Isadora Kosofsky has been taking photos since she was 14. Now 21, the documentary photographer first got behind a camera during an eighth grade photo development class. Since then, she's dedicated large chunks of her life to long-term photojournalism projects in and around her hometown of LA. Kosofsky embeds herself most often in institutional settings; her most recent project, Vinny and David, followed the two brothers through Vinny's incarceration in a juvenile detention centre, where he was being held for stabbing a man who was assaulting their mother.
Another institution favoured in Kosofsky's work is the convalescent or elderly care home. Much of her art takes the aged as its subject, with perhaps her most famous project being The Three, a photo essay following a love triangle among three seniors living in different care facilities in Los Angeles. We caught up with the introspective artist and UCLA gender studies major to talk about living among her subjects, connecting with the aged and contemporary loneliness.
VICE: Hi, Isadora. How'd you get into photography?
Isadora Kosofsky: I took a basic black-and-white development class in the eighth grade. It's the only photography class I've ever taken. I obtained a camera through that course, which lasted about three months. I lost my grandma shortly after the course ended. I had already had aspirations to be a journalist from a young age, and when I found photography I felt such a connection to it; I felt like I could express myself more readily through my photos than my words. After my grandma passed away I was very lonely and I wanted to photograph people who reminded me of her. I also wanted to tell stories with my camera, so I asked my family for a digital camera and started to approach seniors in public spaces and went to retirement and convalescent facilities.
Is it hard to get access to those facilities?
Yeah. It's challenging to get access to any institutional environment, whether it be a healthcare facility, or, more recently, with work in the correctional setting. The people who work there are naturally wary of outsiders. But I've always had a long-term approach. I can't just drop into a particular surrounding – somebody's life –take pictures, and then leave with those memories. All of my projects are based on long-term, lasting relationships with my subjects. I think when you're working in an environment like a hospital or a convalescent facility, you start to reveal your attachment to your subject, and in turn the people working there realise that your purpose is of importance, of meaning, and that you are giving a lot of time and effort to your subject. I'm a strong believer in using photography as a way to promote somebody's self-worth, through continual exposure of them to being photographed.
Can you expand on that?
I started photographing a particular woman, Bianca, who I met in a coffee shop when I was 14. Shortly after she developed dementia and was disconnected from her family. Her daughter didn't want to have a relationship with her so she was effectively placed under state care. She was in a hospital setting for a while, then a retirement home and then finally moved into a nursing home. I've been photographing her since I was a teenager. I'm still working on the project... I don't feel like it's developed enough to show online. We are very close, and she's definitely an example of a subject where I feel that our relationship with one another, the hours, months, years that we've spent together, and also the creative process itself has been something that has lessened both our loneliness. I've also seen a change in some of my subjects in terms of feeling a sense of confidence and worth as a result of having their story told in a humanistic manner.
What do you find inspiring about sparse, institutional spaces and the people living and working within them?
I guess I'm drawn personally drawn to cloistered spaces, carceral spaces. Not necessarily spaces of imprisonment in a legal sense, but spaces that are confining, where physical confinement becomes emotional confinement for a person. It's more a desire to not necessarily focus on something systemic, but on the humanistic quality in those institutions. When I was in the correctional system, I wasn't interested in the system itself – more in the people telling personal, intimate stories within them. I want to find intimacy in those surroundings. There's also a sense of safety, perhaps, in photographing enclosed spaces. It's definitely a comfort, there's a certain stability that comes with it that maybe I wanted as a young person and a photographer.
With the juvenile detention centre, you're quite close in age to some of your subjects. Was it hard to establish a connection with them?
Ironically, I do find it more difficult to create relationships with people my own age. When I was photographing the elderly it wasn't a challenge to create a bond with them, because I don't think ever saw them as older than me necessarily. Particularly with Jeanie, Will and Adina from the senior love triangle project – I never really envisioned that project would become something about seniors. I was shooting them because I was so drawn to their relationship and their emotional conflicts. I related deeply to their interactions and their struggles in that relationship – particularly Jeanie – that I didn't think about the age gap.
On the topic of the senior love triangle, how did you find them?
I was photographing a woman at Jeanie's retirement home at the time. One night, as I was leaving, I was standing in the parking lot and noticed Adina, Will and Jeanie hand in hand. Will buzzed Jeanie in, and entered the premises, while he and Adina bid her farewell. I watched her walk up the pathway to her facility and just felt this immediate connection to the loss that she felt in that moment. The feeling that she was the first to be left behind, the first to say goodbye for that particular day. I watched as Adina and Will made their way in another direction.
I observed them for a few weeks before I actually approached them, and I also spoke with people at the retirement communities where they were living, because they were all close to each other. I was asking around among the staff about them, too, as retirement communities in LA are quite a small circle. I went to the various facilities and spoke to staff members casually, particularly in Jeanie's facility where I'd been working. I asked caregivers to tell me a bit about them and was curious how they were being perceived by others in the homes. I wanted to see if there was any judgement towards them. I knew, even prior to talkgin to anybody, I could sense that there was some kind of romantic thread between the three of them. Caregivers kept dubbing their relationship "The Threesome" but a few men at the facility kind of scoffed at it, saying it was impure for a man to have two women. So, after a few weeks of observing them coming in and out of the facility and seeing them in the coffee shop on the corner, I approached Jeanie one morning as she was waiting for Will and Adina. I introduced myself and said: "I'm really fascinated by you and I'd like to get to know you, spend some time with you and your friends."
Were they keen to be involved?
She agreed, and I initially didn't even take out my camera. And time passed I did start photographing them, making it clear that I was a documentary photographer who'd like to tell their story, but they really weren't interested in it. They were actually the least interested group I've ever photographed in terms of the actual pictures being produced. They just liked having me around and started to forget that I was there, which is a ideal as a photographer. I spent so much time with them that I started to feel like we were on an adventure, unsure exactly where we were going. It was a desire for togetherness, really. A desire to not necessarily remain young, but resisting the isolation and loneliness that comes with the ageing process for many people.
How long did you follow them?
About two years.
What's the relationship between them like these days?
As of now, they're no longer involved with each other. I'm trying to continue the project but they're no longer involved. They don't have communication because Adina and Jeanie's families no longer wanted them in that relationship. Their families kind of imposed a decision, and the relationship ended.
Did the families find out about the relationship because of the photo project?
No, they knew for months prior.
How do Jeanie, Will and Adina feel about the split?
I have contact with them, and had particularly frequent contact with Will for a while, but, as they get older, their memory is starting to deteriorate more and more. Their lives are not as active as they used to be. I haven't really discussed it with them explicitly, but I would say they were each more concerned about losing Will than losing each other. Their friendship as women was not something they were as worried about losing.
What is it like getting so intimate with the people you're photographing and then finishing a project and having to leave them?
I don't necessarily consider any of my projects finished, but the process of becoming essentially friends with my subjects is really the only way that I can shoot. I can't responsibly tell someone's story unless I feel embedded in their lives. I've noticed that I have spent – at least since I was 14 – a lot more time with my subjects than with friends and family. It's a very emotional process. I choose people and stories that somehow reflect something that I've gone through or relate to. Personally, I care more about the relationships with my subjects than with the actual photographs that are a result of that relationship.
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