Santa Fe–based Saro Calewarts explores trauma and the healing process in her photographic project, Agency Lessons.
Anyone who has been in talk therapy has likely heard the term “inner child” or has even engaged in “inner child work,” a type of therapeutic practice used to heal attachment wounds formed during childhood. Saro Calewarts, a Santa Fe–based photographer, takes the psychological practice of inner-child work a step further and collaborates with her younger self on the photographic series Agency Lessons (2017-2022).
The series is composed of personal archival, street-style, and highly manipulated and staged images in a mix of black and white and color. The mélange of photographic styles gives the series a highly fragmented viewing experience that yo-yos between a heartbreaking story of abuse and poverty and a study in visual semiotics. In addition to the disjointed viewing experience, recurring visual symbols of broken glass and birds in flight echo the psychological term “fractured” that describes the experience of traumatic memories.
In Sapling Soldiers, the first image in Calewart’s series portfolio, a grainy vernacular image of two young girls displayed beneath broken glass lays the foundational groundwork for the series. The smiling faces of the two girls are undermined by broken glass, which superimposes ideas of violence and loss on the image. The next three images build a narrative from a child’s perspective, especially It’s What I Didn’t Write, an image of a note written by a child to their mother, from whom they are clearly separated. Arguably the most heartbreaking and explicit image in the series, it also speaks to the resilience of children to endure difficult situations. Or for childhood trauma to show up later in life. The following image, Night Terrors 1, introduces an abstract yet cinematically familiar scene that signals it is from the perspective of a child. The lens is focused on the grooves of scratched glass, while red taillights are rendered in soft bokeh somewhere in the distance. Two other images, Not a Ghost and Agency Lessons, have a dreamy quality that calls to the imaginative qualities and coping mechanisms of children.
Agency Lessons comes at a time when there is incredible popular interest in the “trauma plot” (see Parul Sehgal’s recent article “The Key to Me” in the New Yorker), yet the series does not seek to illuminate the artist’s difficult past. Instead, the images explore psychological concepts and processes associated with healing. The artist treats her younger self as a collaborator with agency, and together, they create something new, experimental, and full of mystery.