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UNC student's photographic series "Blood Harmony" represents construction of gender, sexual identity

Ever since the age of 12 when his father handed him his first camera, senior Gray Swartzel has been captivated by the art of photography.

And after conducting three years of extensive studies about familial history and the social constructions of gender and sexual identity during his time at UNC, Swartzel is displaying his resulting photographic series, “Blood Harmony,” at the Carrack Modern Art gallery in Durham. 

Evoking themes of feminist parenting, the exhibition, which is Swartzel's senior honors thesis project, is largely based on poet and essayist Adrienne Rich and her teachings on maternal ambivalence and rage.

“As I learned more and more about feminism, it became a crucial component in the work, especially in the social construction of gender,” Swartzel said.

“I think it is one of the biggest components of what the work is about.” 

These themes are primarily emphasized through the inclusion of Swartzel’s mother and father as subjects in the photographs. Not only are his parents included in the series, but Swartzel himself is continuously featured in his photographs as a means of creating an autobiographical narrative.

“Each self-portrait is about the artist’s relationship to others in a sexist and heterosexist society rather than a statement about the individual,” said UNC sociology professor Sherryl Kleinman,  who sits on Swartzel's honors thesis committee. 

Swartzel also said this exploration of relationship is meant to produce art that challenges viewers.

“I want to create a space that is seemingly uncomfortable but also pushes the boundaries of human experience — I want people to realize that things aren’t always as they appear,” he said.

Swartzel said he had never received any formal training in photography until his arrival at UNC. 

Four years later, he will be graduating in May with highest honors and a bachelor of fine arts degree in studio art with a minor in women's and gender studies before he begins a residency at the Penland School of Crafts  in Bakersville in August.

“I do these highly constructed photographs as a means of creating a little bit of respite for me within the course of daily life,” Swartzel said.

“(It) is so chaotic and oftentimes not aesthetically motivated.” 

Swartzel’s thesis adviser, elin o’Hara slavick , described “Blood Harmony” as taking disturbing and elaborate risks. As a photography professor, slavick said she characterizes photography as the most theoretical and political medium.

“Gray is very self-assured, brave and confident even though there is a sense of vulnerability in his work,” she said.

“It’s a very personal show, so I think people will take away a little bit of Gray with them as well.” 

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