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2016 Best Books: Sara Terry

Books Sara Terry: 2016 Best Books Sara Terry Selects Come to Selfhood, Signs of Your Identity, and American Motel Signs as the Best Books of 2016
Sara Terry
Sara Terry is an award-winning documentary photographer best known for her work covering post-conflict stories. She is a Guggenheim Fellow in Photography, for her long-term project, Forgiveness and Conflict: Lessons from Africa. She is also the founder and director of The Aftermath Project, and the publisher of 10(X) Editions, a micro press of handmade and limited edition photo books.

Come to SelfhoodBy Joshua Rashaad McFadden
Ceiba, 2016.
Come to Selfhood
Photographs by Joshua Rashaad McFadden
For a long time, I’ve felt that we can do a much better job than we do of listening to others — hearing the stories they tell about themselves, as opposed to the stories that we (or the media) tell about them. For me, the 2016 election cycle has only amplified the urgency of that demand. Come to Selfhood offers one of the most profound opportunities to “listen,” through photos and first-person narratives, of any photo book in recent memory. 

McFadden’s illuminating, powerful examination of black identity has its roots in the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, when McFadden was just 22-years-old. The tragedy – and the sentencing of George Zimmerman – launched McFadden, an African-American photographer and artist, on an exploration of black identity, imaging and perception, and the ways that identity is imposed on young black men, rather than voiced by them. The result is this exquisitely made, hand-bound and hand-assembled softcover book of 30 portraits, which features each subject in three parts: an elegant formal portrait; a vernacular photo on the facing page chosen by each young man of their father; and a small vellum insert, featuring each individual’s thoughts on identity and what it means to be a black male, written in their own hand, which beautifully reinforces the sense of “hearing” the individual speak. “Having multiple older role-models molded me into understanding how life was supposed to be lived,” writes Roy Handy. “From walking and carrying myself a certain way to knowing how to treat women, I’ve paid close attention to the way the black males in my life operated. Defy the odds. Do the things society says you can’t do and build from it.” 

This is a perfect book – strong, insightful imagery, thoughtfully amplified with text and family photos, and compiled as a book that is in itself a work of art.

Signs of Your IdentityBy Daniella Zalcman
FotoEvidence, 2016.
Signs of Your Identity
Photographs by Daniella Zalcman
This is a quiet book that recounts the story of a horrific human rights abuse – the forced removal of indigenous Canadian children from their families, who were then placed in church-run boarding schools as a way of “assimilating” native children into mainstream culture. A brutal practice – also used by the U.S. government – these boarding schools were a means of obliterating indigenous language, culture and tradition, and children were frequently emotionally, physically and sexually abused.

Zalcman’s ongoing project about the survivors of these schools – which won the 2016 FotoEvidence Book Award – explores the lingering trauma experienced by survivors of the system while treating her subjects with dignity and honor. In witnessing, and allowing the men and women she’s photographed to “testify,” she uses multiple exposures, juxtaposing portraits of survivors with landscapes and still lifes that represent memory, trauma and loss. They are sensitive, poetic black-and-white images that are reproduced here with transparent pages of the portraits resting on top of double exposure images, which allows us to confront these individuals and their stories in a multi-dimensional form. Each portrait is also accompanied by short text from the survivor about the effect the boarding schools had on their lives – and continue to have today. The impact of the book is magnified by its spareness and dream-like quality, which seem at home with the culture and traditions that were so tragically assaulted.

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American Motel Signs: 1980-2008By Steve Fitch
The Velvet Cell, 2016.
American Motel Signs: 1980-2008
Photographs by Steve Fitch
As a documentary photographer drawn to complex compositions and busy edges of frames, it’s taken me a while to appreciate photography about place and landscape – images where it seems like “nothing” is going on. That’s been changing for me over the past few years, and I’ve begun to recognize the mastery in this genre, and to learn how to read these subtle images and learn from them.

At the moment, I’m obsessed with Steve Fitch’s slim volume, American Motel Signs, 1980 – 2008 Maybe it’s because I’m working on a documentary film about mobile home parks; maybe it’s because there’s been a whole lot of talk lately about “making America great again” and these photos hint at a narrative that informs that discussion. Whatever the reason, I find this book to be a treasure trove of images that reference a distinctly American restlessness and imagination, a nostalgia and a joy, and also a sense of sadness and missed opportunity. Over nearly three decades, Fitch sought out and photographed motel signs in all of their quirky, individual glory. He has a wonderful eye for capturing the vernacular, and its place in our geography and culture. This collection ranges across America, and it makes my top three list because I keep going back to the book, searching each image for the stories it holds about who we are, and were.

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