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Interview with photographer Debe Arlook

While You Sleep ©Debe Arlook

F-Stop Magazine: How did you first become involved in photography and what led to you working in this medium as an artist?

Debe Arlook: You know the board game, LIFE? I loved getting the artist career but knew it came along with the starving artist tagline. My Dad always had cameras with him, documenting family events in the 60s and 70s. He’d set up our portable silver screen in the den and the whole family would gather to watch slide shows and movies, new and old. They were so funny and precious at the same time. For my 8th birthday, my parents gave me an Agfamatic 126 camera. It had a cool square flash bulb that made a popping sound when it went off. I’d watch it turn when I advanced the film. I don’t remember photographing people much. I do remember photographing trees. I wish I had those photos.

I liked the idea of telling a story with pictures so I went to film school. After graduation I moved to L.A. to direct films. I knew one person, she was not in the industry. Things were different then and I broke my way into the industry as a production assistant quickly. Within a couple of years I was a D-Girl (development girl, as we were called in the 80s) where I read scripts and wrote coverage. A friend gifted me a Leica M6 in the late 90s. I took it everywhere (almost). I submitted work to a well respected exhibition and it was accepted. Life took many turns and I realized I didn’t want to direct anymore. It was always about the strength of a single image. So, I returned to my first love, photography. I was invited to join the Los Angeles League of Photographers in 2001 with some amazing photographers who are my friends to this day.

True to the game of LIFE, this ain’t no money making dream but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. It’s an important extension of who I am.

F-Stop: The current issue of F-Stop Magazine includes images from your project “Silent Buddha,” can you tell us about this project? What led to this work?

DA: During the first summer of the pandemic, I drove to Colorado from Santa Monica to be with my sisters, parents and nephews. Like so many, because of the lockdown, I hadn’t seen my family for a long time. One day, I was photographing David up close. At that moment, I heard a message in my head, “You need to make a project about David and Lori.” It was like an epiphany. I felt my heart open and almost cried. It was such a pure message. I knew everything I had done artistically, up until that moment, was preparing me to tell their story. I told Lori and asked if she was on board. For years she’s been telling me she wants to write a book about her experience. I asked if she was ready to do this with me and collaborate with her writings. She stopped in her tracks and got real serious. She was silent and paused long enough for me to think, “you HAVE to say yes.”

It wouldn’t be writing just for her anymore, she’d be putting it out there for all to read. She said a few things but all I remember is feeling excited when she said, “yes.” I knew we couldn’t do this without David’s consent but I didn’t know how to get it. He has no means of formal communication and does not hold eye contact. I asked him, hoping to get some kind of response. I told him I wanted to tell their story… to be a witness to their lives and his voice through photography. I said I wouldn’t do anything to make him uncomfortable and would respect and honor him. “Is this okay with you?” In response, he stopped moving back and forth and did something he’s never done before. He leaned forward, close to my face and stared into my eyes, holding his gaze. He smiled and leaned back, resuming his sway. Lori and I were in utter shock. We had an affirmative response. I ended up staying a month.

My interest in this project is threefold. 1. My sister’s life is flipping hard and she tackles it head on, without a partner to shoulder the emotional and physical demands. Making this work together is a form of lending support and connects us on a day to day basis. 2. The work becomes a witness and voice to their lives. It shows the effects of long-term care of a loved one. It lets others in similar experiences know they’re not alone. 3. We’re bringing awareness to Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) a rare, debilitating and incurable epilepsy disorder in hopes of raising funds to find a cure.

LGS is a Developmental and Epileptic Encephalopathy (DEE). It means people with LGS have developmental and behavioral problems (as well as epilepsy) which are often worsened by seizures. No one is born with LGS. It develops in preschool years and mostly evolves from another type of epilepsy. The dream is to raise funds to put toward research and find a cure for LGS. As it is now, pharmaceutical companies are raking up the dollars parents spend on meds to decrease the hundreds of seizures our kids experience. Here’s a link If you’d like to donate to the LGS Foundation or learn more about LGS.

Waiting for the Seizure to End ©Debe Arlook

F-Stop: Did you approach this work differently than other projects?

DA: Yes. When I began shooting in August of 2020, all I knew was I was meant to tell their story. I didn’t know what it would look like or how to do it. I was mindful of their privacy and wanted to be sure they’d both be comfortable with me and the camera at all times. Lori and I wanted to show the hidden details of David’s care. I would take her lead when faced with his hygienic care and bathroom needs. When it came time to edit the work, I was ultra cautious, not wanting to upset Lori, my parents or her other two sons. I couldn’t predict which images she’d like or which ones that were difficult for her.

F-Stop: What is your process for making these images or your creative process more generally?

DA: With each project, there’s an intuitive factor that guides how I work. Because it’s more advanced than I am, I let the work marinate until I catch up. Does that make sense?

“Silent Buddha” is my first documentary so I started out traditionally, shooting reportage. I was camera ready, day and night for one month. I had the Fuji X-T1 at that time, which I absolutely love, but it doesn’t hold up in low light situations. In hindsight, having RAW files I wasn’t happy with contributed to the direction I went in making photo-based images.

Many of the photographs were powerful and stood on their own but I could feel the project was in its nascent stage. I didn’t know what form it would take. Seven months later, I was in a workshop with Guggenheim Fellow, Daniel Coburn. His modus operandi is to look at your arsenal and see how you can use what you already have. Use pictures as words to tell the story. I’m not kidding when I say I felt liberated. I combined collage, color, black and white, layers, diptychs, landscape and foliage as metaphors for the physical and spiritual planes Lori and David inhabit. The work shifted drastically from traditional documentary to an unconventional documentary. What do you think, should I call it Pop-Doc?

I’m interested in what David might be experiencing and feel like there’s another layer of the work to come in the form of photographic sculpture.

F-Stop: What do you hope people experience or feel when they look at your photographs?

DA: I’m in awe of my sister, Lori. She’s the Rock of Gibraltar. What she experiences each day doesn’t compare to even my most difficult days. One reason for making the project is to be her witness because she mostly goes it alone. I hope people will see her and recognize her strength and beauty. And David, when I think of him and the bodily hardships he experiences…. I want to share their story and let people know they aren’t alone if they’re having a similar experience. It would be great if the story prompts people to help by making a donation to help families with LGS and find a cure.

F-Stop: How does this project relate to other work or projects you have done?

DA: This is my first documentary project. All of my work except “Edge of an [American Dream]” is conceptual. With “Silent Buddha,” I use an amalgamation of techniques and processes I’ve used over over the years. It’s different in terms of subject matter and content but a natural evolution of my work.

C-Curve ©Debe Arlook

F-Stop: Do you have a favorite image in this series? If so, which one and why is it the image that speaks to you most?

DA: I don’t have a favorite image, maybe because I’m so close to the story. I don’t know. I love that you chose Come on, I’ve got you to represent the project. It gives me pause to look at it with different eyes. David’s nondescript form looms large and loud in pink in the frame but Lori is the main figure in this image. The light and the lines keep the focus on Lori’s eyes, the unconscious pursing of her lips, and the gesture of her hand reaching up to guide him safely down the stairs. It conveys the tenderness, concern, love and patience Lori has for David. It makes me love her more and feel sad as well.

F-Stop: Did you discover anything new that you will carry forward into other projects?

DA: I love this question. Yes. There are no rules. Make your own as you go.

F-Stop: Are you working on any other projects currently?

DA: I continue to work on “Foreseeable Cache,” a surreal representation of what meditation feels like to me. I just returned from a road trip to Colorado for Thanksgiving and was able to shoot in Utah for the series. I’m very excited to have a piece in the Center for Photographic Art’s International Juried Show, juried by Debra Klomp Ching and Darren Ching of Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn. And I’m crazy excited about the debut of my work with eight large prints in the Lishui Art Museum in China for the Lishui Photo Festival. Laura Moya, Director of Photolucida, curated Human/Nature, one of the many exhibitions within the festival. To learn I was invited to participate with finalists from Critical Mass 2020 and 2021 was a huge thrill.

F-Stop: What photographers or other artists inspire you?

DA: Photographers and painters equally inspire me and there’s a long list. I was in New York City recently and spent the entire day (literally, 10am-5pm) soaking up all mediums of the classics and modern and contemporary art. It was my first time in a museum since the pandemic and was one of the last to leave. I was late getting to a closing exhibition of mine and the reason I was in NYC the first place. I was numb and vibrating from all the beauty and pain I saw on display. I even cried a bit in the cab ride, across town. That’s what art can do. Make you feel life and see into the lives of others. I don’t paint but looking at the subject matter, technique and volume of paint used by John Singer Sargent or Van Gogh takes my breath away.

Their work doesn’t filter into mine visually but it sure does inspire me. Here’s a short list of artists whose use of color, shape, form and landscape inspires me: David Hockney, John Baldessari, Elsworth Kelly, Helen Frankethaler, Robert Rauschenberg, Stephen Shore, Margaret Bourke White, Minor White and more recently Mark Klett and Odette England.

To see more of Debe Arlook ‘s work check out the Portfolio 2021 issue of F-Stop or visit: www.debearlookphotography.com

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