Jaret Belliveau assembles his family album from moments that would normally get cut from the scrapbook: his father wandering a rust-coated junkyard; his brother stooped over a toilet with that forlorn, post-puke look on his face; his mother hooked up to a tangle of hospital tubing. Belliveau has been photographing his family for over four years, first peeking in on their daily lives in and around Moncton, then charting his mother’s struggle with cancer and the aftermath of her death. “Dominion Street,” being presented at Gallery TPW until March 6, marks another evolution in Belliveau’s photographic documentation, bringing together his own shots alongside a series of old family pictures.
The project started during Belliveau’s breaks from the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design, back when he “didn’t even know how to use a flash.” At home in Moncton, he would take his parents to the places they grew up, photographing them in locales from their past and hearing stories of that time. His father is a truck driver and his mother became a minister late in life, and it was by watching them through his lens and in these environments that he started to understand them as individuals. “At the beginning, it was really innocent,” he says, “I was in my third year of school. It was this really interesting time as a photographer, and I was exploring that in a really hands-on matter.”
Though the sense of innocence was inevitably cast aside due to his mother’s illness, Belliveau didn’t lose his awareness of how space shapes a moment. “You can go to a war zone and take a picture of somebody’s head that’s been blown off—or you can find onlookers,” he says. In this case the spectators are his father and younger brother, David, shown in winter-wear limbo next to his mother’s frail but at times smiling figure. This section of Belliveau’s work is as much about their grief as his mother’s deterioration. “I was trying to be compassionate to my father losing a wife. Or to my grandmother watching her daughter die,” Belliveau explains.
Following his mother’s death, Belliveau procured a green 1975 VW van—what else?—and tinkered ’til it was fit for long stretches of highway. With the help of a grant from his school, he and David journeyed across the country, taking photos throughout the ride. “We were using a guide from 1975 called Explore Canada,” says Belliveau, “So every time we rolled into a town I’d ask David what was happening in 1975, same year as the van. We were looking for things that didn’t exist anymore.” For two sons coping with the loss of a mother, this search for the irretrievable becomes especially poignant .
During their trip, Belliveau began a series of faux vacation shots of David in front of major Canadian monuments: windswept in front of the Plains of Abraham, bandana covering his eyes outside a teepee in British Columbia. “I would position him but I wouldn’t tell him how to act,” explains Belliveau about this transition away from fly-on-the-wall candids. “I wanted to give him as much of an environment as possible in which he could express himself.” Previously featured in The Walrus and on the CBC’s website, these sort-of-posed shots are given new context alongside a collection of family photographs Belliveau resurrected from a hutch in his grandmother’s house. Unmarked images from various places and eras, they further emphasize his interest in both a national and familial past. “I’m playing with the idea of what makes a family album. Like there’s a photo of my mom with a man, and it’s not necessarily my father. So part of it is playing with history and the way people interpret photographs.”
The final series of photos—many of which have not been shown before—marks a return to the homestead of Belliveau’s original work. He describes his mother as the “constant,” and after her death their house came apart—literally. Writing on the ceiling, dislodged furniture, and a bottle of liquor sunk into a hole in the drywall are all elements that speak to the pain of the past few years. Like at the beginning of the project, Belliveau found that the location said as much about his family as they could say themselves.
“That’s my dad’s house and that’s the state it was in before he sold it,” Belliveau says, “I wanted to investigate environments like my family home. I felt like they spoke to me as much about loss and the trauma of losing somebody. And all the pain that was wrapped up in that event was just still there.”
“Dominion Street” is on display until March 6 at Gallery TPW. It is presented courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery.
Photos courtesy of Jaret Belliveau.