Magazine Essayist

Interview recently spoke over the phone with Borowick—who has photographed for TheNew York Times and The Washington Post—to discuss her early influences, photographing as a coping mechanism, and future projects. 

TESS MAYER: Were your parents creative?

NANCY BOROWICK: My parents were actually both lawyers, though they were both creative people and encouraged creative outlets. My mom was really crafty and my dad was very theatrical. When I said I was thinking about pursuing a career in photography they were like, “Okay, we’ll allow you to get your butt out there and see if it’s possible.” I started shooting when I was 14 in high school. I loved it. I never actually thought I could turn it into a career or a life.

I’ve had a lot of time in these last couple years for self-reflection and to think about where certain qualities that I have came from… I have a really funny memory; when I was in first or second grade my mom got a phone call from my teacher letting her know that I was the class tattletale. I look at that now and I think it makes sense. As a photographer and as a storyteller you have this built in need to tell other people’s stories. I think I also in some ways cared about justice and fairness, which maybe was a reflection of who my parents were as lawyers and as advocates, which also makes a lot of sense in the world of photojournalism.

MAYER: Who were some of your favorite photographers when you started shooting?

BOROWICK: Starting out I always loved—not necessarily that our work is particularly similar—but I loved Gordon Parks and Jacob Riis. … The drive for storytelling came from the impact both of their bodies of work had on culture and society. One of the photographers that inspired me a lot who has actually become a good friend of mine, because of my project and what I went through with my family, is Stephanie Sinclair. She has basically devoted her life to use photography to raise awareness, create change, and end child marriage. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She keeps persevering. Her work is stunning and it has made such global impact. She’s spoken at the UN and started an organization to continue to help women and children—she never stops.

MAYER: To talk about the Cancer Family project, I think one of my biggest curiosities lies in that the photos are hugely personal to you and your own family. I’m wondering how you went about sharing the images for the first time and who you shared them with outside of your family.

BOROWICK: When I was photographing my parents I wasn’t thinking about the photograph or our story as a larger project. I was just going through the motions. I didn’t know how much time we had and I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything. When you’re a photographer and you’re working on a personal project, the risk is that you’re too close and therefore you might not see certain things that could be important to the story. I didn’t want to look back years later and say, “Ugh, man, I wish I had included this.” I knew that it was important to share the work with someone else who is not so close to it and get some perspective on what I might be missing or what I should dive deeper into. These were my parents, so I’m very familiar with them and our home, so I was nervous that I was going to miss things that were not so obvious because it was just my normal. I showed them to one of my teachers from [the International Center of Photography] who was an editor. I asked if I could sit down and share them with her. Then she asked me if I had shared the photographs with anyone other than her and my family. I said, “Of course not!” I hadn’t thought about the work in any sort of larger capacity—I wasn’t even calling it “the work.” And she said, “Well, I think you should because I think it would be really meaningful to a lot of people.”

Solnit the oddball essayist was suddenly and unexpectedly a progressive icon, a wise female elder. Her writings on the environment, gender, human rights and violence against women, all of which went back decades, scattered among her many other subjects, seemed suddenly and remarkably prescient. Her work — both new and old — is much discussed on Twitter and cited in op-eds, and the books themselves — she's published 10 in the last 10 years — hold prime real estate at bookstores across the country. Solnit writes a column for Harper’s Magazine and contributes regularly to The Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as to Literary Hub, a website that she, at 56 and widely celebrated, has no reason to even know exists. She agrees to interviews, and posts long, magazine-ready treatises on Facebook, which are read and shared, effusively and often histrionically, by her 100,000-plus followers.

In other words, Solnit is a certain kind of celebrity, if a reluctant one. ‘‘I feel that it’s really important to not depend on all this in any sense and not let this define my worth or work,’’ she said on the phone. ‘‘I wrote ‘Hope in the Dark’ 14 years ago. Am I somehow better or smarter now than I was then?’’ The answer, of course, is no. Strange as it is to say, Solnit’s newfound popularity reveals more about her readers than it does her. That the book, and her other suddenly timely work, was not written in the last several months, but rather years prior, makes its ideas seem even truer, giving it the veneer of sacred text. She has become a Cassandra figure of the left, her writing, which seems magically to have long ago said the things that many Americans now most want to hear, consumed as both balm and rallying cry.

Solnit, of course, isn’t the first author of ideas that now seem eerily predictive. Figures from recent literary pasts are often reclaimed as voices of cultural presents. Three paragraphs published in 1998 by the late philosopher Richard Rorty, which seem to have foretold the outcome of the 2016 election, went viral last fall, sending sales of the scholarly book in which they originally appeared, ‘‘Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America,’’ soaring. Eileen Myles’s decades-old poetry has been seized upon lately by readers newly curious about and sensitive to discussions of gender fluidity. The art critic and novelist Chris Kraus, once an obscure favorite of female bloggers, is now the inspiration for a critically acclaimed Amazon show. In Japan, Susan Sontag’s recently translated work has become, 13 years after her death, surprisingly popular, looked to as interpretive of the bewildering contradictions of American politics.

Paul Yamazaki, the head book buyer at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which published Solnit’s first book in 1991, adds the frank, genre-defying works of Kathy Acker and Jane Bowles to the list, but can’t quite conjure a unifying theory of what all of these authors share. ‘‘I wish I had one!’’ he laughed over the phone. ‘‘I’d be a much better bookseller if I did.’’ It’s worth noting, however, that these belatedly embraced writers seem to be mostly female. Perhaps it’s because no one listens to them the first time they speak.

There’s another reason, too, that we look to the past for our current intellectual decipherers and idols. In the Trump era, Solnit, who writes against corruption of all kinds — environmental, political, social — seems herself wholly uncorrupted: by these sorts of discussions of commercial popularity; by the harried activity of online life; by the social spheres of Washington, D.C., and New York City; by the aesthetic fetishization that so many women writers are subject to. ‘‘If you think of a kind of ecology of ideas, there are more than enough people telling us how horrific and terrible and bad everything is, and I don’t really need to join that project,’’ she said. ‘‘There’s a whole other project of trying to counterbalance that — sometimes we do win and this is how it worked in the past.’’ She continued, ‘‘Change is often unpredictable and indirect. We don’t know the future. We’ve changed the world many times, and remembering that, that history, is really a source of power to continue and it doesn’t get talked about nearly enough.’’

For years, Solnit has been traveling with photographer friends to Lake Powell, a massive reservoir on the central border of Utah and Arizona that was formerly a series of magnificent sandstone gorges known as Glen Canyon. She has written about the awe-inspiring industriousness that is responsible for the lake — its creation, by damming the Colorado River, began in the late 1950s, and it took 17 years to fill to capacity — but also about the hubris that imbues it; it is, she says, ‘‘failing quite spectacularly,’’ with water levels dropping significantly over the last two decades.

The excursions come as a relief. ‘‘Writing about the politics of this moment sort of feels like being stranded in the shallows, and means not writing about deeper cultural forces and longer timeframes in history,’’ she said. As the water levels of Lake Powell have dropped, the Colorado River has begun to re-emerge in some places. ‘‘It’s not exactly hopeful,’’ Solnit said. ‘‘But it’s something that’s neither victory nor defeat. That’s really interesting to me.’’

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