lea meilandt – the maguires

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Lea Meilandt

The Maguires

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The number of poor families in the United States is growing rapidly these years. Unemployment and expensive housing makes it almost impossible for families all over the country to make ends meet and create a stable and safe everyday life.

The Maguire family from Boston is one of those families. They know what it is like to lose everything. For nearly a year Katie, Bill and their five kids lived in a shelter, after Bill lost his job and the family could no longer afford the expensive housing in the city. Now aided by the state of Massachusetts, the Maguires live in a small house in Medford, just outside Boston. But the family’s financial situation is still far from good. Bill’s new job barely pays for rent and food, and day care, with its extremely high cost, is out of the question. This means that Katie has to stay home all day with the kids, unable to work. The vulnerability of the economic situation has enormous impact on the Maguires. Katie and Bill are exhausted, they worry about loosing the house and they both suffer from low self esteem and anxiety. There is very little energy left for the children. Keeping the family happy and healthy seems an insurmountable challenge.

Portraying the Maguires is an ongoing project; the aim is to document the life of the family as it evolves over the years.
The project won a second prize in Danish POY and a third place in Winephoto 2010.


Lea Meilandt was born in Denmark in 1982. She studied photojournalism at the Danish School of Journalism and graduated in 2009. Since then she has worked as a freelance photographer based in Copenhagen – primarily working with long term projects on social issues.

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Lea Meilandt

219 Responses to “lea meilandt – the maguires”

  • Snapshot photography, despite the access. I think you could have found a more sympathetic family to photograph. Five kids. On purpose. Hmmmm.

  • short & straight to the point…flash frozen everything..no emotions…hmmm…
    u know what? i think i like it , coz it doesnt force me to take sides, there’s no hidden message..nice and simple:)

  • No emotions? Don’t agree.. works for me as a first chapter, eager to see how it evolves over time, the family as a whole, the situation..

  • I don’t like to comment on essays this early, so for now I won’t.

    And I don’t like to comment on other peoples’ comments so much either, but Jim is just so wrong on so many levels that I just can’t help it.

    1. Why would anyone want to see a sympathetic family? If we’re doing fund raising, fine, but presumably this is something more akin to photojournalism, where we should be wanting to see a real family, warts and deviations from the stereotype and all.

    and 2. If you can’t find it in your heart to have any sympathy for that family, you may just have a problem. Even if you can’t bring yourself to feel anything for adults who make poor life choices, you are aware that when a couple has five children that there are five children involved?

  • Seriously?

    “I am afraid that there are more people than I can imagine who can go no further than appreciating a picture that is a rectangle with an object in the middle of it, which they can identify. They don’t care what is around the object as long as nothing interferes with the object itself, right in the center.

    Even after the lessons of Winogrand and Friedlander, they don’t get it. They respect their work because they are told by respectable institutions that they are important artists, but what they really want to see is a picture with a figure or an object in the middle of it. They want something obvious.

    The blindness is apparent when someone lets slip the word ‘snapshot’. Ignorance can always be covered by ‘snapshot’. The word has never had any meaning. I am at war with the obvious.”

    -William Eggleston

  • As much as it pains me to admit it… Jim is right.

    What I want to know is just how long mediocre SNAPSHOTS are going to be considered art or photojournalism or whatever label someone wants to put on it. There is nothing here that anyone with a point and shoot could not have taken.

    I do not mean to slam Lea or any other photographers that produce this kind of work. If they are offering up here and leave the comments open, I assume that they want to hear both sides, the good and the bad, whether they agree or not. And of course they don’t have to.

    I do mean to slam the glorification of what I and I am sure many other find as amateurish and snapshotty. I respect DAH and his ability to find something of value in whatever he is looking at. I saw it in his workshops. No matter how bad something that one of his students may had shot, he tries to find something good in it. And I am not necessarily saying that there is nothing good about this. But sometimes there needs to be some tough love.

    There are those who would say that there should be no rules and that there is no such thing as “too loose.” Personally I think that is the last refuge of the truly untalented.

    Just my opinion though. I am sure others will love it, calling it raw and undisciplined and Bob Black or someone will put together some epic and extended appreciation about how this reminds them of whatever.

    I will say this though… It certainly hit an emotional chord.

  • Haha, it’s always fun to see the range of comments on Burn work. And I’m sure this one will continue to get even more interesting, but I’ll chip in now with my thoughts (I need a break from website tweaking).

    First up, does it tell the story? Well, yeah, it does. All the “stock shots” are there. I mean no offence here, just you have the standard images of a poor family, landscape image of their surroundings, etc. That needs to be done to tell the story. So the basic job is done. I’m not sure image 7 is needed for this. It’s a nice image, it just doesn’t really add anything to the story.

    But I think the essay is ridiculously thin on images. And this costs the story-telling involved. With so few images, the most that can be done is the stock shots and a couple of others that dig a little deeper. I’m not averse to large sets of images and, I’m not gonna say everything should be 180-page photobook length, but the fewer the images, the more likely they are to become cliched. I know why there had to be a “surroundings image” in here, but it did nothing for me that my imagination wasn’t already doing from reading the text. I’m not a big fan of people chasing the notion of “that one image that says everything about the subject” – damn, we’re either gonna be photographing some pretty vacuous subjects then, or doing a very cliched job of it with far more complex and interesting ones. I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more visual digging to be done into this essay’s subjects (in the wider sense – the phenomenon of economic crises, not just these specific people), and I’m also pretty sure that it’s gonna take a longer essay than this to achieve that, regardless of who the photographer is (pretty much).

    I know, I know, it’s a work in progress, but I do wonder why it was posted so early, and with so few images in it so far. Makes it hard to give feedback in a constructive way. A lot of the criticism I have is that it isn’t complete. There’s not a great deal to offer beyond that.

    But I have to say that images 6 and 8 slam it. Particularly so with Image 8. Image 6 reminds me of so many childhood moments in friends’ houses. The naked torsos and dirty socks say it all. Much more powerful than the portrait shots. Image 8 just works on so many levels. I love the shoe being there, being almost the same size as the kid’s body – like a nod to the cycle continuing in the future (and as we all know, economic cycles mean the next recession is only a matter of time away…). And the kid sleeping/lying down on the dirty clothes – speaks both to poverty of the situation and the sense of the kid finding a place to relax in a commercialised world. There’s something about that image that just does everything it needs to do. And it looks relaxed and uncontrived.

    Deffo keep those two images, but I’d be looking to can as many of the other images as possible during the course of continuing this project – may just be my tastes, but I find them too cliche and this topic goes much much deeper than that.

    As for the technique of the essay? The flash and “snapshot aesthetic”? I have no qualms with it in general. I’m sure there are places where it not only works but makes the piece – Shore’s project springs to mind. But here I’m getting nothing from it – it neither adds nor detracts. It’s just there. If I wanted to reach and also be cynical, I’d consider if Lea used it to “blend in” with their surroundings, give the impression that she is part of the surroundings she’s photographing. I don’t think so, though. If I did, I doubt I’d be impressed with it as a technique. Those connotations have been broken by it being taken up by the “art world”.

    On the whole, what I’ve seen feels quite detached from the family being photographed. But at times that really works, Images 6 & 8 are really more poetic and don’t need that strong connection. I am having a hard time judging the series given how few images there are; I need more in this series for it to work.

  • Snapshots?

    These are not “snapshots.” On the surface, they have the technical aura of snapshots, but each photo makes a strong statement about the subject. As to the technical aura, it is just an aura that one might imagine could be found in the subjects’ own scrapbooks, but looks a great deal deeper into them than their own snapshots would likely do.

    As to “snapshots,” I have spent a significant amount of time paging through the scrapbooks of people who have hosted me in my travels and among those snapshots I have found some photographic gems.

  • Lea
    Congratulations on being published here.

    Good work, good vision, good access, biting my tongue along with the others here. OK then, whew..

  • The 2 eldest kids are juts gorgeous children (not that the babies may not be in time too). I hope these kids will learn something from the dire straits life they’ve been dealt with,and if they do, this is one the best country to lift yourself up, as long as you figure out fate is just another 4 letter word.

    I have to say the few pictures here do introduce and depict this family, Lea’s subject that is, very well. If only mere snapshots can do that enough, then I see no problem with it.

  • Pete,

    Six paragraphs and you didn’t actually say anything about the photography except that you agree with Jim.

    “Too loose.” I’d love to hear what too loose is, especially in regards to the essay. They seem pretty deliberately framed in my opinion. You know, like snapshots, the most deliberately composed pictures made. Is it the aesthetic that bothers you, or something else? Confused.

  • Jared, actually 7 paragraphs…lol…

  • Pete, now really, why u being so mean??? with the essay here? tough love? cmon man, thats cop talk :(

  • and i stated my statement above under the knowledge that i might be accused if not for being Bellicose, but..but being Jingoistic? well the latter, for sure :(

  • And I apologise if any of my earlier post sounded blunt – it wasn’t meant to be, but I really was on respite from website tweaking and was trying to comment while not over-running my break too much. I may also be in hyper-critical mode right now for that same reason. But I stand by all I said, if not quite how I said it.

  • And I apologise if any of my earlier post sounded blunt –
    Framers Intent
    no no…u always sound cool, dont worry..keep on keeping on..;)

  • This sorta fills in blanks about stuff we already know………….. maybe photography should strive to go beyond just that.

  • Sorry, what does ‘tough love’ mean? I do know the two words, but not the meaning of the expression as a whole..

  • Eva, tough love is being cruel to be kind e.g. when Pete says that David in his workshops “No matter how bad something that one of his students may had shot, he tries to find something good in it. And I am not necessarily saying that there is nothing good about this.” – the opposite of what David does could be considered tough love.


  • some quotes from the net
    tough love is an expression used when someone treats another person harshly or sternly with the intent to help them in the long run. The phrase was evidently coined by Bill Milliken when he wrote the book Tough Love in 1968 and has been used by numerous authors since then.

    The use of strict disciplinary measures and limitations on freedoms or privileges, as by a parent or guardian, as a means of fostering responsibility and expressing care or concern.

  • Mike, Imants.. thanks!

  • Lea, firstly congrats for being published.
    With your essay, you took up a very difficult topic. You can see it on television quite often, at least in Germany, there are some books already about similar stories. This means the bar is quite high already.
    You say, the story continues. This is good. You are at the beginning.
    In my mind come essays/books like “Tell it like it is” by David Alan Harvey, “Dorcester Days” by Eugene Richards, “Tulsa” by Larry Clark, which have similar themes.
    Actually, try to get beyond what already exists. That makes it really difficult, but I am sure you can make it. Find those pictures which go beyond the expectations, find those which are really symbolic.

    You have a good start.

  • has the look of wapplingtons ‘living room’, yet without (so far) the deep love and sheer fun expressed by that family and caught by nick..

    does this respect the family? go beyond the obvious? help them in any way shape or form?

  • i mean to say – sleeping.. dirty feet.. yawning.. yes – it tells me the family is tired..
    the house is a mess..
    it’s a busy life

    the thing is that there are contradictions here which make me feel uncomfortable.. not least the fact you only have nine photo thus far and are already throwing the tired / lazy / poor / dirty family around the photo-world competitions..

  • “Even if you can’t bring yourself to feel anything for adults who make poor life choices, you are aware that when a couple has five children that there are five children involved?”

    Well, it’s certainly easier to find people who make poor life choices that in up in this families situation than those who make good ones.

    As for the children…I’m sick to death of hearing the phrase “do it for the children.” In Texas, making babies is the ticket to welfare, medicaid and the WIC program. It’s a life strategy for millions of people here. I’ve done a number of stories on this over the years. You need another baby every couple of years to really keep the money benefits flowing. There are women who run informal classes in their homes teaching teenage girls how to work the system, provide them with the paperwork, teach them how to space out the kids (you must not marry the father or it messes things up), to keep maximum benefits flowing.

    Any time someone uses the phrase, “do it for the kids,” it means they want to raise my taxes to support someone else’s children. I chose not to have kids and I don’t want to pay women to reproduce.

    It would be much more interesting to see an essay on a family who made all the right choices and ended up in this situation than this essay. It’s easy to screw up your life making bad choices.

  • the whole “snapshot” conversation is a distraction and irrelevant.. talking about the window frame rather than whats through the window..
    stylistically the technique is fine..
    i want to see the content expand to the point it surprises me.. and hopefully that’s going to happen..

    good luck.

  • jim – your perspective is one held by many.. my parents used to speak similarly of the benefit system in the uk.. of course some people work it.

    one of the contradictions i mentioned which makes me uncomfortable relates in a way to what you are saying..
    the work invites us to judge.. the text tells us one thing, and then the photos try to back that up, while also giving us an “unspoken” opportunity to judge – which none of us, not even you jim, have the right to… it makes me concerned with the photographers real perspective, once the text has been angled towards “innocent victims”.

    wapplingtons family in the UK is very busy.. very poor.. tired.. hard working.. all the things many families are – yet his work is marked out for the utter LOVE and connectivity between the subjects.. it surprizes us because it elevates the subject above the obvious perspective – which respectfully i see as your perspective jim.. and as i mentioned.. with this edit i can understand why you express it jim..
    perhaps the photos invite it..

    anyway.. one of my fav wapplington shots.

  • In six months time I will post a question asking ‘who are the maguires?’
    99.9% of you will not remember. Its just another bunch of pictures about another family, to be consumed.
    meanwhile words like ‘care’ are bandied about. Do you really care? enough to get off your backside and go do something about it? Or just saying that you do, telling yourself you do, makes you feel better about YOURSELF?. Better about vouyering in on someone elses hard times.

    “Well what about you john?”…….Well, I dont give a rats arse about them. Dont care one bit. Because the things that I care about I do something about. All thats in my power. They need it and I got it, they get it. Simple. I dont spray the word around as an abstract. And I dont use words that have no meaning if they are just SAID.


  • “Because the things that I care about I do something about.”

    you do john g – no question.

  • As much as I enjoy this essay as misanthrope bait, I find it terribly lacking as photojournalism. It tells us next to nothing about poverty in America in general and even less about the Maguires in particular. And the snapshot aesthetic gives it more the look of a field trip to the zoo than any serious journalistic attempt to bring knowledge and understanding about peoples’ lives or the societal forces that help shape them.

    I think it’s great that non-Americans are interested in this kind of socio-anthropolical work on our shores, but it needs to be significantly deeper than this to make an impact, either visually in the short term or policy-wise in the big picture. That’s unfortunate because there is so much there to be understood.

  • “And the snapshot aesthetic gives it more the look of a field trip to the zoo”

    Yes! That’s what this reminds me of. Good observation. Snapshots in a zoo.

  • “I think it’s great that non-Americans are interested in this kind of socio-anthropolical work on our shores,”

    get used to it..
    africa and india are passe’ for contemporary upstarts..
    next up – male circumcision and religious fundamentalism.. teen sacrifices to the god of “freedom”..
    corruption, the far right and civil unrest.. and povertypovertypoverty.

  • @LEA: Love last shot (or snapshot). Powerful! even the liitle baby is watching the stupid box…

  • get used to it..

    Oh, I wasn’t being snarky. Can’t tell you how much I’d like to see an Amazonian tribesperson’s take on wealth and poverty in America.

  • not sure about the no money for food part

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    This is the first work I’ve seen on burn that made me curious to wonder what the subjects themselves would think of the way they were portrayed.

    Just curious, Lea, have you shown them any of your photographs? And if you have, could you share any reactions?


  • Life in the United States as seen through the eyes of a visitor, very interesting.

    I seem to recall a gentleman from Switzerland coming to the States in the 1950s and photographing his view. A lot of Americans didn’t like the way he looked at life in the USA back then either. His views were a bit too frank for their liking.

  • Well I find the whole story very sad. Try living in a shelter for a year with five kids… it’s difficult enough living at home with two. How many of us have ever experienced “job barely pays for rent and food” that can’t be a very nice either…
    Well the snapshot aesthetic doesn’t bother me at all as long as it get’s the point across, which it does seem to. I just hope Lea keeps on with this and manages to produce a good essay.
    But John Gladdy is totally and utterly right…

  • I’m left wondering if it has ever happened to any of you that after having seen an essay online, a docu on TV, heard a story on the radio, have taken action and done something…

  • I was too pissed off last night to post a reply, which is probably a good thing. Writing While Ballistic, I channel my dad’s Hungarian temper and it’s hard to find the off switch. Honestly, I don’t know what I think of the essay, other than it’s a good start to a work in progress. Whether you give a crap about the Maguires or not, Lea is creating a personal vignette with this family, giving us a window into the drab lives of the American poor: those permanently relegated to the cul-du-sac of Foreclosed America. Life is dismal. People make poor choices. Diets are rich in carbs and trans fatty acids. Paychecks barely cover rent, let alone body hair removal. Children seem condemned to repeat the pattern. Some like to point out that the story is cliché. In a world where the photographer-to-issue ratio is 500 to 1, what isn’t a cliché at this point? What subject, theme or issue hasn’t been examined or Kickstarted? Give me an issue, I’ll give you a tissue, plus 500 photographers. Others complain about the light – the use of on-camera flash, making the photos look like snapshots. Now y’all, take a five minute break and jump on Facebook. Mouse around your non-photo friends photos: crime scene lighting, person or people grinning into the camera holding beers or sitting around a table, eating, or out on the street wearing bat hoodies. Aside from the point-and-shoot bad light generated Pop Tart photos, there is the shared attitude of snap shot takers and subjects that the camera is a gadget for which one performs. Yes, Lea is using on-camera flash. There is a balance between ambient and flash that is less harsh, less Gilden-Fink-Weege-like than the previous essay. It gives the photos a washed out, deadpan look that helps create mood and matches the shellshocked look of the Maguires-as if they are eternally puzzling out how to exit this state of purgatory, or find their way from Textiles to Marketplace in an Ikea where the yellow lines have been obliterated and the restaurant is out of Lingonberries. Either way, to me, it’s obvious that the on-camera flash was a conscious aesthetic decision on Lea’s part. labeling them as “snapshots” is dismissive and syllogistic (on-camera flash + subjet = snapshot). I don’t know if Lea plans on sticking with the Maguires or moving on to something else. If the entire take got whittled down to image number 2, it would be worth the time Lea’s invested in the project. It’s a beautiful picture. It might not win an NPPA clip contest (half the girl’s face would need to be covered in acid burn scars, or something dramatic in order to register). But it is subtle and poignant, conveying a world of hurt with a measure of disturbing sensuality. Pete, you toss around words like “mediocrity” and “untalented” like rice at a wedding – a bit too casually, and from what I’ve seen of your work, without ANY authority. Have you ever participated in one of David’s workshops or submitted your own stories to Burn?

  • “How many of us have ever experienced “job barely pays for rent and food” that can’t be a very nice either…”

    .. probably quite a few :o)

  • Congratulations Lea on being published!

    photograph #2 just broke my heart, especially when paired with #7…..

    my only ‘need’ as a viewer is to see more of this story, as 9 pics just ‘opens the door’ and maybe my need (our collective need) is to be invited to sit down, but that is always more of our own selfish, implacable need to ‘get more intimate/have more’….so, that caveat always comes with reservation….i promise to write more later tonight

    as for jim/pete

    yea, i do have lots to say Pete, but i’m so shocked at what you have written that I’m afraid that what I have to say will be a distraction on the focus on the work…..and by the way, if you think for 1 moment that anything i’ve contributed here in the last 2 1/2 years is simply about being nice for nice sake or simply an aggrandizing sense of meriting work on it’s conjuring up other work, you’re sadly mistaken…

    need some air, so will simply say this:



  • There are so many hot button issues here I’m not sure I can even count them all and Lea is juggling them like daggers. Can’t wait to see the completed project. Congratulations.

  • Lea,

    Good start on what I am sure is a difficult project. 2, 7, and 9 really work for me. I think you should try for a stronger backyard shot, however. That to me seems the weakest of the bunch. But important to show.

    Good luck.

  • Oh, come on Monkeypoint. Millions of Americans bought houses they knew they could not afford for no money down and then used them as piggybanks. They had kids they knew they couldn’t afford believing that food stamps and medicaid would always be there to fill the gaps. They bought cars and boats and big screen TV’s on credit, knowing that with those house notes they couldn’t afford they could never pay back those credit cards. And they believed their jobs would never go away and they would get big raises every year.

    Then it all went to crap and they ended up on the street. Your expressions of righteousness indignation are pretty hollow. What reaction would you expect still another photo essay on bad choices to illicit? Do you advocate socialism? The welfare system “saved” this family.

  • David Bowen:
    my parents used to speak similarly of the benefit system in the uk..
    Everyone in any western country, knowing that they basically work not just for their own family, but also a couple others, think alike, David.

    Incidentally, my Mom would think (like me) of the children first, because no one asks to be put in that kind of environment (amd you are right that the essay could put the parents in problem, they call child protecting services in SF for a lot less than that mess the baby is crawling around), and when I once lamented about some people having been dealt an unlucky fate, she said “how come some work their way out of it, then, while the others don’t”.

    See, my Mom starved during WW2, had to deal with danger, german curfew, to go get food, so sometimes, despite all the traveling I have done, the top education, Mother knows best. Mind you, still the way it works around the world. India, Burma, Cambodia, even Thailand, if you expect someone else to pick up your burden, solve your problems (even those not of your own making), you die. As simple as that.

  • I keep forgetting Jim Powers is from Texas. Explains soooo much! Haha.

  • Kurt:
    A lot of Americans
    Out on a limb: not that many. it was published in France first. And the literary critics establishment (elite?) does not represent “a lot of” americans. Though it is interesting to ask ourselves how americans looked at pictures with an uneasy reading, society wise, back then. Would/did they really have identified, individually, with anything in the frame? Would/did they give a fuck? Just a bunch of pictures (as Lea’s dad would say!)?

  • Dont mess with Texas please:)

    on a funny note:)
    irrelevant…worst viral video ever?

  • The welfare system “saved” this family.
    from a more abject “fate”, absolutely. and it will always do. Might even save the children from their parents, though I must not read in the pictures what I am afraid to read. That the parents may not be that much older, in truth, than their children to be able to raise some. I know, I am a child and therefore, I have none! :-)

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