From Sally Mann to Nick Nixon, from Timothy Archibald to Reathel Geary, photographers have found muse and meaning in family. Sarker Protick’s photos of his frail grandparents add to a photographic tradition of devotion to family. They embody an answer to the eternal question, “What makes a good photograph?”
Love makes a good photograph.
Protick’s beautiful series What Remains is an ethereal work that draws a huge impact from small movements and small observations. Protick’s heartfelt study of his grandparents, John and Prova, helped them all cope with the twillight of their lives. It is a work of great weight and empathy.
It also was a homecoming for Protick. Growing up, he was very close to his grandparents. He was small, they were big and strong. As they grew older, their bodies “took different forms.” And, of course, he went out into the world to make his way. “This work brought me close to them again. And the time I spent made them happy,” says Protick.
The project started after John retired and moved with Prova to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. John got cancer, and he and Prova faced their own mortality.
“We never thought John would survive long,” says Protick. “But then Prova slowly got weaker. It was difficult to see her.”
Prova had a heart attack and her health declined rapidly. In the months before her death, Protick did not photograph her. His grandparents, though infirm, were willing subjects. Along with heart must go a strong aesthetic — an aesthetic that fits. Protick chose high exposures and pared down compositions. The effect is one of a fragile existence. His grandparents’ whitewashed walls made every space a walk-in light box. The result is an otherworldly series of minute details.
“There’s always a story and content, but then there’s the language,” Protick says of his style. “In literature, in poetry, and in music. It’s the same in photography. It seemed that this visual language was the right expression for the story.”
The idea of bathing the images in light came during a quiet moment spent sitting on the floor of their apartment.
“I saw light coming through, washed out between the white door and white walls,” he says. “All of a sudden, it all started making sense. I could relate what I was seeing to what I felt.”
John and Prova’s lives appear slow and bathed in an aura. It’s almost as if they are at the gates of heaven, if one believes in such a thing.
“Here, life is silent, suspended,” says Protick. “Prova was almost paralyzed at the end. So what does she wait for? They believe in eternal life. I guess they are waiting for that. Another journey beyond maybe. It’s a wait for something that I don’t completely understand.”
Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Everyone presumes Capa meant physical proximity, but he could just as easily be talking about emotional proximity. The intimacy of the photos draws the viewer into John and Prova’s lives and proves love makes good photographs.
“John and Prova loved that I made pictures of them and it helped me to slow down and see things differently, to feel what I never thought about,” reflects Protick. “After Prova passed away I visited John almost everyday, just to spend some with him. I didn’t photograph for a year. It’s wonderful how photography sometimes gives you so much than just good photographs.”