ELLEN JACOB, SHORTLISTED 3RD BIENNIAL’S GRANT
My father died on April 5. He was 90. Ten days later, I landed in Svalbard, the Norwegian
island roughly 650 miles from the North Pole. Boarding a small, expeditionary ship, I
headed further north.
The Arctic, no matter how substantial it seems in the endless daylight of spring, is
becoming illusory. Each year, the ice melts a little sooner, retreats a little further toward
the pole. Each year, this amazingly complex community of life contracts. Every living thing
feels this loss — the masses of microscopic plankton, the whales, the bears, birds and
foxes, and ourselves.
As the Arctic disappears, it takes parts of the planet’s life force with it. The serene
landscape belies the ongoing violence, the slow destruction. Drifting for days among the
ice floes and frozen islands, this vast landscape, with large creatures lumbering through
desolate areas, became very personal. It allowed me a contemplative moment to reflect
on mortality—my father’s, my own and the planet’s.
In the dust-free Arctic air, it is clear that we are losing sustenance; fading.
If selected, I will use the funds to expand the imagery and audience; to help bring
awareness of the Arctic’s changing and eroding habitat. I will create hand-bound books,
each containing one original print.
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STATEMENT-US AGAINST THE WALL
Even though we have very different backgrounds, come from different places and hold
differing beliefs, there is sameness in our diversity. We often feel divided and isolated, and
we offer myriad reasons for this isolation: race, class, politics, religion, gender,
economics, birthplace and more. James Baldwin said: “The purpose of art is to lay bare
the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” I want my images to seek those
In this series, Us Against the Wall, I photograph immigrants against graphic backgrounds
of walls to bring attention to the victims of the United States government’s current war
against immigrants. The faces of the undocumented are hidden, as they are
photographed from the back, highlighting how invisible they must be in the present
moment. Citizens and documented immigrants faces are shown.
I see this work as part of a new approach to portraiture in the service of social
engagement. It is born of a need to protect the undocumenteds’ invisibility while making
them very visible; to reveal the government’s actions as an attempted theft of identity.
Faces remain hidden and intimate portraits emerge through subtle body angles, wrinkles
in clothing, hairstyles, a head tilt, a battered backpack, a tattoo, a hand gesture.
My artistic goal is to break down the barriers and strengthen our communities. As
someone who accompanies immigrants to their ICE check-ins, I see the United State’s
government tearing apart families and creating fearful communities. I create these images
because I believe we must build human connections between the undocumented and the
rest if we are to tear down the walls that divide us.
This work is on-going. I am focusing on photographing undocumented immigrant
mothers and their American children who are living in sanctuary to avoid deportation. I
am interviewing and recording the mothers. I am working on a book, which partners my
images with a DACA dreamer’s poetry. I am also planning an installation, where large
images will be hung throughout the exhibition room, creating a maze-like affect. At the
end of the maze, the viewer can have their photo taken against a wall. These installations
will be in immigrant communities, where both immigrants and citizens can come together
and form one community.
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