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Music, Arts and Culture

A Photographer Captures Her Journey Reconnecting With Her Mother

Day 3 with Mom in Saint Thomas. We sat on the beach together chatting as the sun set with a drink called dark and ginger.
Day 3 with Mom in Saint Thomas. We sat on the beach together chatting as the sun set with a drink called dark and ginger.

The photographer Gabby Jones spent a month with her mother in their family home in St. Thomas. It was an opportunity to mend their relationship — and document the intimate moments that came out of it.

Many families in Western society have been personally affected by divorce. In fact, 40% to 50% of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce, according to the American Psychological Association.

This is something photojournalist Gabby Jones has experienced firsthand. Growing up as the child of divorced parents, Jones felt a sense of resentment and instability. As the divorce was finalized, the custody agreement arranged for Jones to live with her mother. However, as she got older, she realized that she and her mother didn't see eye to eye and were having a hard time understanding one another.

"She got the brunt of my wrath. I was your typical angsty, hormonal teenager; quick to judge and tough to please ... Our relationship was tumultuous to say the least," she said.

As the pandemic took hold on daily life this past year, Jones had an opportunity to mend her relationship with her mother.

After 26 years, my mom finally brings me to the local farmers' market.
/ Gabby Jones
/
After 26 years, my mom finally brings me to the local farmers' market.

The island of Saint Thomas holds a great deal of importance to Jones' family history, but Jones had rejected that part of her family heritage. It was an important part of her mother's life growing up, and as Jones got older, she began to realize the importance it could hold in her life as well.

Great grandma Uranie (left), 1940s; Mom (right), 2021
/ Gabby Jones
/
Great grandma Uranie (left), 1940s; Mom (right), 2021

So, when the opportunity to go visit with her mother presented itself this year, she couldn't say no. In January, Jones and her mother spent a month together living in her great grandmother's house on Saint Thomas.

This was the longest amount of time that they had spent together in years, and Jones decided to document it.

Mhari Shaw: What is your background in photography?

Gabby Jones: I studied photojournalism in college at Syracuse University. Now, I am living in Brooklyn, New York, and I freelance here. Recently, I have been doing a lot of personal work that has to do with youth culture and womanhood.

My mom and I garden together. Although it's said that certain traits within a family skip a generation, she did not get the green thumb.
/ Gabby Jones
/
My mom and I garden together. Although it's said that certain traits within a family skip a generation, she did not get the green thumb.

MS: What was the reason for the trip?

GJ: Growing up, I didn't go to St. Thomas very often, but it's my mom's second home. One day my great grandmother's house will be mine. Since I haven't spent a lot of time with my family there, I didn't know how to take care of the house, and there are little things I never thought about that I needed to learn — like how to turn the heater on or where I go get laundry done. So, the trip was a chance for me to get my bearings.

My mom, 58, borrows my great uncle Cecil's, 90, cane to navigate Saint Thomas after her injury.
/ Gabby Jones
/
My mom, 58, borrows my great uncle Cecil's, 90, cane to navigate Saint Thomas after her injury.

MS: What made you decide to photograph this process?

GJ: I don't really know, honestly, I thought it was such a unique situation for both of us. As a photographer, I knew that this was different and maybe I would never have this moment with her again, so I just naturally picked up my camera. It was my way of processing who we are today and understanding myself and her.

Mom: "I'm going to start taking pictures of you now."
/ Gabby Jones
/
Mom: "I'm going to start taking pictures of you now."

MS: Was your mom open to being photographed?

GJ: Honestly, at first she wasn't. Anytime I would pick up my camera, my mom would say no, but eventually she got used to the idea. I would show her pictures and tell her how beautiful she looked, and she started to warm up to the idea.

MS: Do you think photographing these moments helped you process your time together?

GJ: Yeah, I'm back home now, and she is back in New Jersey, and anytime I start to fall back into my old tendencies, I am able to look back to what we went through together. Having it documented and being able to see those images and go back to those feelings really helps me learn, rather than just experiencing it and forgetting.

The second to last night in Saint Thomas.
/ Gabby Jones
/
The second to last night in Saint Thomas.

MS: What images or moments mean the most to you?

GJ: There is one where my mom is crying. We were just sitting on the beach and I was stressing about leaving New York for so long. My mom said something like, this has been the best two weeks for her, and she started to cry, and I started crying too. So, that moment really means a lot to me.

Having this time with each other, removed from daily life and other influences, showed me another side of her that I was never willing to accept or see.

MS: What do you want readers to take away from this piece?

GJ: I realized how important my mom is to me, and I have taken her for granted. I forgot that my mom lived a life before me and she is more than just a mom, she is a person with experiences. All I have ever seen her as is my mom, but she is so much more than that. So, it is my turn to be there for her.

Left: Wednesday, February 24 is the day my mom dropped me off at the airport as I headed back to New York. We hugged and cried. She sent me home with a letter that made me cry even more. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for being able to spend the month with my mom and our family, in a place I now consider my second home. Right: The letter my mom sent me home with. And yes, she calls me Pookie.
/ Gabby Jones
/
Left: Wednesday, February 24 is the day my mom dropped me off at the airport as I headed back to New York. We hugged and cried. She sent me home with a letter that made me cry even more. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for being able to spend the month with my mom and our family, in a place I now consider my second home. Right: The letter my mom sent me home with. And yes, she calls me Pookie.

MS: What does this project mean to you?

GJ: It means a lot to me. I think it's a new beginning. I have a completely new perspective on my relationship with my mom.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

My last morning in Saint Thomas.
/ Gabby Jones
/
My last morning in Saint Thomas.