Bummer Lamb
Rachael Banks, Bummer Lamb, 2022. Archival pigment print, 36 x 27 inches. Courtesy of the artist

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Call for Entry Highlight: The Trail of the Dead

Posted on June 3, 2024

For the 2024 iteration, FotoFocus announced a new Biennial initiative: Call for Entry Selections. These six selected projects highlight talent from the region’s artists and curators as part of the first large-scale regional Call for Entry in the Biennial’s history. Each month leading up to the Biennial, a Call for Entry project will be highlighted. Learn more about The Trail of the Dead, a combination of archival video, large-scale projection, mixed media collages, and photography. This project will be on view September 20–November 3, 2024 at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery.

Rachael Banks: The Trail of the Dead is a visual anthology of life and death within the central region of Kentucky. Photographic imagery, surveillance footage, and archived media present the intertwined storylines of a family and white-tailed deer with shared experiences of trauma, and the landscape understood as home. FotoFocus interviewed Banks to learn more about her upcoming project for the 2024 FotoFocus Biennial.

FotoFocus:  What is the significance of white-tailed deer in your work?

Rachael Banks: The deer is a metaphor for my connection to family and home. I use the deer’s image to reference where I am from for geographical context and personal family folklore that regards deer as good omens or guardians. I further utilize the imagery of deer to make visual parallels between my family structure and the herd of deer that live near my home and on my father’s property. Additionally, I use the image of the fawn as a symbol of innocence and a visual reference to the psychological response of fawning—a coping mechanism often formed in childhood to avoid adult mistreatment (Schwartz).

Left: Rachael Banks, The Family, 2020. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist; Right: Rachael Banks, The Portal, 2020. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

FF: How has your family been involved in the making of this series, and how do they feel about their portrayal and participation in the work?

RB: My family has been involved with my work from the beginning in varying capacities—they have housed me while I was traveling from my former residence in Dallas, TX, attended gallery openings when able, and have even served as a co-panelist for an artist lecture. The work originated with my younger brother (Michael) and sister (Taylor), serving as the main subjects in my work, and it has grown to include mostly all my immediate family and extended family members. I have been fortunate to have such a supportive family that is often enthusiastic toward my creative endeavors. At the root of this series is a deep level of trust that I hold myself accountable to respect.

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The unspoken rule is that my family does not go out of their way to micromanage or oversee what/how I am making photographs of them because they trust that the images I choose to use/publish will not cause distress. When unsure about a picture, I consult with family members to receive consent for use. However, I generally have a good idea of what I can and can’t publish and have rarely experienced instances of blowback from the family.

Rachael Banks, Michael, 2021. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

The act of photographing my family and presenting their likeness from my gaze provides me a small power in controlling their image and how it is presented to the rest of the world—I am sometimes uncomfortable with my ability to do this and have occasional tiny anxieties about how members of the public could potentially misinterpret who my family members are as people. With that in mind, it is difficult to say how my family feels about their portrayal. While I already have a lot of control over how they are visually presented, I am uncomfortable with speaking for them on top of that. I can say that my family continues to support me in many ways, from attending my events, purchasing my publications (I wish they would accept my freebies), and engaging with me in front of the camera.

One development within the past couple of years is that several family members will often text/call me to let me know if something has happened or will happen at the family farm that they feel I would see as an opportunity to photograph. I love that my family has become supportive by feeding me ideas for images to add to the project—many of these ideas have made the edit! There have also been times when I have brought my camera to a family gathering out of habit. I haven’t always felt motivated to take photographs, but I have been encouraged to do so by individual family members. These small but significant experiences remind me of how fortunate I am to be a part of a family that genuinely supports me and expresses that in a very open and generous way.

Left: Rachael Banks, Bev, 2022. Archival pigment print, 24 x 32 inches. Courtesy of the artist; Right: Rachael Banks, Cecilia and King, 2023. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

FF: Your portraits of family members act, in a way, as a visual archive of their aging. Has this impacted your relationships or photographic process (are there moments in which you take specific care to capture or avoid)?

RB: I never photograph my family when they do not want to be photographed. The benefit of photographing the family I am close to is that I am relatively intuitive and self-aware enough to understand that a specific time may not be best for photographing one of my family members (even if they don’t outright say it). An example of this was during my younger sister’s two pregnancies—it may have seemed like an opportune moment for photographing her (and I do have a couple of photographs). Still, I generally avoided this as she noticeably didn’t always seem comfortable. My family will always be my family first, and my unofficial role as the family archivist is second to my role as their sister/daughter/etc.

I am also cautious in my approach to photographing my nieces and nephews. There are few to no photographs of them as infants because I am concerned about their autonomy and ability to consent to being in the work. Even as my nieces/nephews grew older and more aware, I mostly avoided photographing them because of my position of power as an adult and out of respect for their parents. I felt somewhat uncomfortable using them as supporting props to my family narrative. Currently, the kids photographed are very enthusiastic about it, and my approach to photographing them was waiting for them to approach the idea (and after getting permission from parents). In short, I understand that I am photographing people I love very deeply, and even when the light and setting are “picture perfect,” I always prioritize the mindset of who is being photographed and their feelings outrank my desire to make photographs.

Left: Rachael Banks, The Wedding, 2017. Archival pigment print, 35 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artist; Right: Rachael Banks, Joelle, 2022. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist

FF: You mention that your home region of Kentucky has one of the highest mortality rates for drugs, alcohol, and suicide. How is that related to this body of work?

RB: Members of my paternal family have significantly struggled with alcoholism throughout multiple generations. I am the child of an alcoholic with an extensive family history of alcohol-related trauma that informs my work. My creative research primarily revolves around my family dynamic and interest in genetic predispositions for developing alcoholism. As my family grows, I am curious about the cycle of substance abuse as to whether someone will eventually break it or if history will repeat itself. It’s important to make parallels between my familial history and my home state because while my work is personal, I should note that much of my experience is not unique to myself and is relevant to the regional community on a larger scale.

As an artist, I find myself trying to balance my work in showcasing narratives that are personal but also accessible to a larger group of viewers. I would also like to note that despite this morbid statistic (Trust for America’s Health) referenced regarding my home state in the media—there is light, positivity, and the ever-present possibility of recovery despite these circumstances. While my family and many region members have had personal experiences with these issues, many have survived and are carrying on. I am acknowledging the darker realities that exist in my family and community. Still, my focus is on the desire to persevere and survive—my photographs are primarily in commemoration of those who have been able to pull through the challenges of multiple forms of trauma.

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Rachael Banks, The Trail, 2022. Archival pigment print, 17 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist

FF: How do you envision this body of work evolving?

RB: I see this body of work evolving parallel to my life, my family’s life, and the progression of time. I don’t know if I see this body of work as something that necessarily has an ending but more likely one that continuously grows and builds additional chapters. Offshoots of this work allow me to focus on different projects, and I keep myself busy exploring other narratives. I enjoy this project and the idea that it doesn’t have an ending because it allows me to add to it at my own pace. There are long periods where I add only a couple of images to the project, and then there can be a month when I produce an excess of images. I am at the mercy of time, life, and the access my family provides me. I can’t tell you where I will be in two weeks, and the same goes for this body of work—I embrace that and am okay with it.

Some of Rachael’s work can be seen in Kith And Kin: Things Well Known, on view at Wave Pool from May 11th–June 22nd, 2024.

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Rachael Banks, The Trail (self-portrait), 2023. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist


Schwartz, Arielle. “The Fawn Response in Complex PTSD | Dr. Arielle Schwartz.” Arielle Schwartz, PhD, 15 June 2021, drarielleschwartz.com/the-fawn-response-in-complex-ptsd-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.Y_zyg7TMLJ8.

Trust for America’s Health. Pain in the Nation: The Epidemics of Alcohol, Drug, and Suicide Deaths | SPECIAL FEATURE: Two Decades of the Drug Overdose Crisis, Trust for America’s Health, Washington, DC, 2022, https://cidev.uky.edu/kentuckyhealthnews/2022/06/27/kentucky-had-the-second-highest-increase-in-deaths-caused-by-alcohol-drugs-and-suicide-in-2020-just-behind-west-virginia/. Accessed June 2022.