The Photographic Alphabet: K is for Karen Arango
By Tyson Duffy
The work of photographer Karen Arango uses family as one of its central subjects. How families eat, how they live, what their sons and daughters and grandparents look like is at the core of her work. There is much that is apparently cozy in her photographs—in her exhibition In the Hills of Colombia, children from a farm family hang on each other, grin into the camera, while the mother, father, and elder children milk cows and prepare meals—but also something faintly, subtly politically charged. At unexpected moments, Arango manages to capture human despair in a way that is poignant and understated. Among the images of that Colombian family playing, building, working, emerges a single photograph of the grandfather standing alone by a wire fence, squinting into the near distance, his palm on his head, as if asking the very hills in the countryside “What next for us?” It’s these indelible moments that make Arango an artist.
There are plenty of such moments to be found in Miss Behave, her most recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography.
This particular series centers on the daughters of immigrant families in America, casting simple portraits of pre-teen girls in their home or neighborhood surroundings. What’s striking isn’t necessarily the emotional vulnerability of the photos, or the sheer rawness of the composition, but the adult-like maturity of the subjects. Their faces seem to tell you all you need to know about the difficulty of their world and the uncertainty of their future. Caught between two cultures, two generations, two national political parties (one of which wants to “build a wall”), with much riding on their small shoulders, these first generation Americans have by necessity advanced past girlhood and prematurely become women.
The culmination of Arango’s work ultimately reveals itself as an examination of childhood, family, and nation. What is childhood, after all, without the support of family? And what, in the end, is family—what are we as people—without the support and love of the nation we call home?