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Becoming a Photographer Because of My Mom, and Despite Her
A belated Mother's Day post for Ida.
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Whenever I get asked about how I started photographing, I tell the story of my mom giving me my first digital camera for my birthday, which jumpstarted a switch from a laid-out medical career to an uncertain future in the arts. But that's not the whole story. The camera wasn't an isolated, random incident. My mom, Ida, had been inadvertently molding me into an "artist" (yes, I've said it) since before I was born. When she was pregnant with me, mom would look through art books daily, wishing into existence a talented baby. The moment I could process visual information, she padded the walls of our small Donetsk bathroom with cut-outs of classical paintings so the earliest memories of brushing my teeth are paired with shadowy faces of Renaissance portraits and Impressionist landscapes. I was born a leftie, which in a Soviet school system was unacceptable, so mom would tie my left hand behind my back forcing me to use the right one (she succeeded and, to this day, I'm ambidextrous). But when she finally untied my left hand, I suddenly started drawing with it, and drawing well. Mom instantly encouraged this and I spent all my childhood hearing her praise and imagining myself as a future painter. She supported everything — I took painting classes and was a staff artist on my high school magazine. I wrote decent poetry. I took ballet. So it was to my great surprise that when I declared my plan to major in painting and art history at NYU, mom suddenly put her foot down. "Pre-med or law," she said. "Art is a hobby, not a profession. "
Mom and me, 1988, Donetsk, Ukraine.
I felt somewhat cheated but, at the time, I believed her, and so I put myself through a psychology degree and four years of pre-med. As graduation loomed closer, a dark void would swoop in, crippling me with anxiety. I took the MCATs with the same excitement as if I were committing myself to prison. And just as I was about to take that final step of sending out medical school applications, there appeared a digital camera wrapped with a beautiful bow (mom was a professional at giving the best birthday presents, always immaculately wrapped). The rest, as they say, is history.
First, however, came the Dark Ages. As an unemployed photographer, I lived with my parents throughout my 20s, and many evenings I overheard them discuss what a disappointment I turned out to be. Mom would lament all the hard work and effort she put into me. She regretted encouraging my various art hobbies and partly blamed herself for my failure. My parents were so embarrassed of my new choice of a career that they encouraged me to lie to my 86-year-old grandmother because they were afraid the truth would literally kill her. And so, I did that. For five years, I spun stories about my non-existent med school experiences, and when my grandmother died, she was proud of me for becoming a doctor.
Eventually, my career started taking off. I was earning more money and working with magazines. My photos were in print in the New York Times and National Geographic. My parents finally conceded. Mom became supportive of my career, saving all my publications and showing them off to her friends. She was, once again, proud of me. Unfortunately, that didn't last long. In 2017, she got diagnosed with metastatic cancer and died within two years.
Mom at 23, Donetsk, Ukraine.
Mom on her 50th birthday, NYC.
Mom and I were the same sort of stubborn and strong-willed people and we used to fight. A lot. One of the things we fought about was Mother’s Day. She wanted to celebrate it while I refused to honor what I considered a made-up holiday. Mom felt slighted and I felt righteous as I tried to educate her about the commercial uselessness of this Hallmark tradition. We never ended up celebrating it. Since then, Mother’s Day has become the hardest day of the year for me. Guilt and regret flood back every Sunday morning as I wake up to all social timelines filled with Mother's Day wishes. And I wish I wasn't so damn stubborn.
My relationship with mom was marked by such constant push-and-pull, both of us fiercely trying to mold one another. She was undoubtably better than me at that game. Without her early art education, I would have never become a photographer. She also taught me resilience and how to stand up for what I believe in, even if these lessons often ended up turning against her. And, somewhat poetically, the first image I ever fell in love was this photo of my mom, taken in her early 20s. To this day, this surreal, sun-tinged image is constantly in the back of my mind.
When I started this newsletter a year ago, the first thing I thought was of how proud mom would be to see my career acquire unexpected new turns and just how much she would have liked to read these posts. She was voracious in her curiosity and her appetite for new things, new information and new experiences. She was constantly pushing forward and bettering herself and, luckily for my sister and I, she passed that relentless vitality down to us as well.
Even though I am many years and one day late, this Mother's Day post is for my mom.
Happy Mother’s Day! I love you.
Find me on Instagram, @dina_litovsky