The Four Pillars

I began photographing a faith-based self-help group and its members in 2015. Despite their ostensibly comfortable lives, these affluent suburbanites felt unfulfilled and directionless. They would meet once a week in a church recreation room to discuss spiritual and secular strategies to find meaning and purpose—a gospel of self-actualization. I became fascinated by the discrepancies at the heart of this community; the gap between what they wanted from their lives and what they had been told they should want. I was deeply struck by the ways in which group members felt constricted to certain paths, identities, or sexualities and their desire to break free from these limits.

While this group is not the subject of every image in this series, it is the seed from which the project grew. I wanted to visually examine how a society that so many find so onerous is able to perpetuate itself so fluidly. I am trying to understand visually how and why a society creates the categories through which we understand—and misunderstand—ourselves. How do we see the invisible forces that dictate so many of our decisions? Why do we conform to certain archetypes? What is lost in this conformity but also what do we stand to gain through the subjugation of our personal freedom to that of a larger group or community?

While my previous projects drew inspiration from the legacy of documentary photography, The Four Pillars references popular, vernacular photography, i.e. the holiday card, the maternity announcement, the instructional demo, the professional headshot, the stock image, among others. I’m interested in these forms because they complicate the reductive photographic dichotomy of candid vs. constructed, truth vs. fiction. Everyone knows that when a smiling family poses for a holiday card, they are reenacting a performance, embodying an image they have seen countless times before. It is an aspirational image but one that contains deeper truths about our fantasies and anxieties. As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, the “mask is the meaning in so far as it is absolutely pure” (Camera Lucida 34).

On a literal level, the photographs depict activities ranging from church classes to acting troupes to team building exercises to family photoshoots. While these may seem disparate, they all reveal something about our collective desires—who we want to be and how we want to be seen.

On a fundamental level, these images are about the relationship between the individual and the group and the social gravity that holds these two in alignment in contemporary, suburban America. The invisible forces that reward conformity and punish difference—creating pleasure and repression, two sides of the same coin.

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The Four Pillars by Eli Durst

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