Robin Schwartz: Amelia’s Enchanted World


Through tender portraits, Robin Schwartz has created a wonderland to preserve memories of her daughter and the animals she deeply admires. She speaks to Tanvi Dhulia about her journey and her evolving relationship with her child.

Robin Schwartz made her first picture for Amelia and the Animals in 2002, when her daughter was three years old. The two had just been introduced to Ricky, a two-year-old Chimpanzee, whom Schwartz meant to photograph. “Amelia and Ricky fell in love at first sight,” she says. “They held each other and fell off the chair together.” In a picture from that day, the two children cling to one another affectionately, gazing straight into the camera; Amelia with her piercing blue eyes and Ricky with his ochre yellow. They could’ve been friends for ages. Her tranquil expression, which is a constant through the series, makes her appear unperturbed by the peculiarity of her interactions with animals.

It was this portrait of Ricky and Amelia that kicked off Schwartz’s first series on her daughter.

Feeling at Home
One of Schwartz’s former teachers from graduate school suggested that she further explore the idea of photographing her daughter. The same year, Schwartz wrestled with the grief of losing both her mother and mother-in-law in a short span of time. As she worked through the pain, she felt the need to spend more time with her child, and create a legacy for Amelia to remember her by. It only felt natural to include animals in the project as they’d been a constant presence in Schwartz’s life and pictures. “Up until I had Amelia, my excuse to photograph was my drive to be with animals, whom I admire,” she says. “Photography is my therapy. But animals are necessary to me. They make me feel calm.”

Since a very young age Amelia has been used to having animals around her. As a toddler, she would casually pull food out from between their household dogs’ teeth. So, it’s hardly a surprise that she looks unperturbed when a lemur leaps over her head.

Growing up, Schwartz spent long hours alone at home while her parents were at work. At the age of ten, she was allowed to keep a cat to ease her anxieties, which led to numerous hours of posing it in different setups for snapshots. While she has grown as a photographer, her interest in documenting inter-specie relations hasn’t changed. Her graduate thesis was on household dogs and strays, a set of photos that bring to light her genuine respect for animals. “I think I identified with them,” she says. “Because I felt like a stray dog.” Schwartz didn’t have a steady home for several years after her father’s passing when she was 19. Her mother lost their house, and for the next decade they didn’t see much stability until Schwartz married her artist husband, Robert Forman.
Her first photo book, Like Us, published in 1993, depicted the lives of primates in private care. The black-and-white images were largely shot with a Leica film camera, which meant that she would often be within three feet of the primates, without the separation of bars or plexi-glass to protect her. Pictures from this body of work are now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art and The National Museum of American Art, amongst other notable institutions.

However, working on these projects took a toll on her. People who weren’t aware of the extent of her involvement with animals would often criticise her for taking advantage of them for her photographs. “It took decades for me to learn to ignore this sort of criticism.”

Amelia was three-years old when she met Shiba at Catskill Game Farm in New York. At her command, the female elephant would playfully pick up the young girl with her trunk. This image of the two of them was made three years after their first meeting.

Standing Her Ground
Since her mother’s passing, Schwartz had taken it upon herself to work on stories that brought her joy. By no means was this an easy task, considering how she also worked as an assistant professor at William Paterson University of New Jersey. “When you’re a mother with a full-time job and have to deal with the house and an exhausting commute, you’re perpetually in this state of being overwhelmed. So, you just do what you can.”

“People around me allowed us to photograph their animals as a favour, and I worked to honour their trust in me, and to honour the animals I photograph.”

But she and her family have had to fend off their fair share of critics. “One of the things I’m tired of getting asked is, “Aren’t you afraid?” And my answer has always been that I’m much more afraid of people. They can be unpredictable and scary.” Furthermore, several senior members of the university she teaches at urged her to stop the project as they feared she may be exploiting young Amelia. The skeptics from her professional life, however, were silenced when she was invited to speak at National Geographic magazine’s Annual Photography Seminar in 2012.

People sometimes question Schwartz about why her daughter never seems to smile in the pictures. She believes that by looking cheerful, the photographs will look more like snapshots than formal portraits.

A Strong Partnership
She speaks of how photography can be very intrusive, especially if one is unable to forge a connection with the subject. At every opportunity she gets, Schwartz acknowledges Amelia’s active contribution to the photographs. “I depend on her ingenuity, physical dexterity, strength and experience.” Sometimes, she wonders if she has taken her daughter’s talents for granted. Her ability to lure animals with ease still confounds Schwartz. She admits that it can be a struggle to set aside her ego and listen to Amelia’s suggestions in order to negotiate an “extremely time-pressured situation.”

“Jacob, our Sphinx cat, had to be bathed weekly. As luck would have it, he was a greasy cat. He hated those baths and never got used to them. To him, it was torture.”

It’s imperative for the animals to like Amelia. The manner in which she interacts with them depends on how they’ve interacted with humans in the past, and their caretaker’s directions. “Sometimes she has to hold a wriggler with sharp claws, like a baby anteater. On other occasions, she winds up getting her teeth examined by a primate sticking his head inside her mouth.”
In a 2015 interview with Vogue Italia, Amelia talks about how her perception of the series has changed over the years. “When I was really little, it didn’t phase me at all because that’s what I thought was normal.” But as she grew older, she began to see it as a way to meet new animals. It was only later on that she became interested in the picture-making aspect of their endeavour. “I realised that there was beauty in the process, but also in the final product.”

The two of them often edit images together. While Amelia tends to pay attention to the way she appears, Schwartz is concerned about ensuring that it looks like the animals and Amelia share a connection. It is of paramount importance that they be recognised as individuals.

“Amelia is low-key with animals and she always let’s them come to her.”

Sense of an Ending
As Amelia’s involvement increased, in 2016, the two began to create Swan Song. Schwartz describes her as a driving force for this body of work. Her daughter is no longer just a muse, but an active collaborator in their artistic pursuit. These images are more fantastical and stylized than the previous series. In it, she dons delicate outfits and poses with her family’s dogs, and primates who are in the care of people. Besides a change in arrangement and editing style, however, the pictures still retain Schwartz’s vision of making animals appear as equal to humans.

For years, people have been telling Schwartz that her daughter, Amelia has an aura about her when she’s in the presence of animals.

But since then, Amelia has begun attending college, and their opportunities to work together have dwindled. “A friend of mine once told me, that childhood is a series of little deaths,” Schwartz says. At the time, she couldn’t quite grasp the meaning of those words. But now that she looks at her 19-year-old daughter, she understands.

With a whisper of sorrow, she wonders if maybe their photographic partnership is coming to an end. Whatever may happen though, the pictures will remain for the purpose with which she first began. “I hope she remembers me and tells her kids about it,” she says. For Robin Schwartz, memories have the power to keep us alive.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Better Photography.

Robin Schwartz is a Professor of Photography at William Paterson University of New Jersey and has taught at The International Center of Photography, New York City. In 2016, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography for a project on caretakers and their relationship with the animals they rescue.

Tags: National Geographic, Nat geo, robin schwartz, amelia and the animals