Home is Where the Kitchen Is

Photographer Dona Schwartz viewed her family through her camera lens in the hub of their household: the kitchen

For two years, photographer Dona Schwartz chronicled the newly blended family members' interactions in the shared space of their kitchen. (Dona Schwartz)

For her latest book, photographer Dona Schwartz chose the home’s busiest shared space to observe how a newly blended family—two adults, one preteen, three teenagers, two college kids and two dogs—learned to live together. She spoke with Smithsonian’s food blogger, Amanda Bensen, about what she saw In the Kitchen.

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Why do you think the kitchen is such a central point in a family’s life?
The key factor is that everybody eats, so it’s someplace where everybody’s going to turn up eventually. I guess there’s also the bathroom, but that would be even more unwelcome! (Laughs.) And there is something magnetic about the kitchen. There were often other places in the house we could have gathered that were larger or more comfortable—I mean, we have a living room—but for some reason we didn’t. The kitchen just seemed the default place to be.

How did this photographic project begin? Did you start it intentionally or discover a theme more accidentally?
It started about eight years ago, in 2002. I had been exiled from the kitchen on my birthday and I wasn’t very comfortable. Everybody thought they were doing me a great favor because I was always doing all the work as a single parent, but I was feeling like, Now what? Everyone’s in there and I’m out here. So I decided to pick up my camera and take photos. It was one of those “aha!” things when I realized that if you want to understand family, it makes a lot of sense to photograph where they congregate—in the kitchen. The seed was planted that night.

Did the concept or focus of your project change over time?
Well, the family changed when I moved in with my boyfriend. I was happily going along for about nine months doing the project in my own kitchen, and then I sold my house. I thought, What’s going to happen? Is it a mistake to move in with the person I love, because now the project’s going to end? And then it hit me that it didn’t have to end; it was just going to change. The whole question of blending became very pertinent.

Then the book came to revolve around not just the conventional nuclear family, but also the questions: What constitutes family? Can you make a conscious effort to create family when it does not exist in traditional terms? Can we knit together these separate trajectories—and then where do we go?

Also, I began to look for the moments when parents really make a mark on their children. That was particularly salient to me after my mother passed away in 2004. I started to feel that I had become my mother, and I wondered, When did that happen? There are these traits and idiosyncrasies that parents imprint on their children, that carry over into the next generation—and I knew it was happening, but I wanted to find out if I could see it happening.

Were the kids often cooking when you saw them in the kitchen? Did they cook meals for the family or just themselves?
They were usually just hanging out. Family meals? No. (Laughs.) For one thing, that’s hard to time. Even their idea of “morning” was variable. There’s a photo of one of the girls cooking breakfast, looking half asleep, and it’s 11 o’clock in the morning! Also, they each had their own things that they would and would not eat—with more on the “not” side of the list—and limited cooking skills. For example, my son is a vegetarian, but he eats a lot of packaged foods. To him, cooking meant making the trek from the freezer to the microwave.

So, most of the heavy-duty cooking was done by the adults. We’d usually give the kids some jobs, setting the table or helping with cleanup. We tried to be gentle about making them do things, because we knew they thought it was a pretty preposterous idea that just living in the same house suddenly made us a family.

Were certain foods more successful than others in terms of fostering interaction?
We tried to do things that, despite that diverse range in their diets, would work for everyone. Really, only two things worked. One was pizza night. We made our own dough and everything; it gave people things to do and talk about, it became a ritual. The other success was fajitas. People could put those together in ways that they liked and take ownership of them.

Do you think your family’s awareness of the camera influenced their behavior?
That’s hard to say. Because they did all know me as a photographer—they’d had exposure to that persona, so it was not unexpected. But I suppose at a certain point, they probably thought: Isn’t she done yet?

About Amanda Fiegl

Amanda Fiegl is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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