A cartoon before first communion: Susan Kandel’s best photograph

By Henry Yates

This photo was easy because this is my niece, who’s getting ready for her first communion. Her normal state was to be very active, never stationary for more than a minute. Left to her own devices, she’d be wearing a T-shirt and probably out there in the dirt. What I see in this picture is that she’s been told to be good, stand still and not mess up her dress.

It was 1987 and the family lived in Stoughton, Massachusetts. It’s a blue-collar area, not particularly fancy. There were always kids playing outside, which you didn’t see so much in more prosperous neighbourhoods. There was a lot of excitement. First communion is a very big deal. The rationale is that the girls are becoming brides of Christ, so their outfits are like a wedding dress, and the boys wear white suits, white shirts, white ties. They’re seven years old, considered old enough to have a notion of sin. My niece must have just turned 40 now.

Her grandmother, who lived there too, was very devout and so was her uncle – that’s his fist on the right. My niece has the cartoons on, though, and she’s trying not to think about the whole communion thing. To me, she looks like she’s not keen at all. She was very spirited, and she looks a little impatient, a little annoyed – but it’s just one day and she’s going to try and get through it.

The TV and stereo really date this photo. Another thing about the picture – and others of mine – is that there’s a fair amount of clutter. I’m sure some people tidied up before I came, but I think they mostly just let it slide. I loved that, because it helped to tell the story about the people and their life in that room. And also, I loved it because I grew up in such a different kind of house, where everything had to be put away the minute you stopped using it. As if you’d never even been there, like all signs of your activities had been erased.

I’m not the least bit drawn to photographing celebrities. I think they’re adequately covered already. The folks I shot for At Home, my photobook project, are very real. There are stories to tell there. When you photograph a family in their own home, they let their guard down. Once you have that invitation to come in, you don’t have to be constantly negotiating whether you can take a picture. You’re all set.

I’d go out looking for people to photograph. I’d see someone and just feel like I had to ask. Maybe I liked their faces, or their interaction with their kids. Plenty of people refused, or looked at me like I was crazy. Others I wanted to ask so badly, but couldn’t get up the nerve. If I saw a likely prospect, I’d tell my boyfriend to go away, because I figured I’d be less threatening by myself. He got used to it.

I never knew what kind of shot I was going to take. I wasn’t preconceiving anything. I might tell someone they didn’t have to smile, but that was about as direct as it got. I’d just grab the moments. This was one out of about six rolls of film I shot that day, using my Leica rangefinder camera. I’d tend to shoot a lot of film – mostly because I just get excited.

Some families I shot became my friends. When I’d injured my back and couldn’t work for a few months, one mother let me know that if I lost my apartment, I could stay with them. That knocked me out. Other times, people started bickering, or there were clear tensions, and I had to cut the session short. I remember, one bitterly cold day, I’d done a session that just wasn’t happening – even the dog was stiff. I got back to my car to find the locks and doors were frozen solid. I had to go back to the family and ask for help.

Shooting people at home is so different to photographing them outside. A house gives such a good representation of who someone really is. But I’m looking forward to getting out of my house now. I’m getting my vaccination next week. There’s a wide world out there – and it’ll be great to get back into it.

‘There’s a wide world out there’ ... Susan Kandel.
‘There’s a wide world out there’ ... Susan Kandel.

Susan Kandel’s CV

Born: Washington, DC, 1949
Trained: Massachusetts College of Art
Influences: “Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand are at the top of the list. Also my teachers, Tod Papageorge and Nick Nixon.”
High point: “Having one of my photographs included in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort.
Low point: “Leaving the lens cap on while photographing a wedding. Just one roll of film, but that’s bad enough!”
Top tip: “Grab any opportunities – and don’t have any preconceptions.”