When photographer Maureen Drennan was growing up, she spent part of her time in Block Island, Rhode Island, whose landscape is characterized by foggy skies and still waters. “It was a lonely time,” she wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “The windblown landscape on Block Island is beautiful but deserted.”
Drennan returned to her childhood haunt again, as an adult, camera in tow, to document the landscape as a sort of self-portrait, a physical embodiment of the isolation she was experiencing in her married life.
Her husband Paul had fallen into a severe depression, leaving Maureen stumbling to understand the inner workings of her partner’s mind. Somehow, taking photos helped. “The intimacy of making the photographs together during a challenging time was restorative,” Drennan said. “Where words failed us, the pictures filled in the blanks.”
The resulting series is called “The Sea That Surrounds Us” ― a line from a love poem by Pablo Neruda. Half of the photos are of Paul, and the other half are images of Block Island, which function as portraits of Drennan’s interior state.
Most of Drennan’s earlier photographic projects followed a familiar recipe. Enter a new community, earn their trust, slowly, through the photographic process, go from outsider to insider. “This project was vastly different from previous ones because I was focusing on my partner and our relationship; it was a subject that was obviously very close,” Drennan said. “With Paul, I was an insider who felt like an outsider.”
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The hardest part of the project, Drennan explained, was actually starting it. “Paul was going through depression and I didn’t want to isolate him further by picking up the camera and photographing him,” she said. “But once I began taking pictures of him, it felt comfortable and it became part of what we did together.” Despite his discomfort being in front of the camera, Paul recognized his wife’s dedication to reading his signals, gestures and movements, and interpreting his state of mind.
“Ultimately, we cannot truly know or understand how someone is feeling or what they are thinking, but we can watch for signs,” Drennan said. “There is a wonderful poem by Tomas Tranströmer called ‘Romanesque Arches’ that beautifully describes ‘endless vaults within us.’ The actual line is: ‘Inside you one vault after another opens endlessly. You’ll never be complete, and that’s as it should be.’”
This era in Drennan’s life, when her marriage was beset with turmoil and uncertainty, has since come to an end. The distance that once separated Maureen and Paul has been narrowed, and the difficulties they both underwent have changed shape, into deep forgiveness and appreciation.
While photography was not the sole factor in this shift of feeling, Drennan is sure it contributed. “During this time of feeling confused, picture-making afforded me some control in the situation,” she said. “It allowed me to operate both in and outside of our relationship. Through this project I recognized how intimacy and fragility can be painful but rewarding. Vulnerability is what makes us human, what makes us beautiful.”