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Behind the Series with Sarah Mei Herman

Julian & Jonathan

Julian & Jonathan

What is the story behind your winning photo series?

My most extensive body of work is Julian & Jonathan: A series portraying the relationship between my father Julian and my twenty-one-years younger half-brother Jonathan.

Jonathan sitting in our father’s old leather swivel-chair. As a young girl I sat a lot in this chair, alone or together with Julian.

The relationship between Julian and Jonathan used to be very close; they seemed to share a world which I was not entirely a part of.  The relationship between my half brother and me has always been a complicated one. When he was younger it was difficult for me to get close to him, which is probably partly why I started photographing him so frequently.

Julian & Jonathan

During a family trip to my father’s home country South Africa in 2005 I started photographing Jonathan alone and together with our father (Jonathan was 4 years old at the time). During this trip he often rebelled against me. I think that the fact that we share the same father was difficult for him. Photographing Jonathan repeatedly seemed to be the only way to somehow get a little closer to him and make contact. Most of the time he accepted me photographing him, but it often became some sort of negotiation in which we made agreements about how many photos I was allowed to take for example. In many of the photos I took of Jonathan during the first few years, his resistance is quite tangible. Over the years, Jonathan’s attitude towards me changed a lot and our bond grew stronger. I realize that he is actually quite proud of having become such an important subject in this photo series.

This photograph was taken during a family trip to my father’s homecountry South Africa.

The series has been ongoing since 2005. The photographs in this series reveal the triangular relationship between the three of us. Memories from my own childhood and relationship to my father are now, to some extent, mirrored in Jonathan. By photographing him I try to approach our unusual sibling relationship which I am only a part of only occasionally, remotely, or at a distance.

This photograph was taken during a family trip to my father’s homecountry South Africa.

Although the work is very much about me and my family, it is also about the relationship between a relatively older father and his son.  I show moments, but they don’t tell the whole story of who Julian and Jonathan are. These are captured moments between the three of us. Moments between a father, his daughter and his son. I don’t believe that it is important to know my personal history to understand the work. I hope that my images touch upon certain universal aspects of familial intimacy.

Julian & Jonathan

This photo series is definitely the one that challenges me most, since it is so close to me. Because it is about my direct family, it is not always easy to take a certain distance.

I’m currently working on a book about “Julian & Jonathan”. It’s very exciting going through the archive which I built up over the past 16 years, and finally bringing all the work together.

This portrait of Jonathan was taken a few months after his mother passed away. It was taken in the house where he used to live together with his mother. He now lives there by himself.

Why is photography important to you?

For me photography is a way to get closer to people; to connect with them beyond language. The camera gives me access into people’s lives.

I work with an analog Mamiya, which is a big and heavy medium format camera. This camera forces me to slow down and to enter into a moment of silence.  

Julian & Jonathan

I try to get as close to my subject as I can, or maybe as close as feels right.  I believe one can get very close without being intrusive.

The trust involved between my subjects and me is a very important aspect in my work. Photographing the same subjects repeatedly over time and getting to know them better gives me the possibility to get closer.

In my opinion relationships and the intimacy and closeness between people, are one of the most important things in life. Looking at people and how they relate to each other is an endless source of inspiration for me.

Julian & Jonathan

Sarah Mei Herman is a Dutch artist and photographer.  Her series “Julian and Jonathan” won a Judges Choice Award in the Spring 2021 Awards.  The photos included along with this interview are from Sarah’s series entry to the DFA. You can view the full series on Sarah’s website HERE. Find more of Sarah’s work on Instagram @sarahmeiherman

The Documentary Family Awards is an international competition in search of the insightful and meaningful ways that documentary photographers explore the interpretation of family.