By M. Sellers Johnson.

I loved the idea that I could convey the interior of my imagination in my documentary and that it could be anything, like a narrative film, because no one can argue with your imagination. And yet, it’s really my story, and these are real people.”

Documentarian Rachel Elizabeth Seed debuts her feature film, A Photographic Memory, as a deeply personal account on loss, the qualities of interpreted memory, and the re-discovery of her subject, her mother Sheila Turner Seed. Sheila’s sudden passing occurred when Rachel was only eighteen months old, leaving her with residual feelings of maternal loss, and an uncertainty of her mother’s legacy and her own sense of selfhood. Rachel’s decade-plus journey in crafting this affective documentary presents thoughtful inquiries on the nature of photography, archives, family, and memory. Through the avant-garde sensibilities that defined Sheila’s photography, Rachel sets out to explore personal and institutional archives in search of her mother.

Rachel’s archival work proved to be considerable, as she found a surplus of analog photos, Super 8 family stills, audio letters, journal entries, and more than fifty hours of audio recordings from Sheila’s award-winning interview series Images of Man. And while these physical records are past archives of Sheila, they do reinvigorate a powerful sense of her as an intrepid, thoughtful, daring, and remembered photographer. Rachel endeavors to reify the interpreted memory of her mother and through this intensely personal and creative process, she invokes and discovers affirming qualities of Sheila Turner Seed, within herself and her namesake.

M. Sellers Johnson: A Photographic Memory is a film rooted in maternal histories and archival accounts. As a professional creative director and a daughter of your subject, Sheila Turner Seed, how do you reconcile the personal and professional approaches to your documentary?

Rachel Elizabeth Seed: One thing about living a life with documentary at its center as a career is that it’s also often at the center of my personal life, as was the case for both of my parents and others in our family. This sense of living has its benefits and detractions, but ultimately I embrace that my personal and professional life are closely (and often inextricably) intertwined. It’s lucky for me that my parents lived the same way, as that is the reason I have had so much material to work with in making this film. Some examples include my parents making “audio letters” after I was born because they were in England and wanted my mother’s parents, in Chicago, to feel the sense of our daily lives. They’d record some mundane activities – baby’s bath time, a rundown of their schedule for the week, etc. Through these tapes, I’ve gotten a sense of their everyday lives when I was a baby, and of my mother as a new mother. I even have moments where my parents bicker on tape over the audio levels, so the coverage runs the gamut! None of us “clock out” at the end of the day, and that’s the only way I’ve ever lived. So it only made sense that our personal and professional lives should blend together in the film as one cohesive story.

MJ: It is fortunate to have discovered so many archival sources and analog materials from your mother. Having the chance to interview her peers and collaborators must have been special too. What can you say of some of these experiences?

RS: The most surprising thing to me about meeting and interviewing all of these people who knew my mom is how familiar they instantly felt to me. I refer to this feeling in the film, but there’s this uncanny thing where I feel like I’m looking through her eyes. Since I’ve read her journals, I know exactly how she felt about each of them, and I tend to get the same vibes from them and feel the same way. For example, her childhood best friend, Hinda, has become one of my best friends. We just get along so well, just as she and my mother did. And then, when I met her former boss at Scholastic, who was 40 years my senior and who she was crazy about, I thought he was hot, too, and I don’t normally go for older men! Meanwhile, when all of these people met me they got emotional because I reminded them of her. There is something mysterious happening here that I can’t explain….

The stories I am interested in telling are unexpected portrayals of unusual people doing surprising things that make us question the order of the world.”

MJ: Your documentary was filmed over the course of a decade. How does it feel looking back at the project now, and seeing yourself growing throughout the years?

RS: It’s great to be able to tangibly track my growth. Because this project and my actual life have been so closely woven together, making the film forced me to grow. Having watched many autobiographical docs myself, I knew that I needed to make one that was authentic, vulnerable, and took personal risks. The worst thing in a personal doc is when they don’t go far enough or deep enough. For example, I attended the Sundance Edit + Story Lab in 2019, and the entire week was dedicated to digging as deep as possible to start telling my own story. That’s the reason they brought me there, because they saw that my film needed that. I didn’t realize I needed to do that work for myself, too. Before that, the film did not go deep enough and it was hard for me to articulate how I felt about not growing up with my mom. But because I knew the film needed it, I knew I had to do the personal work to understand myself, and then somehow articulate it cinematically and in words so an audience could connect to it. It is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done personally and creatively. Having done it, I found a relationship with my mother, and now I can hold the space for others going through the same journey. I love that this film inspires people to look deeply within themselves.

MJ: In terms of aesthetics, are there certain elements of storytelling or style that you feel drawn to? Do you find any of these tendencies present in your film?

RS: What I love about documentaries is that you can convey a subjective experience in any way you like, really. I loved the idea that I could convey the interior of my imagination in the film and that it could be anything, like a narrative film, because no one can argue with your imagination. And yet, it’s really my story, and these are real people. My rule is I’m not going to lie to the audience, I’m going to convey my objective truth. But there are very few facts in the film. I like when films in general and docs specifically push the form beyond what we expect. I also enjoy when they start out as one thing and end up in a different place. My favorite docs include Sherman’s March, Tarnation, Nobody’s Business, La Jette, Diary (Tim Hetherington), and Amy. All of these films push the form in some way. For example, La Jette uses only still images, narration, sound, and music. Nobody’s Business by Alan Berliner uses found archival footage as a metaphor for his relationship with his dad, and it’s funny, too. Amy brings Amy Winehouse back to life through footage of her life. I knew I wanted my mother, Sheila Turner Seed, to be alive in the film. So these were some of my influences. For narration, I was reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag’s classic On Photography. I also studied Ross McElwee’s delivery style in Sherman’s March, but ultimately one has to find and commit to their own voice which I feel I was able to do. 

MJ: You have started your directorial journey with a subject intensely personal to yourself. Looking at other prospective projects, what notions would you have for the future, and how might that be shaped by this experience here?

RS: I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this! A Photographic Memory scratched that itch for me. I am excited to turn the lens outward again. The stories I am interested in telling are unexpected portrayals of unusual people doing surprising things that make us question the order of the world. Currently, I am producing a film about a gender-agnostic couple with a huge age gap who are trying to reclaim the spotlight they lost years ago, and another film about non-speaking youth trying to find their voices. Interestingly, I think my mother was drawn to the same kind of stories! Those are the kinds of things I learned about her as I dug into her work archives. It’s another way we stay connected.

M. Sellers Johnson holds an MA in film studies from Te Herenga Waka (Victoria University of Wellington). His work has appeared in New Review of Film and Television StudiesFilm Matters, and the International Journal of Communication.

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