In Dec 2009, I began photographing my mother at the nursing home where she had been living for nearly thirty years. She entered the facility after her second husband beat her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage.
I witnessed those beatings on weekends from the ages of nine until fourteen.For many years, I turned my back on my mother, angry at her because she had left our family for her lover. At the same time, I suffered immensely from depression and guilt over her fate. At forty seven years old, I started to heal our broken relationship by returning to school to complete an M.A. in Spiritual Psychology and with photography. My goal is to show that it is not only possible to forgive anyone for any wounding but also to, hopefully, give someone the courage to leave an abusive relationship. I have been deeply invested in photographing my mother for ten years. Her complexity continues to beckon me: I will not avert my eyes from the truth of her condition no matter how difficult it is to see. Someone must be witness to her life. In addition, I want my photographs to make people pause and question the nature of the human condition and assess their own wills to live. My mother is my muse. I love being with her as she’s present, childlike, forgiving, uncomplaining, gracious, grateful and kind. On the other hand, sometimes her life feels like an emotional horror story. I dreaded being indiscreet initially but invading my mother’s privacy & mine was the only way to tell this story along with turning my soul inside out. These photos tell my mother’s story of isolation, loneliness, abuse, connection, compassion, forgiveness, family, humanity, grace, joy and, above all, love. I have edited 566 images from the 1000s and 1000s made since I began to make a conscious decision to share this story. I have created 12 book dummies. I have created a short movie to accompany the book. This story deserves a book, and I will keep trying until I accomplish that. Publishing a book on this story would be a victory for my mother and I: a victory for all women who have suffered abuse and could not or would not leave. And if our story inspires one person to leave, we have saved a life. “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”
When I was nine, my mother left our family when she fell in love with another man.The man she left us for turned out to be violent: he beat her so badly that she suffered permanent brain damage and had to be moved into an assisted living facility at the age of forty one, where she still lives today. Of her six children, only my younger sister has visited her regularly over the decades.
I have early, fond memories of my mother as a beautiful, passionate, vivacious, and fiery, Guatemalan Sophia Loren-type brunette. But since she left, I have had tremendous feelings of abandonment and rage towards her. Her actions led me to judge her as an impetuous, selfish, reckless and negligent mother. I resented what she did to herself and to her family. I carried so much anger, yet whenever I saw her, I was overcome with pity and sadness. Just looking at her right hand gnarled from the brain damage brought forth more emotion than I could bear. For these reasons, I have virtually ignored my mother in an attempt to distance myself from my own pain.
But pain ignored does not disappear and over time I came to realize our relationship needed healing. As a stunt woman of 25 years, I broke both feet jumping out of a helicopter onto the tallest building in downtown L.A. That time forced me to go inward, where I made the decision to return to school. I had to hurt so much that something broke inside of me. Thankfully, through graduate work in Spiritual Psychology and work I did with a healer, I was able to dissolve the judgments I carried about my mother and myself and begin to forge a relationship with her.
I feel our connection without fear as I create photos meant to take me out of my comfort zone. These photos tell my mother’s story of isolation, loneliness, abuse, connection, compassion, forgiveness, family, humanity, grace, joy and above all, love. I didn’t need to travel the world to deepen my spirituality. My greatest teacher was in front of me my entire life. I just couldn’t see it was my mother; a true Bodhisattva. She forgave me for not visiting her all those decades without uttering a word. I forgave her for leaving our family. Forgiveness happens when you care more about the love in a relationship than the logic of your ego. I no longer pity my mother. She continually inspires me teaching me to live by my heart, not my head. The love I feel for her has broken my heart wide open.
My mother is a symbol of perseverance. Even though she suffered permanent disability from domestic violence; she never lost her kindness, belief in love and hope. As my mother’s body deteriorated; her right hand turning in more, her soul flourished. What happened to my mother also fractured my persona yet we both grew from the trauma and she refused to be covered with a veil of pity. She is comfortable in silence and is fully present in the moment. I never planned to show these photos when I made them but I’ve learned that by sharing myself and my process of healing, that in turn helps others on their path to healing.
This is an ongoing project with the goal of bringing my mother back to Guatemala for the first time since she left fifty-six years ago. No one from her original family there has seen her since she moved, including a brother with whom she was once very close. Her only sister hasn’t seen her for more than fifteen years. I believe the story will continue to develop when I photograph her and her family in her homeland.
My mother has been living in an assisted living facility for nearly thirty-seven years. A few years ago I asked my mother,
“Que quieres?” “What would you like?”
“Que todo la gente este bien.” Without hesitation she answered, “May all people be well.”
Years ago I asked her a question I’ve asked of myself.
“Que te gustaria, mas que nada en el mundo?” “What do you want more than anything in the whole world?”
“Que todos nos queramos.” “That everyone love each other.”
To which I whole-heartedly agree.
After being in the same facility for thirty-five years, and working on moving her for five years, my mother was approved to move into theJewish Home for the Aged on March 11, 2015.
“I want to tell you this place is beautiful.” she said, when I strolled her in her wheelchair around the grounds. When she saw the view of trees from the dining room, she said, “Que lindo.” “How beautiful.” And then she said, “You have done a marvelous job.” When she saw the mezuzah on her bedroom door frame, she said “I am Jewish.”
My mother has been a great teacher as she is completely in the present. She lives for those tiny moments of happiness: seeing a child play, hearing the song of a bird, tasting a tiny piece of milk chocolate, a visit from one of her six children, a mezuzah on her door frame. I feel a weight listed from my heart, my shoulders and my soul. Dignity for my mother, at last.
As we sit together in the gardens of the facility, I am overjoyed at the beauty in each corner. Sounds of water flowing from the rock fountain, the light from the orange sun setting and backlighting my mother’s brown hair, lambs ear plants here and there, strawberry trees, JewishStar of David stained glass windows, the breeze making my mother’s hair fall into her eyeglasses and tiny green leaves land on her shirt as a hummingbird pulls up in front of my mother’s face as if to say “hi there.” And my mother says, “I want to tell you something.” “What, momi” I ask. “You made me be the queen.” She tells me. As I continue to watch the water flow, I think of how it keeps going but we do not. All we have are moments like this.
The elusive need, motive or tendency at the root of self-expression is truth. May these photos inspire someone else to leave an abusive relationship before it’s too late.
I stopped before I walked in, watching her. She was lying in bed, speaking to her doll. She was telling it how much she loved it and not to worry about anything. My eyes welled up. I walked in after I couldn’t watch anymore. She was so happy to see me. “It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks Hannah. I think she and you are beautiful.” she said.
“You’re right mom” I said.“It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.”
Hannah Kozak is tenacious. You don’t get to be a premiere stunt woman without being so, but this tenacity also transitioned to her life as a photographer. She covers hard subjects and doesn’t flinch when what comes back isn’t pretty or popular. Her work is long-form, intimate and highly personal including her project about the long-term impact and tragedy that is domestic violence, something that we vehemently stand against. What she lacks in physical size she more than makes up for in heart, and for us, that is what matters.
Hannah Kozak was born to a Polish father and a Guatemalan mother in Los Angeles, California. At the age of ten, she was given a Kodak Brownie camera by her father, Sol, a survivor of eight Nazi forced labor camps and began instinctively capturing images of dogs, flowers, family and friends that felt honest and real. As a teenager growing up in Los Angeles, Hannah would sneak onto movie lots and snap photos on the sets of Charlie’s Angels, Starsky and Hutch and Family, selling star images to movie magazines and discovering a world that was far from reality.
While working in a camera store at the age of twenty, Hannah’s life changed when she met a successful stuntwoman who became her mentor and helped her start a career in stunts. For over twenty-five years, Hannah’s work provided the opportunity to work with notable directors such as Michael Cimino, David Lynch, Mike Nichols, Tim Burton and Michael Bay. She worked as a stunt double for celebrated stars like Cher, Angelina Jolie, Lara Flynn Boyle and Isabella Rossellini. On every set, Hannah took her camera to work, capturing candid, behind-the-scene pictures that penetrated the illusion of Hollywood magic.
Her wanderlust and career in the film business afforded Hannah the opportunity to travel from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Guatemala and Peru to Egypt, Italy, Israel and India, capturing images of far away lands and exploring the innocence and truth found in the faces of children from around the world.
Hannah has turned the camera on herself, her life and her world. She continues to look for those things that feel honest and real, using her camera as a means of exploring feelings and emotions. After decades of standing in for someone else, she now is in control of her destiny and vision.
Hannah is an autobiographical photographer. Her subjects are the people and places that touch her emotionally. She has been photographing people and places for four decades. Photography has the power to heal and to help us through difficult periods, something Hannah Kozak knows first hand from personal experience.