photographing young marriage in the digital age
Jenny Magruder has spent over a year shooting a military couple who formed their relationship online.
From Cartier-Bresson's riverside embraces to Arbus' park bench portraits of cat-eyed couples, photographers have long lensed young love. But documenting teenage lust isn't always as confrontationally sex-charged as a Larry Clark backseat makeout session, or even soaked in the same well-lit longing as one of Nan Goldin's ballads of sexual dependency. Often, intimacy is quieter. Often, it's felt alone.
Alaska-born, San Francisco-based photographer Jenny Magruder has shot Vica and Mek -- a young couple from Rochester, NY who formed their relationship online during Mek's military service -- for over a year. Initially enlisted as the pair's wedding photographer, Jenny's curiosity about the different ways love manifests itself and what marriage means today lead to an ongoing series, You Are the Only One. She shot Vica's dress fittings, Mek's empty bedroom, the pair's engagement party, even their temporary home on the Fort Bliss Army base in El Paso, Texas after Mek returned from service abroad.
Beautifully composed and delicately candid, Jenny's images depict the cautious development of intimacy not through firework gestures or after-sex cigarettes, but largely, through moments of solitude. We caught up with Jenny to find out how digital communication and commitment collide.
When did you first become interested in photography and why?
When I was around seven years old, I received a Polaroid camera from my parents and made terribly boring images of my life, my pets and my friends. I don't remember photographing after that until I was in my senior year of high school. I took a photography class at a career center and making photographs quickly became the only thing that made sense to me. This was when analog and digital were taught side by side, but I spent most of my time in the darkroom.
What themes and ideas do you find consistently interesting?
I've always been interested in the human condition and experience. This is why most of my work is portrait-based. Dreams, the unconscious and the natural world are other themes that are very important within my work.
Tell us about your subjects in You Are the Only One. How did you meet them?
I met Vica through a friend during college and learned about her new fiancé. Vica and Mek went to high school together but didn't speak until he joined the army and was out of the country. They started a relationship online and were engaged within a few months. I began photographing Vica as she went through her engagement with the sole support of Denh, Mek's mother. Mek eventually returned for a few months and I photographed them through their engagement party. I then left Rochester, not knowing if the series would continue but hoping it would. A year later I was able to visit them at their temporary home on Fort Bliss in El Paso where I photographed the rest of the series.
How do you feel digital communication has impacted not only Vica and Mek's relationship, but also today's generation?
I feel, in general, that digital communication has been more successful in distraction than it has in creating a sense of community or connecting people. But in Vica and Mek's case, I believe digital communication was merely the means for something that would have happened anyway, had Mek and Vica been in the same place. However, who knows how long it would have taken them to meet again after leaving high school, especially considering Mek's time out of the country. When I asked Vica about the beginning of their relationship, she told me that once she and Mek began talking online, she cut all ties with any other love interests she had, whether they were online or living in her town.
This series is about being together, but it's also about being alone. How did you go about capturing solitude?
I don't think I fully realized that I was photographing solitude at the time I was making the images. I focused on photographing everything I experienced with Vica and Mek, rarely posing them. I think the sense of conflict between isolation and togetherness came through in my photographs because I always try to stay open and never go against what is naturally happening. If the series changes because of it, then I change with it. It just so happened that Mek worked every day and Vica had a very part-time job. I spent most of the time photographing Vica alone and then Mek alone when he would come home. They both had a reclusive way about them, where sometimes they appeared to be in solitude even when they weren't. Once I realized this and would see it happening, I knew I could make the photograph.
What has this project helped you realize?
When I began the series, I was more focused on revealing a woman's perspective on a young military marriage. I had my own ideas, planning to use my subjects as a basis of truth to elaborate from. It wasn't until I had spent a lot of time with them photographing and talking about their relationship, that I realized the series was partially about my own acceptance of love.
What are some of the biggest issues your subjects, as well as young people in general, face today as they come of age?
Lately, from what I've gathered from my friends, strangers, and the internet is that one of the biggest personal issues young people face today is commitment. That could be applied to pretty much anything: relationships, careers, environments, where you will go out this Friday night or what you will eat for dinner. There are so many options and other sources telling you what to do constantly and I think it is making it difficult for us to truly make our own decisions. I'm not trying to say that I have a problem with spontaneity or the like, in fact I admire those qualities. I just believe we should take advantage of our ability to know what we personally want or don't want, about most things. As for my subjects, although I know they felt unsure about their future in a career sense, it was amazing to witness their complete commitment to each other.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Jenny Magruder