Disquiet: Amani Willett Contemplates Being a New Father During Uncertain Times

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Amani Willett/Courtesy of Damiani
"I found myself having an internal dialogue where my personal experience of family were converging with my thoughts about he world I was bring my son into," Amani Willett says about the genesis of his first book, Disquiet. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Reading Disquiet, Brooklyn, New York-based photographer Amani Willett’s first book, which was published earlier this year by Damiani, is a bit like unpacking a particularly well-crafted set of Chinese boxes. Each pass reveals another layer, clarifying intellectually what may have already resonated emotionally. Or vice versa. Disquiet documents the first two years of Willett’s son’s life, using the social and economic turmoil of America’s Great Recession as a backdrop.  

The work is instantly familiar—the visual documentation of a young, educated family welcoming and celebrating its first child. But that thin veneer of normalcy swiftly falls away, revealing instead a portrait of a family in the eye of a storm. 

During the summer of 2010 when Willett began working on the images that would eventually be collected in Disquiet, his life was in a state of flux. After making a name for himself as a self-taught “street photographer,” Willett was entering the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and becoming a father at the same time. With the recession in full swing, change and uncertainty were everywhere he looked. Photographing his new family, Willett began to make the sorts of connections that lie at the heart of this book. “I found myself having an internal dialogue where my personal experiences of family were … converging with my thoughts about the world I was bringing my son into—the economic trouble, political dysfunction, war and climate disasters,” the artist says. “At first I was experimenting with the idea of creating small groups of images that operated as sentences or even short stories. It was from there that I made the leap to envisioning the project as a book.”

In one frame, lonely silhouettes in the streets dart through roiling clouds of smoke and gas. In another, jumbled metal barricades sit quietly in the fading evening light. Elsewhere, unruly mobs wave placards behind burning roadblocks. Some of the images are repurposed from news reports—altered, printed out and rephotographed.

The chaos of the outside world is thrown into relief against the tranquility of wife and baby, at home. A baby boy sleeps on his mother’s chest, his head resting in the nape of her neck. Mother walks in a garden, child in her arms amidst sun-dappled shrubbery. The dichotomy seems clear: A faceless outside world consumed by strife is kept at bay by the comfort of the family, a symbol of the power of love over hate. But then you look again. 

Living with the book, initial assumptions start to seem inadequate; the “home as refuge from upside-down world” narrative thins like an onionskin. One first notices the tension in the mother’s shoulders as she sits alone on the edge of the bed. In another image she is nude on a couch, facing away from the camera, skin stretched tightly over her vertebrae. A newspaper lies unread in the fall leaves. Cheerios spilled on a cold tile floor echo the scrambled jigsaw puzzle pieces from a few pages earlier. Bare bulbs cast stark light on an unfinished basement. Looking again at the earlier photograph of the mother and child in the garden, we see the worry in her face, her hand comforting the child. 

Willett acknowledges the intensity of the push and pull between public and private in the book, but says he was focused more on “the anxieties that becoming a father brought to the forefront for me, [and the fact] that this new milestone in my life coincided with one of the more trying political and economic periods in recent history.” Willett sees the work as a weaving of his own “internal dialogue” that reflects “the way we experience the world.” The book eschews “strict boxes around life, work, society, politics.”

Editing for a book was new territory for Willett, who has previously shown his work only through exhibitions. He came to realize that some pictures he “would never think of hanging on a wall” worked in this context because of “their descriptive ability and the way they could connect parts of the book to one another.” Sequencing was also key: The pictures of his son are chronological, but everything else had to contribute to the book’s narrative arc and design esthetic. 

There is a somnambulistic quality to this project—the sensation of a dream in which you fear something terrible looms. Willett’s greatest achievement here may be his ability to tie a subject as personal as the birth of his child into the wider context of American unease and uncertainty in this new millennium. His fears and worries create an emotional resonance that reverberates through the frantic tumult of street protests and an expecting mother’s quiet worry with equal poignancy.

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