Friday, December 31, 2010

Life Studies: The Oxford Project

I don't know the typical age at which a person begins to reflect back on their life and the choices they've made. I imagine it accompanies major life changes, like parenthood or hitting the big 4-0; or even something as predictable as the end of another year. I happen to be a new parent who's pushing forty and, lately, I've found myself contemplating the bizarre twists and turns that have led me to where I am now. This sort of thinking can quickly lead to unhealthy brooding on "what might have been." What I've found helpful, however, is reading about what others have made of their lives so far.

There are only a few longitudinal studies of human subjects (which record repeated observations of the same individuals over long periods of time) that have gained popular appeal; the most well-known being the UP Series. Starting with Seven Up, the researchers of this study chart the lives of 14 seven year-old British children, revisiting them every seven years until the age of 42. In each interview, the subjects reflect on their lives and what's changed over the interval.

While browsing the shelves in my local library one day, I accidentally came across a photographic study along the same lines. In The Oxford Project, photographer and Oxford, Iowa resident Peter Feldstein presents his portraits of the town's 676 residents, originally taken as part of an art project back in 1984.
In the Introduction, writer Stephen G. Bloom explains, "if you ask Peter why he wanted to photograph his neighbors in the rural town of Oxford, he'll tell you it was a social experiment, a way to give equal, democratic billing to every single resident - rich or poor, young or old, respected or reviled." In this 2008 publication, Feldstein reproduces as many portraits of the original group as he can, placing the updated pictures alongside each subject's younger self. With the added "narration" - in the form of Bloom's shrink wrapped interviews of 100 Oxford residents - the result is a strangely compelling view of ordinary folks living ordinary lives.

As Bloom describes,
More than I would have expected broke down in tears and confessed life stories seldom acknowledged. Many talked about relationships gone bad. Several revealed they were victims of domestic abuse or had weathered infidelities. A few exaggerated facts, boasting about events that I doubt ever occurred. A number of people confided great regrets and profound sorrows. Often their words came out slowly and methodically, other times they poured forth in jags and torrents. The language of not just a few was pure poetry.
I found the stories to be alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) disturbing, tragic, funny, inspiring, and, in every case, deeply affecting. Although the full interviews were "compressed" for publication by Bloom, I was most interested in what each person chose to speak about in describing their lives. One young woman revealed that she had been abandoned with her dog at an Oxford church at the age of three by her carny parents. Another woman referred to her "no-fail piecrust" recipe. An older male contrasted his former Buckskinner lifestyle to the demon-fighting activities in his current work as the founder of a gospel church. Reading these various accounts, I wondered which areas of my own life I would choose to highlight during such an interview and what, if anything, my choices might say about me.

Although there is much about life in small town U.S.A. that is foreign to me (the shots of children and adults posing with their beloved firearms came as something of a shock), I was reassured by how much I had in common with these people. Most of all, I was impressed with the simple dignity of Oxford's residents, clearly represented in their own words and in Feldstein's fascinating series of photographs.

No comments:

Post a Comment