© Eli Durst

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Eli Durst

Austin, Texas

Artist Statement

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 is gained in the subjugation of one’s personal freedom to that of a larger group or community?

While my previous projects drew their 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 who we are and what we desire. 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 and anxieties—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.

© Eli Durst

Eli Durst's Portfolio

© Eli Durst

Artist Biography

Eli Durst studied American literature and history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Upon graduation, he moved to New York City where he worked in the photography industry for three years, assisting street photographer Joel Meyerowitz and training as a professional fine art printer. Durst then attended graduate school, earning his MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2016 and receiving the the Richard Benson Prize for Excellence in Photography upon graduating. Durst received the 2016 Aperture Portfolio Prize for his series In Asmara, which examines the postcolonial legacy of Eritrea’s capital city, and a 2017 Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship Grant. In 2019, Durst received a New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Artist Fellowship in the field of photography. His first monograph, The Community, was published by Mörel Books in May 2020 and received Special Mention at the Rencontre d’Arles Author Book Award.

Durst lives and works in Austin, Texas, where he teaches at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Durst also makes commissioned editorial work, with his images appearing in The New York Times Magazine, VICE, and Wallpaper Magazine.



© Eli Durst

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