction.

Yes, some people, luckily, are born into environments that give them a cushion against life’s obstacles. That’s great, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t have any scientific studies in front of me to prove that the vast majority of people on planet Earth probably weren’t born with a smooth path ahead, but it sure seems that way.

Photographer Jordan Gale was born into a tumultuous life. And he has been examining that through an ongoing series he has titled “Don’t Be This Way Forever.” A few months ago, he reached out to me with his project, and it grabbed my attention so much that I wanted to share it here with all of you.

Gale sent me the following description of his ongoing project:

“For most of my life, the concept of home has been a notion I’ve struggled with. I’ve spent many years trying to put as much distance as possible between myself and the distressing familiarities of home.”

“I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a relatively small town in Middle America. I grew up an only child in a single-parent home where, more often than not, we struggled to get by. Like many households in my community, money and substance abuse issues were ongoing struggles.

“I knew at an early age we were poor, and knew of my mother’s various drug uses. As I came into my own as a teenager, I began to feel ashamed of my upbringing, and began to resent the space I was born into, fearing I’d never leave Iowa or make a life of my own.”

“These emotions ultimately caused me to perpetuate my own self-destructive tendencies as a young adult, deepening my anger, anxieties and feelings of stagnancy.

“My essay, ‘Don’t Be This Way Forever,’ has taken on many forms over the years. At the heart of my photographs exists a visual diary seeking to confront my various tumultuous relationships in my hometown. These photographs span roughly a decade, before leaving home and during my subsequent visits since.”

“The act of making pictures in this space has been a cathartic process, aimed toward better understanding my past actions and emotions, while attempting to mend the frail relationships I’ve left behind and often return to. The photographs don’t always provide answers, but the effort put into making this work sparks conversations, and that is all I can ask for.”

We may not always get tidy answers when we seek a deeper understanding of our lives, the ups, downs, successes and failures. And it is very difficult to confront our uneasy realities. But if there is any chance for happiness or acquiescence, it is so important to ask the questions anyway, as Gale continues to do with this ongoing photo essay.

You can see more of Gale’s work on his website, here.

This photo series was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (economichardship.org), a journalism nonprofit.

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