The Human Condition: PW Talks with Fritz Liedtke
We spoke with Liedtke about the importance publishing difficult material and the lasting connections between photographers and their subjects.Fritz Liedtke’s Skeleton in the Closet collects portraits of people who have suffered from eating disorders, each of the photographs accompanied by writing from the subjects. The book earned a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer calling it “by turns heart-wrenching and redemptive…artful and humanizing” and stating that Liedtke “[treats] each subject in a unique and sensitive fashion.” We spoke to Liedtke about the importance of going out of one’s way to publish difficult or unclassifiable subject matter, and the lasting connections between photographers and those they photograph.
Why did you feel it was necessary to distribute these photographs beyond the bounds of a gallery? Did you shop the project around to publishing houses before deciding to put it out on your own?
Eating disorders affect everyone. In spite of the prevalence of the issue, I don’t feel it is well understood. The media discussions of the issue are often fraught with stereotypes; we are led to assume that eating disorders are just for rich white girls. Those with eating disorders are often very secretive about their stories, so the truth is hard to discern.
I wanted to tell the real stories of real women and men, and help readers understand what it’s really like to live with and try to leave behind an eating disorder. This series has shown around the U.S. in galleries—and that’s been valuable—but I felt that a book was a more effective way to let a reader enter in to the lives of the people depicted. It also allowed me to collaborate with one of my favorite writers, Gina Ochsner, who wrote a powerful essay for the book.Most [publishers] shied away from the difficult subject matter, and many didn’t know how to categorize the work in order to sell it: Is it art? Health? Photography? Women’s Issues? Psychology? Of course, it belongs in all these categories, and more. I like to say it belongs in the “Human Condition” category.
Was there a particular audience you wanted to reach?
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life…” If you factor in all the medical and psychological staff caring for these people, and for all the family members surrounding them, there are millions more affected by these disorders. This book has the ability to help the sufferers feel better understood, and give a deeper understanding of the struggle to those who care for them. As a work of art, both the photography and writing are also powerful in their own right, and appeal to anyone who appreciates fine craftsmanship and meaningful dialogue.
How have the subjects reacted to the book? How do they feel seeing their stories grouped with similar, or not-so-similar stories?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Most people shared their stories because they hoped that doing so would help others. I’ve received countless notes from both participants and viewers, saying, “Participating in the project helped me turn a corner in my journey,” or “After viewing this work, I feel less alone.” That’s rewarding for both the participants, and the artist.
As to the stories contained in the book: While there are many common themes in the stories of those with eating disorders, I didn’t want them to repeat or overlap too much. Thus, I looked for a portion of each person’s story that was unique to them, and which could be illustrated with an image. In this way, the book is composed of many small vignettes, which combine to make a larger narrative.
Have you kept in touch with the subjects?
Yes, some of [the people in the photos] are good friends, and some are acquaintances that catch up with me on occasion. I try to keep people updated on what is happening with the series. It’s been very rewarding to hear from those who have found health and growth. Many participants have come to gallery openings or book signings.
How does it feel, knowing that it’s likely that many of them will continue to battle with eating disorders for their entire lives?
It is difficult to watch people you care about struggle—often for a lifetime—with such deep issues. As I photographed the project, there were some weeks that were very difficult for me in this regard. But for the most part I looked at the project as a positive thing: I was able to tell true stories with compassion and honesty; I was able to give voiceless people a voice; and together we’ve been able to offer many people some real hope.